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When Online and Offline Worlds Collide

Wednesday, September 04, 2002 by Helly || [0 Comments]

The separation of what we do online and what we do in everyday life is often sharply contrasted. Many people behave differently online than in the real world simply because they can: how do you tell what a person’s real personality is when you’ve never met them? But as the Internet becomes more widely available to more people, are our real-life selves and our virtual worlds overlapping to greater extents?

The people who work on and visit this site are gamers. Oftentimes, the people with whom we play are faceless, anonymous individuals for whom we have little or no concern. Find a game that is more organized however, and you may find yourself playing with a regular group of people (a team, or clan). You may even find yourself becoming friends, learning about the individual quirks and details that make people unique. Usually, we never plan to see those people with whom we play except maybe at a LAN party or convention. But most times, those people with whom we interact online remain simply virtual friends. The depth of our relationships, however, can be almost as intense as people with whom we interact in the real world.

As evidenced by the news media’s recent love affair with online dating services, everyday folks are learning that the Internet is a interesting new way to meet other people. Online dating services have been around for years now, and with the successes of places like Match.com, they are earning the respect of non-Internet savvy people (take a quick surf on over to match.com and find out how many ads now say “no geeks, please” – now that IT isn’t the buzzword, the geek courtship is truly over). Services like Match.com are giving credibility to the notion that you can meet real people online, an idea that the practice of cyber-sex (aka: cybering – it’s like dialing a 900 number, except you have to type a lot more) was doing its best to invalidate.

But places like Match.com are only the latest in a long line of services that allowed people to meet one another online. Prior to instant messaging and dating service chat rooms, there were BBS’ (Bulletin Board Services), MUDs (for you hardcore gamers out there) and the most notorious of all, IRC. In fact, if any one tool can claim the title as most used chat device, it would have to be venerable old IRC.

Nowadays, however, chatting and meeting people online is as simple as installing anything even remotely related to AOL, which will install a copy of AOL Instant Messenger, AKA: AIM. With instant messaging, the sometimes-cryptic ways of IRC (with its scripts, and channels and 1337 h4x0r d00dz) gives way to the simplicity of the dumbed-down Internet experience AOL and its competitors like to pander.

Add to this culture of chat and open exchange (which many parent’s ought to be worried about: don’t chat with strangers might become the mantra of this decade) the rapidly expanding world on Massively Multiplayer Online Games, and suddenly chat becomes an immersive, story-driven, monthly-fee-based experience.

Is it any surprise then that online worlds like Dark Age of Camelot and Everquest act like virtual meeting places for so many people? For many users, they are graphical chat programs, with side quests for when the small talk gets tedious. But just as in any chat, there are some folks who like to get more personal, and more involved, with other participants.

The phenomenon of in-game marriages is a prime example of this peculiarity: a couple meets somewhere in game and ends up adventuring together. Soon they are talking, sharing stories, letting little bits of their real-world life slip into the conversation. Sometimes these people get carried away in the moment and end up talking and meeting in real-life. Other times, it’s merely another form of in-game amusement. Either way, the couple arranges a ceremony to get “married” in game. In Asheron’s Call, the in-game Customer Service people would go as far as to act as the Priest/Justice of the Peace marrying the couple.

It seems strange to some of us that two people who most likely have never met nor seen pictures of one another can get so wrapped up in each other during a game. It’s the ultimate long-distance relationship. And we can’t generalize and say that these people are simply geeks who can’t hack real-life social interactions; there are just too many people from all walks of life playing these games to stereotype.

But just as there are celebrations, there are also moments to grieve. Recently, the Dark Age of Camelot world held online memorials for fallen players from two different servers (although I’m sure this is far from a unique experience, it’s the first time this writer has seen player-organized memorials). Both were 30-plus and their passing took most everyone by surprise. What’s unique is the outpouring of grief and emotion that took over the boards and, apparently, the server. Memorials were held where large numbers of players from opposing realms and guilds came together to remember the player who had been lost. Rarely are there peaceful events in any online game, but in this case both memorials were free from disrespect and verbal assault.

On the flip side, some people were angered to see the player’s character still being played. In the case of one of the players who had passed away, people cried out against his son playing the character, that it was too “weird” to see the character running around in game when gamers knew the person who originally played the character to be dead. It was as though, for these people at least, the character WAS the person.

With these kinds of emotionally significant events happening online more and more frequently, are our real-lives becoming inseparable from our virtual lives? Have we finally begun to cross the line so many psychologists and concerned parent’s groups have warned each other about? Are we realizing the predictions of the goofy movie, Mazes and Monsters, where a young Tom Hanks is unable to separate his real life with his “Mazes and Monsters” character (basically Dungeons and Dragons)?

Have we become so immersed in our online worlds that the concepts of attraction, love and grief have become redefined? The basic emotions are the same, but once we generally needed to physically know the person to feel these emotions, whereas now the reactions stem from experiences with a person whom we may never have met. Indeed, our interaction with this person may never have extended beyond the boundaries of a chat room or in game meeting. Can these experiences ever truly replace the emotions generated by actually, physically and interacting with people in the real world?

I for one hope not. The argument for me has little to do with how right, wrong or weird these online relationships may be, but instead has to do with a world where so many of us are willing to isolate ourselves. Thousands upon thousands of people online for hours at a time interacting purely through text and graphical representations: this cannot be the norm for a person’s social interactions. This kind of self-imposed isolation could easily lead to the fracturing of real-life relationships.

Online relationships can be an amazing experience. I for one have several online friends whom I met playing various games but whom I’ve never met in real life. I chat with these people during the day on a regular basis because we share a similar interest in games, technology and even some sports (though I still don’t understand you hockey fanatics). I still get together and play with and against these people in semi-competitive online games like Counter-Strike. If we lived anywhere near one another (instead of across the country), we could probably be friends offline as well (in fact, many of these guys were friends first, before starting to play online games together). However, while I spend plenty of time with these folks online, I could never do without the real-world friends I’ve made over the years.

Am I unique in this experience? I’d have to say no: I believe that my experience is probably the norm for others who spend, by dint of career and personal choice, a large chunk of time online. But as we find more and more ways to spend our time online, do we risk blurring the line between the virtual and the real? Will what’s real become redefined as online anonymity becomes an antiquated notion?

Is there anything to really be worried about? Is a large base of virtual friends really something to become worked up about? What if it comes at the expense of a life offline?

We’re at the infancy of a new way of interacting. The tools we use to communicate are going to grow steadily more sophisticated and networked, which will lead to an ever-increasing online population. The sci-fi future of a world where social interaction takes place wholly online is most likely never going to occur, but for some there exists a risk that their online life will become more important, and more fulfilling, than anything they have offline. This could very well lead to a complete isolation of the person, further impacting their ability to interact with people except in the faceless world of the Internet.

This is less an editorial for me to espouse a particular viewpoint, and more an article that I hope will make readers think. What constitutes “too much” online interaction? Is there even such a thing? Who determines what’s healthy and unhealthy when it comes to relationships online? These questions occur to me as I see announcements for weddings and memorials in the various gaming boards I frequent. They always make me wonder: what’s the line to separate fantasy and reality, and is that line becoming harder to see as we immerse ourselves deeper into our online worlds?

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