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While there are many factors inherent in MMORPGs that facilitate the formation of relationships online, it is also equally clear that not all players choose to do so. There are players who consciously do not bring their real lives into the game. Another way to look at the phenomenon is to ask whether certain individuals are more predisposed to these online relationships. One group of such individuals might be teenagers who are struggling with identity and acceptance issues in real life. Many teenagers feel they have no one to talk to because it is their peers and family who are part of the issue they are trying to deal with, and the online environment might present itself as a way to talk about them with someone else. But approval and acceptance are needs that everyone requires to sustain a normal level of self-esteem. Individuals struggling with self-esteem issues might therefore be more likely to form relationships online.

It might also be more productive to think of online friendships as a real kind of friendship that is different from typical real life friendship. We know that soldiers in the same battalion form deep bonds with each other in a way that is different from the bonds with their other friends and family. It is perhaps the case with our situation that the word "friendship" is being used to mean two different things. Real life relationships tend to center around calm, everyday events. Online relationships tend to grow out of bonds formed during stressful crises. Learning about the personal sides of our friends in real life is usually a time-consuming and gradual process, whereas this process tends to be much quicker online as mentioned above. Because online relationships seem to form in a different fashion from real life relationships, and are driven by different interactions and focuses, it might therefore be more helpful to think of them as a form of relationship that is very real but which we are unaccustomed to in real life.

While many players and outsiders may argue that online relationships are superficial and that everyone is pretending to be something else online, the following player makes a very important point that many people wear masks in real life as well, and that "putting up a front" is not a phenomenon unique to virtual worlds.

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 … 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]

They are fun to talk to and group with, in a way they are better then rl because they are non judgmental about looks and such. I put my real personality into my characters and i am respected by friends for it. [f, 35]

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]

Thus, in a strange way, it is unfair to stigmatize or question the superficiality of online relationships because we seldom stop to wonder how superficial our real life friends are.

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 individuals get over online relationships. Clearly, there are many well-documented cases where an online relationship led to negative consequences, but there are far more potential negative consequences for meeting people in real life if you're not being prudent and cautious.

Understanding the aspects of MMORPGs that facilitate relationship formation puts players and observers at a much better place to conceptualize and talk about these relationships. Instead of spontaneously criticizing or defending these relationships as a whole and moving into a polarized impasse, it is far more productive to understand why online relationships occur so often and what causes players to feel that these relationships are substantive.


Walther, J.B. (1996). Computer-mediated communication: Impersonal, interpersonal, and hyperpersonal interaction. Communication Research, 23(1), 3-43.

Copyright, October 2002, by Nicholas Yee

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