I’ve had the chance to see technology change our world twice in the three decades since I was born. I am a child of the Nineties, that time when the internet was the Internet, Geocities and Tripod ruled, and home computers were just becoming a staple of life. I remember dial-up modems, and my mom calling home from work to see if the phone was busy so that she could track my internet usage (and scold me for it later).
I also remember the rise of computer and console games. Three generations of family played A Link to the Past together in my living room, cheering when bosses fell before Link, or chuckling at mishaps caused by clumsy controls. When my grandmother was dying of pancreatic cancer and too ill to be social or active, the Super Nintendo was her escape. Watching her use gaming as a way to stay alert and involved while ill taught me to do the same. When I am sick or injured, I always dive into a new game to keep myself busy and focused on something other than misery, and I am thankful to my grandmother for teaching me that.
My mother was the one who taught me that the internet is full of legitimate friends, not just dangerous strangers. She married a man she met in an America Online chat room, way back in ‘99 when internet dating was scandalous. Because of this, I saw no shame in meeting friends I made through online gaming (intelligently, in public places, with people who knew where I was). A decade later, I don’t speak with my friends from high school, but the friends I made from gaming continue to be important in my life.
The format of the friendship is the root of their staying power. My high school friends and I were great in person, but terrible over distances. By contrast, my friends made via World of Warcraft or Dragon Age: Origins fan forums had distance as a factor from the start. We learned how to communicate and interact using Skype, Rabb.it, and careful syncing of Netflix. Friendships built quickly, because sometimes it is easier to speak to a text box than it is to a face. These people won’t be seen every day at school or work or around town. There is also less initial struggling to find a common ground; we’re playing the same game, after all. That is fodder for hundreds of conversations, right from the start. And the best part is, with every new game comes the potential for more friends!
Never believe that a friendship means less just because the conversations are held through text or in-game emotes. The world is changing, communication is being revolutionized, and strong bonds can now more easily be formed over long distances. The people we meet or stay close to through gaming are no less important than people we know in real life and see every day. My best friend, Bee, is someone I have seen in-person a total of three times in five years. We met through mutual gaming interests, and without her I would not be alive today.
For those of us with social anxiety, agoraphobia, and depression disorders, long-distance friendships are a blessing. There are days when I am too down to get dressed and bathe, or the idea of seeing people in public makes me want to cry. But I can still sit down at a computer and play Terraria with five other friends who all share similar problems. I don’t even have to tell them what’s going on if I don’t want to, because my in-game avatars don’t have to bathe, wash their clothes, or brush their teeth. It’s a chance to be normal when I’m feeling anything but.
I also know that if I need to vent about how I am feeling, my friends will listen and accept what I have to say. There is understanding in the gaming community that I have found nowhere else, and I know that I am not alone in that experience.
Some of my internet and gaming friends will drift when the next big title hits. Interests don’t always overlap, and occasionally I discover that it was the game that actually kept us close. But there is still the core group of people who keep talking no matter what games they’re currently playing, or intentionally make the leap from title to title together. Exploring a new game’s world and story together with a close friend is wonderful, because funny and traumatizing discoveries are shared. It’s no different than reading the same book together, or following the same show.
I’ve never understood why people who wrote to pen pals for years look at online friendships today and think that they are less important somehow. A bond is a bond, no matter the medium, and we should never feel ashamed for having friends. The format doesn’t matter; the impact we have on each other’s lives does. Those of us who game to be social are far healthier and happier than we would be without that outlet, and I am not about to let the judgment of others take that away.
I suppose I am encouraging my fellow gamers to be glad that they can escape into another world for a while if life is terrible, and to be proud that they have made such good friends, no matter how far away they are from each other. Gaming can be a healthy coping mechanism, and if someone in your life doesn’t realize that, don’t let them cheapen the importance of games to you. After all, there are millions of people around the world who understand how you feel, and they’re just a loading screen away.