Why we develop feelings for people we meet in games

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After reading the comments to Pyxis piece “Red’s Lesson”  my head was buzzing with thoughts. Hearing these stories of people falling for someone they meet online in a game is very interesting and it’s a story I’ve heard many times before. The number of people this seems to happen to surprised me greatly when I first started playing an MMO.

Seeing the comments in Pyxis post reminded me of what I read about “The Online Disinhibition Effect” when I was guest writing for Rav about why we ‘troll’.  This study by John Suler presents six features of online society which can elicit us to act differently than in the real world.

“Everyday users on the Internet—as well as clinicians and researchers1–7—have noted how people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t ordinarily say and do in the face-to-face world. They loosen up, feel less restrained, and express themselves more openly. So pervasive is the phenomenon that a term has surfaced for it: the online disinhibition effect.”
The Online Disinhibition Effect, John Suler 2004

On one hand it is the reason people act out in a toxic way which might be harmful to other people. This is what I wrote about on Ravs blog (link here if you are interested) where I mentioned the 4 features which related to ‘trolling’. But the results of this study clearly goes on to explain that the ‘disinhibition’ experienced in online interactions work in two seemingly opposing directions.

Sometimes it prompts people to share very personal things about themselves. They reveal secret emotions, fears and wishes. They show unusual acts of kindness and generosity, sometimes going out of their way to help others.”
-The Online Disinhibition Effect, John Suler 2004

So could this same ‘disinhibition effect’ also be used to explain why people experience these strong “more real than real life” emotional connections to people they meet online? Here are two of the features presented in The Online Disinhibition Effect which I think especially contribute to people developing strong emotional bonds in online environments.

INVISIBILITY – Different from anonymity, ‘invisibility’ refers to the fact that our physical self is not observed by anyone. What we look like or if we show emotion on our face will not be seen. This gives us the courage to express things we normally would not.

SOLIPSISTIC INTROJECTION – This one I think is especially important to explain the feelings that develop in games like MMOs. I would also argue that it very commonly occurs in real life as well, however online it’s even more emphasized. Suler begins to describe Solipsistic Introjection by explaining that the absence of face-to-face cues in combination with text communication can alter our self-boundaries. According to Suler we might feel as if our minds were merging with the person we are writing to in an online environment. “Reading another person’s message might be experienced as a voice within one’s head, as if that person’s psychological presence and influence have been assimilated or introjected into one’s psyche” he says. He continues by claiming that:

“Of course, one may not know what the other person’s voice actually sounds like, so in one’s mind a voice is assigned to that person. In fact, consciously or unconsciously, a person may even assign a visual image to what he or she thinks the person looks and behaves like. The online companion then becomes a character within one’s intrapsychic world, a character shaped partly by how the person actually presents him or herself via text communication, but also by one’s internal representational system based on personal expectations, wishes, and needs. Transference reactions encourage the shaping of this perceived introjected character when similarities exist between the online companion and significant others in one’s life, and when one fills in ambiguities in the personality of the online companion with images of past relationships, or from novels and film. As the introjected character becomes more elaborate and subjectively “real,” a person may start to experience the typed-text conversation as taking place inside one’s mind, within the imagination, within one’s intrapsychic world—not unlike authors typing out a play or novel.”

Suler elaborates by saying that even when we are not involved in online relationships we often carry on these kinds of conversations in our minds throughout the day. “People fantasize about flirting, arguing with a boss, or honestly confronting a friend about what they feel. In their imagination, where it’s safe, people feel free to say and do things they would not in reality. At that moment, reality is one’s imagination.” Suler here means to say that online text communication can evolve into an introjected story in our minds based on fictionalised characters. He adds that this way cyberspace  becomes a stage, upon which we are merely the people acting out a play. This is all usually done unconsciously according to Suler.

All of this said I can’t help but wonder how real feelings developed online really are. I would never say they are not real as it is not possible to say that all online relationships are like this or like that. There are many success stories of couples continuing relationships in real life with people they met in-game. One could argue that the feelings experienced by the individual is always real. The emotions are there regardless of whether the image we have of the other person is fictionalised or not. In that sense the feelings are definitely real as long as they stay in this protected environment in your mind, sheltered by your imagination. But would they survive in real life’s light of day? Some obviously do. I think it will often prove tricky however to accept the real life person when compared to the introjected one we built up in our own minds. But I guess I’m just a cynic!

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