By Rachel Kowert
We all know the stereotype of the socially inept, basement dwelling online gamer. You know, overweight male player with no friends that lives with their parents until middle age and has difficulty interacting with the “real-world”. This stereotype is often portrayed in television, movies, and an endless number of memes the despite the fact that there is little to no scientific basis to support it. In fact, there is a significant amount of evidence to suggest quite the opposite.
The social aspects of the stereotype are of particular note as they are what distinguishes the stereotype of the online gamer from stereotypes of similar groups (console gamers and arcade gamers, for instance) but is also one of the most scientifically refuted aspects of the stereotype. In fact, online gamers are not significantly different socially, in terms of social support or general sociability, than their offline gaming or non-gaming counterparts. Furthermore, when following the same group of online gamers over time, neither playing online games nor playing at a greater frequency negatively impacted their social skills over a two-year period.
Going one step further, new research has found that playing online games may actually help to foster the development of a range of social and emotional skills. This is particularly the case for shy, socially anxious, and or isolated players.
For example, the interactive and playful nature of online games can strengthen pre-existing friendships as well as promote new ones between players. For example, because players are visually anonymous when playing online (i.e., “you can’t see me and I can’t see you), shy players may feel more free to socially engage with others as the need for excessive monitoring of their non-verbal behaviour is removed from the social situation. This social freedom allows players’ to experiment online without fear of real-world repercussions (e.g., being socially ostracized as school or work).
Now, wait a minute? This is all fine and well but aren’t online friends less “valuable” than offline friends? I mean, they can’t help you move or give you a shoulder to cry on?
While online friends are less able to provide tangible favors like the ones mentioned above, that does not mean they are overall “less valuable” friendships. Research has found that online friends are considered “as real” as any real-life friendship and often regarded as valued sources of advice and emotional support. Friendships made in online games are also more long-lasting and intimate than those made in other online spaces, such as chat rooms or social networking websites.
What we really should be doing is stop talking about the differences between offline and online friendships and start recognizing the fluidity of the terms. Our lives are increasingly lived online – online gaming, online networking, online banking, working remotely, the list goes on and on. Offline and online is no longer a dichotomy and this is particularly the case with “online” and offline friends. For example, research from Pew has reported that 89% of teen players report playing online games with pre-existing offline friends or family members. That means, only 11% of players are exclusively interacting with “online only” friends. Even still, these kinds of friends are socially valuable and hold an important place within our networks as identified from the evidence above.
Online friends are important. Offline friends are important. They intersect, interact, and each have their place and serve their purpose.