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Adolescence is a tough time for many teenagers as they try to form a sense of self-identity while carefully treading the thin line between peer acceptance and ostracism. Many teenagers are forced to answer complex questions to which there are oftentimes no good answers. MMORPGs can provide a safe space for teenagers to try out different identities and personalities without the risk of serious repercussions.

         I'm a deeply upset adolescent, struggling with my parents, my friends, my sexuality, and my education - none of these mesh well together, mind you. I'm comfortable with many of these things in an oblique way, particularly I acknowledge and accept my individual sexuality, but I find myself set aside from my peers. I'm certainly not the most popular, but I find a wedge being driven between me and those around me because I can't share how I feel about the same sex, nor the opposite sex, without feeling further ostracized. So I've taken to an online persona in the game known as Asheron's Call where I can pursue that issue and speak with people in a much more anonymous, comfortable setting. I have built friendships with several of my guild/allegiance members, and have been able to express my sorrows and dilemmas to them without fear of lasting judgment, and where they can do the same. I use the game as an escape from real life, but also as a form of peer/societal therapy, enabling me to work through my problems, albeit temporarily, and help others to correct their own. I can't offer many particular instances, but I find myself at peace when I'm in a disconnected world where my inadequacies and depressive tendencies can be suppressed, or completely lifted from me for a few hours.
         I find myself much more satisfied venting my stress through repeated slashes of an imaginary sword on an imaginary creature and having someone there to listen without the face-to-face, truly personal connection other mediums of therapy offer. Plus it costs a lot less per month. And while this does certainly sound like a narcotic, I would rather be dependent on a game world than on a more damaging physical drug that wouldn't offer the same connection with others (hopefully!) nor the *true* tranquility I find, as opposed to an artificial hallucination as a result of some recreational pharmaceutical. [m, 17, AC]

As this young player points out, the peer group is both the problem and what aggravates it because the individual has no one to talk to. On the other hand, the game can offer solace and support because it gives this player someone to talk to in a safe space. The allusions to game dependency are troubling, and yet spending more time with the peer group might be more problematic as the player implies towards the end. But the theme of having someone to talk to is expressed by other teenagers.

         I had a friend with me hunting at this village, and prior to that day he was just a friend, we had left an old guild and joined the same one, sticking together. It was 2 am at the time where I lived so I really had no one to talk to about my issues in real life, but I really needed to get them off my chest. So I spoke to my in-game friend for two hours straight, without killing a single mob the entire time, and I realized he and I were far more alike than I originally thought, and he helped me feel better about my issues. I'm pretty sure that he is a better friend than most of my real-life friends, by far. [m, 16, DAOC]

One might be inclined to doubt his judgment of the quality of this friendship, but it forces us to ask ourselves whether our friends are the people who we see and talk to on a day-to-day basis, or the ones who are there when we need someone to listen to us.

Across 5 of the most popular MMORPGs, about 40% of respondents felt that some of their online friends are comparable to or better than their real-life friends. Female players above the age of 22 were more likely than male players from the same age ranges to feel this way.

Virtual relationships confuse outsiders because they wonder how people can be friends with someone they have never seen, and perhaps one answer is that for a lot of people it's easier to talk about personal issues with someone you've never seen.

Around 15-25% of respondents from 5 popular MMORPGs have told personal issues or secrets to online friends which they did not tell real life friends. Female players of all ages were more likely to talk to their online friends about personal issues than male players.

Of course, one of the fundamental assumptions that many insiders and most outsiders make is that an individual's real identity is his real-life identity, and this is another reason why virtual relationships trouble them - because it all seems so fake. But what if that assumption is false? What if some individuals are more comfortable expressing who they really are in a virtual space?

         When I first started playing UO it was pretty different then it was now. I enjoyed it, as I still do, but in a different way. Me and my real life friend were playing as miners in a town called Minoc. A man came by and killed our packhorses just to be mean, and I chased after him, I chased him for nearly 5 minutes when he stopped and we fought. I got my ass virtually handed down to me. But he never came back again, which from what other miners told me he usually did. It's something that you always secretly wanted to do, you know, stick up for people, the little people. You can't just go up to your boss and tell him he's an ass in front of everyone and expect a normal day tomorrow, but in an MMORPG there is no reason not to. I felt good after doing this after I he killed me, because I at least tried to do something, which is not normally seen in my real life. People in game see a side of yourself that usually remains hidden, your inner self. I originally thought I was going to play a daring thief when I started ... who would of guessed I would turn out a craftsman and take up fishing. [m, 17, UO]

About a quarter of respondents from 5 popular MMORPGs felt that they are more of "who they really are" in the game than in real life. Male and female players were not significantly different from each other in their response to this question.

Copyright, July 2002, by Nicholas Yee.
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