Are Friends Electric? :: The Minefield of Friendship in MMO’s

I’d like to tell you a story about an Internet Friendship.

Once upon a time, two people met online. They were drawn together by mutual interests, and the love (in this case) of an MMO. They spent time together chatting via various forms of Social Media, but for one of the two involved, alarm bells had already begun to ring. Because this person knew that the Internet was not a place to begin relationships, that the level of anonymity that the medium allowed meant that people could not be trusted. This meant Person A was open and polite whilst talking to Person B, but wasn’t truly being themselves, or indeed respecting Person B’s enthusiasm and love of what they did. You see, B loved the Internet. They saw it as a golden opportunity to meet people that shared their interests, and A was exactly the kind of person they’d just love to hang around with at the end of a long day. What this meant, of course, is that this friendship was doomed to fail, because sooner or later A and B would collide, and they did. The likelihood was that it would be over something totally trivial and nonsensical, and the drama that resulted would undoubtedly end up being smeared all over everyone’s social media. The final straw was when A blocked B on Twitter, and B had a very public and pointless meltdown as a result. T’was ever thus.

This is pretty much how the world works for many people who use the Internet as their extended social circle on any given day.

This story tends to play out in myriad fashions: it could be that A’s friend D decided to tell B to back off because they’re being too clingy. B’s real life friend F could easily have turned up one day and decided to tell everyone that B’s met what an idiot they are IRL… and the list of possible flashpoints is pretty much infinite. The one I tend to get a lot, and this I think is very much a gaming-centric issue, is the ‘I stopped playing X but I still want to be friends with you’ situation. When you’re talking to someone who used to play your game but they left for a reason (often cited, just as often not) yet they remain around because they like you as a person. With the number of people I know who have left Warcraft in the last three years, there’s quite a few of those lurking in my feeds. More often than not many remain silent, but there are those that still regularly comment on my blog, because we have reached the glorious point where the Internet ceased to influence affairs as the communications medium. Suddenly it doesn’t matter that we’re thousands of miles away from each other, or that we’ve never met. Respect transcends the obstacles and eliminates the boundaries.

We are friends regardless of the restrictions placed upon us.

Here is where some will simply refuse to commit themselves, and often with good reason. Speaking as someone with a known and proven obsessive tendency or two, throwing yourself into situations where the only way you talk is to yourself (in essence) it can be easy to pin a lot of hope and desire on the nameless faceless friends. That’s especially true if the Real World lets you down. However, more importantly, if you’re trying to remove what you feel are deliberately destructive elements from your life (and I’d certainly count gaming as one of these, especially if it has taken over to the detriment of everything else) you occasionally need to walk away. Except some people don’t. They’re either simply not bothered about removing the trauma, or they press ‘Mute’ on a Twitter feed or skip over posts rather than removing the person completely. The thing is, this isn’t healthy. It also doesn’t respect the people concerned.

Ultimately it’s that which divides the true friends from the storytellers.

As a Mother, I’m constantly bombarded by literature that tells me to watch who my children talk to online, that I need to be aware of my kids habits. Nobody however tells the grown ups that they should do the same, that they are perhaps more vulnerable to being deceived. Gamers especially are particularly viscous and unforgiving when it comes to the notions of self worth, ability and capability. Throw into that mix casual sexism, attraction and rejection and frankly it’s amazing that anybody ever speaks to each other on a daily basis: and yet they do, plus Communities form and remain undimmed over time. However, respect often is the last thing on the list of requirements for a player to start a game: because you assume you’ll get it, that people will accommodate your faults and accept you for what you really are. That’s what I teach my kids to practice, but the World I inhabit is anything but respectful, and that begins with me. I am the arbiter of the places I inhabit. My actions are where I should stand and fall. Friendships matter to me, but only in the end if I’m part of an equal equation.

I’ve come to grasp that even respecting people for what they are will sometimes not be enough. If they can’t take me for what I am, if I somehow have to become something else in order to command their attention… I’m 49 years old in a few weeks and I think maybe it is time to accept that however flexible I may be able to make myself, some people won’t ever be my friend, however hard I try. It’s not me, it’s them. Once you grasp that Warcraft’s pretty much an indivisible part of my life? Well, you have two simple choices: you accept that or you don’t. I’ve seen a number of people I really do respect a great deal leave my circle in the last few months. As every one has quietly vanished without a word, I’ve come to understand that I cared about them far more than they ever thought about me, and that actually their departure is all for the best. Because ultimately the lesson that genuine friendship is a two way street is something that I never learnt as a child. Now I’m able to rationalise why it matters so much, the loss is always easier to grasp.

In the end, using MMO’s to meet people’s no different than a trip to the Pub or a night out. You can choose never to see the people again, and nobody gets hurt. If you live in MMO’s as much as I do in Warcraft? You begin to understand that the real world’s rules still apply in virtual settings, even if other people choose not to follow them. In the end, it may be pixels, but the people don’t change.

As a result, you should always choose your friends with care.

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