Virtua Friender: The Costs and Benefits of Expanded Networking In Games

Friends, Romans, Online Gamers



The Dunbar number is about 150. That’s the number of people we can maintain social relationships with. It’s the maximum size of the hunter-gather tribe. It’s the number of modern army companies.  It’s the average number of people who will see your Christmas cards (In the UK).

The advent of social networking and online gaming have pushed the limits of this number. According to the Pew Research Center, the average user on Facebook has 229 friends. That number of people pushes the upper bounds of what Dr. Robin Dunbar considered the limits of our neocortex. Well, maybe it isn’t. I mean, how many of your online friends do you interact with regularly? As more aspects of our lives become about networking, we will have more online connections. I think Google Plus tried to capitalize on that. Google Plus created different circles to organize our ever expanding list of acquaintances. This could be a good or bad thing. On the one hand, the law of averages would claim that the more online friends we have, the more likely it is that we find who we are looking for. That could mean anything from spouses to business partners, or even combining the two for an adult webcam service. On the other hand, the law of diminishing returns would state that the more of something we have, the more worthless it becomes. You have limited time to invest in maintaining your relationships, so if you have a lot of them the quality will diminish which creates a positive feed back loop. This dichotomy is very evident in the online gaming world. It may be a cross section of things to come as the virtual world continues to expand.

More is better

The NPD Group estimates that 63 percent of Americans play video games. Even if you don’t consider the rest of the world (being American, I wouldn’t) that’s still large pool of potential people to interact with. Of course, that interaction happens through various mediums from in-game to water cooler conversations. Some games are built around the idea of interacting with other people. A great example is Second Life. I wouldn’t categorize Second Life as a game per se, but it is a virtual interactive medium.  It allows us to take off the masks that we wear most of the day that we wear for the sake of social cohesion.  In the gaming world, we can pour ourselves into an avatar, the actions of which have few consequences.  Playing such  games can be very liberating.  This is especially true for introverts. In her book The Introvert Advantage, Dr.Marti Olsen Laney describes how introverted people are better at written communication which dominates how players talk to each other in online gaming. Introverts are also often drowned out by large groups of people. A videogame interface creates a buffer for introverts. Whether it be an online game of scrabble, or a full fledged MMORPG, introverts can get a chance to show off their skills as well as their thoughts in the gaming world. While online, these introverted gamers can open up to an array of people. A double plus is that the gaming world is filled with choice that caters to tastes of all kind. Thus, when you’re playing with someone you’ve already found common ground and can be yourself or not.

Identity is fluid within the gaming world. Not only can one meet a multitude of people but we can be a multitude of people. For myself, depending on the type of game I’m playing, I adopt a different attitude. I’m more aggressive when I’m playing Call of Duty and often shout at the screen when I’m killed by some camping bastard who skulks in the shadows like a lizard. When I’m on multiplayer flash sites like OMGPOP (Don’t judge me. Don’t you dare judge me.) my demeanor is more subdued, usually because of some substance I’ve just inhaled or ingested. This may seem like adjusting your personality to fit the venue, but I see it as revealing a different side of yourself. It is no different than acting differently with your parents than your peers. Just like those people, some of them will always draw a cock and ball where ever they are.

All this openness can lead to more civility. One can out pour all their negative feelings in one game, shotgunning dudes in the face and then settle down to a nice round of online trivia. They can help lift our inhibitions without destroying our livers. Online gaming has opened new doors in helping people socialize. Not only do they bring us together with common interests but also under common causes. For example, Extra Life is a charity in which gamers play non-stop for 24 hours to help raise over a million dollars for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.

Less is More

It’s not all shits and giggles. A study published by Public Agenda, a non-partisan group, found of seven focus groups that 73 percent of Americans believe that our society is getting ruder. Nowhere is that more evident than in online gaming. It’s more pandemic in games that are rated mature. From experience I know that anything that claims that it’s mature is really going to attract the attention of young teenagers. Whenever I play Left 4 Dead all I ever hear on team chat are thirteen year old boys spouting homophobic slurs. Perhaps they are like that all time, but I doubt it. I doubt they’d say all those rude things to my face. It’s the flip side consequence of the introvert’s buffer.

Anonymity gives us sense of safeness from retaliation. It reminds me of the ring of invisibility from Plato’s Republic. People free from constraints will be mischievous but not outright evil. However, as the virtual world expands and more and more time is spent behind a veil of anonymity it will effect our behavior. I think it comes down to shame and guilt. Both very powerful tools for social constructions. In India, business owners who don’t pay their taxes will get a drum circle outside their door.  This circle beats their drums, announcing to the community that the owner is a tax dodger, shamming him into paying.  In the online gaming community, I feel that there is a shortage of shame. This touches on the same subject as cyber bullying, but it’s a little different because gaming lobbies are filled with people you don’t know and with whom you have no connection. In mainstream games, there is a constant shuffle. So instead of making nice, we can just leave and assume a new face. There is no repercussion for rudeness and a lack of social graces. Sometimes they are even rewarded. It reminds me of the Congressman Jon Wilson who shouted “You Lie!” during an Obama speech. The day after, he received tens of thousands of dollars in donations.

Our society in general seems to be moving towards adoration of crass outbursts. Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of gaming. MMORPGs have become more shallow to attract a bigger market. At the same time, they are losing the immersion and tight knit nature that initially brought them success. Back in the day, Diablo II was about dungeon crawling with a small group of people, pooling your skills and communicating.  With these players you had to foster a sense of trust.  The online gaming community was smaller and these games were much harder.  If you didn’t pull your weight and be civil, your group would abandon or accost you.  After a while, the thought of being rude fades.  You’ve grown accustomed to your group’s sensibilities and you have faith in their abilities.  Now, World of Warcraft has a system were you shuffle through groups of strangers to assemble a 20 player raid. That sense of community has shrunk as the player population swelled. It almost reads like a contradiction, but that is the essence of the law of diminishing returns, the more of something you have, the less pleasure you will derive from it.  Players here often ninja things, steal from the group.  There is no mechanism for shaming these players because they can just move onto the next group.    

The Future of Man’s Kind

Since we know more about the moon then we do about ourselves, it’s unclear that what the future holds. Gaming could be used as a tool to bring people together onto common ground. Another possibility is that it will push us apart, isolating us into our own virtual cubicles. It may be like the taste of Soylent Green, varying from person to person. Whether online gaming brings out the best or worst in us is impossible to predict. I’ll put my money on both. I guess we’ll have to play to find out.