One of the first memories I have of meeting my wife was in a castle. My companions had just cleared the first floor of its undead inhabitants and we were moving up its maze-like corridors, old musty bookshelves and dreary decor when we realized that our party wasn't quite as strong as it should be. We needed an extra sword hand, and though I was quite proficient at combat in arms my task that evening was to keep my friends alive with my limited knowledge of healing spells. There's no way I could have known that the woman we had invited to join us would become such an amazingly wonderful part of my life in the next few years, nor would I ever have imagined that the close friends I had spent the past four years fighting undead, slaying dragons and cleansing temples of evil with would ever grow apart. Like most adventurers we had all met, quite literally, by happenstance.
Despite the incredible success that I've had with online relationships I would never personally advocate them to someone else over a "˜real world' one. There's just something different about physical interaction that changes the context of how you communicate with someone. Society has come a long way from portraying nerds as social recluses who only have computers as a means of escape, people who would rather hang out with PC parts than deal with others, but there's still the stigma that being nerdy means that you cannot (and likely may not ever) be able to socialize well with others. In some ways it's true, there are many out there who prefer their online relationships to trying to reach out and meet someone in person. It's doubtful anyone would argue that MMO's are an ineffective socialization tool but that doesn't mean that online gaming should ever become the primary means of human interaction. What it means for most of us is that online gaming serves as a bridge between being able to accept yourself and being able to communicate with others.
I have a hard time imagining my life without looking back at the years I spent behind a computer screen with close friends all over the world. Reflecting on how much time I spent online (a number which makes me cringe a little on retrospect) it's no wonder that my parents seemed so concerned. It was difficult to explain at the time, but what I was doing then was to be known in the future as social networking. Finding like minded people who shared my views, concerns and anxieties was incredibly difficult where I grew up, but online everyone seemed to come together so naturally. In a game there are roles which everyone must fill in order to overcome any obstacle, particularly so in an MMO, and where online gaming flourishes is in taking those roles and turning them into relationships. The party needs to trust each member of the group is going to pull his or her own weight, and groups that work well together generally want to continue doing so in the future. The gaming industry has been working hard for the past few years trying to figure out how to continue to capitalize on those relationships, how to evolve their networking systems to bring people even closer together and use their game as the go-to medium of joy and self discovery. It's hard not to wonder if that's even possible. As far as I'm concerned online gaming is really just another stepping stone into learning how to form proper relationships in the real world.
That's the reason why people get so worked up about their clans or guilds, to the point of becoming emotionally distraught over the drama that often surrounds online life. Or why raiding groups and fps squads will jump from game to game with one another, generally staying in the same clique as long as they can help it. We all crave that familiarity with others, being able to trust and rely in another person, even if it's just to know that they'll toss you a heal in a tight spot. Sometimes it's hard to place that much care in another, and to hold another human being responsible for not breaking your heart is a tremendous responsibility. Though there are plenty of horror stories of women being pressured or blackmailed for naked pictures or teenage boys being shamed into feeling worse about themselves because of cyber bullying, becoming involved in an online community doesn't always devolve into that. More often than not it serves as a lesson in how to function beyond the monitor, mouse and keyboard.
This kind of bonding isn't really limited to serious raiders and tournament-level League of Legends enthusiasts. Friends use it as a way of keeping in touch and catching up just the same as couples play in order to spend some more time together. Online gaming isn't proof that more people than ever are interested in video gaming, it's evidence that people enjoy connecting with each other on different mediums. That you can sit down and have just as intimate, intelligent and hilarious time slaying dragons as you can get going to the theater, taking a day in the park or sharing a book is testament to how far gaming has come in creating bonds and helping relieve social anxieties.
So I don't remember my time online as a series of dungeons or sequence of patch notes. I remember the people I've met. The actor hoping to make it big in Boston's theater scene. The rocket scientist whose job kept her moving all over the country, and the artist that spent almost all his time and money helping his family. The teenager who had a high school crush who was way out of his league. There are memories of planning ambushes in lush forests, fighting off other players in the depths of a volcano and spending hours discussing all of the hilarious injustice in each of our lives. If anyone had explained that what I was doing was learning how to function with other people in the real world I would have probably brushed them off. Part of growing up means finding like-minded individuals with whom you can develop alongside, and while the internet has done a fantastic job in bridging many of those gaps gaming allows people to grow on more than just forums, chat rooms or YouTube banter. It just does so subtly.
It took a little over a year for me to realize that the same woman who I had spent so much time running dungeons and fighting players alongside may just be someone I want to meet in person. By the time I gathered my things, packed a lunch and set up my MP3 player with a season of Seinfeld to hear on the ten hour drive the actor had finally landed a decent break, the rocket scientist and the artist had moved in together and the teenager had actually got the girl. On a side note she turned out to be not quite as charming as he thought. Online gaming certainly wasn't responsible for all of those things but it may have presented a few solutions for those of us who needed to find another way to communicate with the rest of world; and it did so in a way no other medium is truly capable of.