Inside Out

Note: This essay was originally written for the MMOG magazine which has since gone out of business. This essay is a more fleshed-out rewrite of the "Befriending Ogres and Wood-Elves" presentation.

We are on the cusp of a new generation where parents telling their children about the circumstances of how they met will not revolve around college parties, chance encounters at a coffee shop or business conferences. Instead, they will tell their children how they met each other while battling gnolls in subterranean caverns or slaying the undead in forgotten crypts while pretending to be warriors or clerics. Of course, this could have happened in the MUD days, but it is the success of MMORPGs that have suddenly increased the number of romantic relationships that began this way. Survey data collected from players of EverQuest (EQ), Dark Age of Camelot (DAOC), and Ultima Online (UO) show that romantic relationships that began in MMORPGs are not particularly rare.

This is especially true given that 2 out of 3 MMORPG players are already romantically involved (dating, engaged or married). In other words, only 33% of players are available for a romantic relationship to begin with.

But the prevalence of very close friendships, as opposed to romantic relationships, that develop online is also very striking. Most MMORPG players have become good friends with someone they met in the game.

And many of these players feel that they would consider their online friends to be comparable or better than their real life friends.

About 3-4 years back, the prevailing talk-show wisdom was that people who fell in love online were socially maladjusted and had deep-seated psychological issues. This view still lingers, but the prevalence of both platonic and romantic relationships that occur online force us to ask whether it is not something about these environments and the mechanics of the communication, rather than something about the people, that change the way that relationships form. Could it be that people become friends and fall in love in a different way in an MMORPG?

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Sharing Secrets

Part of what we mean when we say so-and-so is a good friend is that we know a lot about them, and not just that we have a good sense of their personality and how they might react in a certain situation, but that we know revealing personal details about them that very few other people know. The process of mutual self-disclosure in a normal real-life relationship is like a dance, with a lot of expected reciprocations and rules. If you tell someone about your childhood traumas on the first date, they may not return your phone calls for a second date. If someone shares an intimate secret, and you donít reciprocate, they might feel slighted. But ultimately, it is this dance of give-and-take that builds the foundation for a close relationship Ė whether platonic or romantic.

While it may come to a surprise to some people, there is a good deal of evidence that people are more revealing about themselves and more forth-coming with intimate details when communicating over a textual, computer-mediated channel. This was first observed by clinical psychologists who began using computers where new patients would type in their answers to some screening questions. What these clinical psychologists found was that patients using the computers were much more forthcoming than new patients who were asked those same questions face-to-face. In other words, even though the patients knew that the clinician would read or hear their answers, they would be more revealing when answering in a typed channel as opposed to in a face-to-face situation.

One reason why this occurs is that when youíre typing to a computer, you donít worry about how you look, what youíre wearing, or whether youíre smiling at the right time. A lot of this self-consciousness is irrelevant when typing on a computer, and all this energy is instead channeled to the message itself, which typically becomes more detailed. In the case of an MMORPG, the ability to be in the safety and comfort of your own home while typing relieves some of the tension of saying something intimate. Also, oftentimes in a face-to-face conversation, we censor ourselves because of what we perceive to be a subtle frown or a slightly raised eyebrow on the other personís face. We donít want to elaborate on something if the other person isnít interested. Many of these gestures and cues are absent online, and this allows us to finish our original thought more often Ė the unchanged, uncensored version of what we wanted to say. And we also have anecdotal and survey data that supports that a high level of personal self-disclosure occurs in MMORPGs.


I'm not sure why I am such close friends with my EQ buddies. I do know that my EQ relationships are better than most of my relationships in RL. I think this is because when you are talking with someone on-line it's easier to talk about certain things since you don't have to look at a person face to face. [m, 15]


Being able to talk to someone about a problem that is bothering you can often bring some relief. The problem is that this is not always possible in the real world. The anonymity of online environments makes it easier for a lot of people to share their personal issues, because oftentimes the very people they might turn to in real life are part of the issue itself. Another reason why the anonymity helps is because it removes any fear of repercussions. A teenager who is unsure of his sexuality is highly unlikely to share this information with his friends and family. A husband who is experiencing difficulty with his spouse might be able to talk about the problem with an online friend without fear of aggravating the problem in real life.


I would say its easier to open up to a person whom you are only writing to and never have to face in RL, I can discuss issues with some of them without worrying that that they will tell my other friends about it. [f, 19]

Itís easier to communicate without getting uneasy about the usual "is he going to tell anyone what Iím saying?" thing [m, 15]


This dance of sharing secrets and intimate details occurs very slowly in real life because usually we only feel comfortable saying these things behind closed doors or when we are alone with the other person, and only after knowing them for a long time. In the MMORPG world, this dance happens much sooner because there are far fewer consequences and the environment facilitates this kind of intimate disclosure. In other words, this foundation of a good relationship is far easier to reach in an MMORPG than in real life because of the textual communication and the anonymity.

Of course, this is not to say that everyone who plays an MMOPRG will share their personal lives with their fellow players, but in general, people are more likely to disclose personal information online than in real life for the reasons mentioned. But apart from being more likely to share intimate issues and problems with other players, there are other reasons why relationships in MMORPGs begin and develop differently.

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Crises, Trust and Bonding

Every MMORPG player can recall a high-adrenaline battle or surviving a fight with a handful of HP left. If an MMORPG can guarantee anything, it can guarantee that youíll be faced with many sudden high-stress situations where the group or your hunting partner needs to make very decisive actions. Maybe the cleric is low on mana when the room suddenly respawns, or you fall off a bridge in a dungeon and end up in the corner of a room full of purple-cons. These kinds of situations force the group to work together or perish. They force players to depend on each other, to trust each other and to work together as a team. These experiences are often very salient trust-building exercises for all the players involved.

Because most MMORPG players spend a significant portion of their free time playing the game, they become very emotionally invested to their characters and what happens to them. Most players are very serious as to what happens to their character, and this heightens the intensity of these high-stress situations. This pairing of emotional investment and frequency of trust-building situations in MMORPGs facilitate the "jump-starting" of solid bonds between players.


To succeed in EQ you need to form relationships with people you can trust. The game does a wonderful job of forcing people in this situation. RL rarely offers this opportunity as technological advances mean we have little reliance on others and individuals are rarely thrown into life-or-death situations. [m, 29]

Moreover, stressful situations in MMORPGs seem to bring out the best and worst of individuals. Most MMORPG players can recall experiences where another player displayed a remarkable degree of honor, altruism, self-sacrifice, betrayal or cowardice. This is not to say that players who act honorably in MMORPGs are honorable in real life, but because most players assume that other players are as emotionally invested as they are, they tend to feel that these honorable or cowardly actions give a glimpse into how this other person might be in the real world. In a sense, all of us would like to put our friends into simulated crises to see whether they would stand by us in a time of need. We would all like to know which of our friends we can count on. Unfortunately, we usually donít find out the answer until that time of need arrives. Friendships in MMORPGs go through this process almost in reverse. Instead of making friends and then slowly finding out whether they can really be trusted, MMORPG players are making friends with people who have demonstrated that they can be trusted because of their actions under spontaneous crises that required difficult decisions.

In EQ, we engage in difficult, sometimes dangerous and often life-threatening struggles. Even though it isn't RL - you learn a lot about the character of the person playing the game. Some are selfish and greedy in EQ and you figure they are similar in RL - others are eager to help and think of others over themselves - and I have found them to be the same in RL. The difference in between these friendships and RL is the ability to watch someone in action before allowing them into your life. Also, the fact that we are all unable to see out real faces prior to becoming friends - we can't prejudge someone on the basis of their looks. [f, 45]

They are able to prove themselves as trustworthy, or intelligent in the game environment Ö which I find to be just as taxing and valid as RL at times. [m, 26]


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Compatibility

One reason why many people are uncomfortable with meeting people online is because, at first glance, it feels like finding a needle in a farmhouse of haystacks. The chances of finding someone you could get along with just feel very remote. They then project this attitude and conclude that the likelihood of other people finding compatible romantic partners is also very low. But the opposite might be true in MMORPGs. MMORPG players who are employed tend to work in the IT industry (36% of employed EQ players, N=1099), and most MMORPG players have previous experience with table-top RPGs (68% of EQ, DAOC, UO, AC, and AO combined, N=3415). IT workers are usually very analytical and rational people; RPG players are usually imaginative and idiosyncratic. Both tend to be non-conformist.

In other words, people who play MMORPGs are probably similar in more ways than not. When you think about, an MMORPG is a highly specific kind of entertainment. People who like first-person shooters are probably not the kind of people who like MMORPGs. By the same token, people who play MMORPGs and enjoy the slow level advancement, character development, and simulated battles while immersed within a fantastical medieval world probably share other attitudes and interests. The MMORPG effectively attracts people with similar interests and attitudes while at the same time filtering out the people who do not share these interests. What you end up with in an MMORPG is a pre-filtered group of people. This is why compatibility is more likely to occur.


We've discovered that we share many values and beliefs. These relationships are different from my RL relationships because it was much easier to open up to someone under the relative anonymity of online communication. [m, 26]

We have more in common then most my real life friends. [f, 33]


Meeting someone compatible in an MMORPG would only be a shot in the dark if you believed that MMORPG players are a representative sample of the general population, which is definitely not the case. Thus, another reason why good relationships are so common in MMORPGs is because players tend to be meeting people who are more compatible with them than a random person they meet in real life. Itís like meeting someone on a message board about the French culinary arts during the late Renaissance. The interest is so focused and specific that other shared attitudes are highly likely.

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Idealization

Even though an MMORPG already offers a higher chance of compatibility among players, thereís something else that artificially boosts this sense of compatibility. The "Law of Attraction" in psychology states that people tend to like those with shared attitudes, values or beliefs. This is true as long as there arenít a lot of things they disagree on. The internet is very good at hiding differences because a lot of physical cues we use to judge others are missing Ė clothing, hair style, speech inflection, accent, age, appearance, expressions and gestures among others. A lot of times, we donít even consider approaching someone because of their hair style or the clothes they are wearing. But we donít see those things when we chat with someone online. And because those differences are hidden away, we focus on all the things we do agree on and the sense of compatibility is enhanced even though this would not have been the case if this meeting occurred in the real world. In other words, many relationships that would never have even begun in the real world have a far better chance of developing online. To some people, this is a good thing.


They are good friends due to the fact you must throw all prejudices away about looks, language impediments, color, race everything related to physically meeting a person. This is similar to RL friends I believe. In RL a close friend is one who you have looked past all that stuff previously mention and you like the person inside. [m, 28]

This heightened sense of compatibility is especially important in the development of romantic relationships. Romance usually begins with an idealization of the other person where they gain god-like features and abilities, where they become flawless and perfect in every way. The textual communication in MMORPGs almost encourages people to fill in the blanks. It lets people idealize as much as possible while hiding the flaws as much as possible. These idealizations are reinforced by the game metaphors themselves Ė knights in shining armor, clerics with glowing aura. Thus, these metaphors also encourage projecting a superhuman idealization upon another player apart from the underlying inflated sense of compatibility. As one player puts it:


The MMORPG relationship is inexplicably more romantic, more epic, more dramatic... [f, 16]

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A Relationship in Reverse

One way to think about MMORPG relationships is that they happen almost in reverse of how a RL relationship would occur. All the things that typically take a long time to know about someone in a RL relationship usually happen very early and very quickly. For example, it takes a long time before two people in real life, whether they are dating or just friends, to share secrets with each other. We know that the opposite is true online. We know that many MMORPG players have shared secrets with their online friends that they havenít told their real life friends.

The MMORPGs also allow people to see how someone would react under a sudden high-stress situation, and how they treat you in a situation where you need their help or support. These situations are far rarer in real life. The environment also allows you to see how they interact with other people in a multitude of scenarios. A lot of times when we meet someone in real life or when we date them, we donít really get to see their other sides Ė especially how they treat other people.

In real life, we judge a person first by their physical appearance and then we get to know their character and values. In an MMORPG, the reverse is true. You get a sense of their values and character from the situations in the game. You hang out with them because you share a lot of common values or you like their personality. And then finally, you may meet them in real life where you judge their physical appearance. As this player describes, her relationship happened "inside-out":


We got to know each other from 'the inside out' Ö meaning I got to know him on a deep personal level first without letting anything like physical appearance, etc get in the way. [f, 29]

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Conclusion

Part of the concern over online relationships is that they are superficial because the premise of the game is to pretend to be someone else. How could you possibly know someone well in such an environment? The thing to remember is that people "pretend" all the time in real life. People wear "masks" in real life and "putting on a front" is something happens in the real world as well.


I believe that whether you've met someone on the computer or in RL you still only see what they want you to see either way. Everyone shows their best face to the world. The potential for someone turning out to be a jerk is same for RL or computer. And I'm good friends with my EQ friends for the same reasons I'm friends with my RL friends Ö they are fantastic people with great personalities and a sense of humor that meshes with my own. [f, 27]

In fact, a significant portion of MMORPG players feel that they can be more of who they really are in the virtual world.

Other players feel that online relationships can be substantial because people are actually less superficial online. The removal of physical cues such as age, appearance, race and social class forces players to interact with each other with far fewer prejudices and stereotypes than they would in real life.


There is more a basis of knowing personality first... kind of a anti-judging the book by it's cover situation. For the most part, however, I don't see any difference between in-game vs. so-called "real life." If I've made friends with someone Out of Character while in-game... then that friendship is RL. Period. To think otherwise would be to believe there is such a thing as "Virtual Friends," and that, I don't believe in. [f, 29]

And as one player notes, the irony is that online relationships can turn out to be less superficial than real life relationships.
An EQ friendship is different from a RL friendship because people tend to open up more to others when in EQ, we get to know each other much more, we truly tell each other what we think/feel and you really create this amazing bond with one another. It's much less superficial than some RL friendships can be. [f, 15]

Finally, while many people are frightened by the prospect of encountering individuals with bad intentions in an online environment, those same individuals oftentimes underestimate the number of those same people they are encountering in real life. After all, the "bad" people you meet in virtual worlds live in the real world. Prudence and cautiousness are things that people need to keep in mind in both the virtual and the real world. And considering the restricted range of things that other people can do to each other online when compared with the real world, it seems surprising how worried some people get over online relationships.

Some people are hesitant to use the words "romantic relationship" or "good friendship" to describe these online relationships, and by and large, they are correct in that these relationships begin and develop in an entirely different way than face-to-face relationships. But just because they happen differently, sometimes in reverse, doesnít mean they arenít just as real and valuable as face-to-face relationships. If what we mean by friendship or love is really getting to know someone well, then perhaps environments like an MMORPG do have something very important to offer.