What is it that you have learnt about yourself and others while gaming?
  • Do you consider yourself a team player or a leader?
  • Are you excited by the challenge of leading a 25 man raid or does such pressure terrify you?
  • Have you ever been kicked from a guild for “disruptive behaviour”?
  • Is your friends list brimming with contacts you regularly chat with?
  • Perhaps you prefer to solo content, only talking to other players if absolutely necessary?
  • Do you like to attack the “noobs” asking “dumb” questions in the general/trade chat questions?

What do these behaviors  say about you and the individuals who present them? After several years of online gaming  I’ve developed a “pet theory” – our interactions online tells us a great deal about ourselves and human nature. In fact, we expose ourselves far more than we do in the real world. Virtual worlds make explicit our actions, choices and foibles.

Virtual worlds allow us to roam deep space, stride through the corridors of a dungeon or take flight upon the wings of a dragon. And yet our in-game avatars say more about us as individuals than we choose to belive.

The dangers of the online world: won’t someone think of the children!

There’s the old joke that on the internet no-one knows your a dog. It implies the internet is a dangerous, shady place full of people masking their true identities while, poised to unleash their evil plans unsuspecting intewebz noobs. Critics claim this technology threatens to dehumanise the individual while destroying those conventions that help society function.

Egads! What horrors wait beneath the false masks peeps wear on the interwebz!

Egads! What horrors wait beneath the false masks peeps wear on the interwebz!

In this dystopian nightmare the internet is a place of child porn, money scams, terrorists plotting the fall of civilisation and recipes for nuclear weapons. Even worse, people are never who they say they are. That person claiming to be a sixteen year old school girl is really a 200 kilogram, forty-three year old man. Moral panic is alive and well in debates about the nature and value of online worlds.

Suffice to say I don’t subscribe to those views.

Actually I believe the very opposite is true: individuals are more willing express themselves online than they do in face-to-face conversations.

Social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs (such as this humble effort) or overflowing with people expressing their opinions and exposing their innermost thoughts. This technology is creating more connections, allowing indivisduals to express themselves in ways like never before.

The same is true of MMOs.

When we enter Azeroth or Middle Earth we never leave ourselves. The true self will always come forth. Being online means you can drop some of the artifice you need to maintain in the workplace, at home and among friends and peers.

My WoW raid team spends two nights a week together in two or three hour blocks. Doing this week after week gives you insight into individuals. How they play, what they say in Vent or ingame chat… it all adds up and gives you a much fuller picture of the individual than meeting them a couple times a week over coffee.

Fantasy Island Syndrome: or why you can’t escape yourself.

Errr, I didn't order that...

Errr, that's not what I ordered...

MMORPGs are often compared to all you can eat buffet’s: a bit of everything thrown in to match the various “tastes” of a broad based player base. PvE, PvP, crafting, quests, instanced dungeons and end game content. But that analogy rests upon game mechanics.

Actually, to me MMORPGs are more akin to that old 1970’s TV classic, Fantasy Island.

If you remember the series – and yes I’m old enough to have watched it as a child – it had a very simple premise. The island was a place where individuals could have their fantasies brought to live – for a price. It was overseen by the mysterious Mr. Roake and Tattoo (Ze plane! Ze plane!).

The series struck a cord with the general public, and has since  entered the halls of pop-culture history.


Because we understand how fantasy worlds release us from the constraints of the everyday, but paradoxically allowing us to expose ourselves in ways we can’t in real life (RL). Freed from the normal encumbrance of the everyday, the individual can live and act as they desire. The mask comes off.

Each story followed a simular story arc: despite the individual paying a small fortune to enter a world perfectly crafted to meet their personal whims, satisfaction was only temporary. Soon enough the issues that had plagued them came to the surface.

Call it “Fantasy Island Syndrome” (FIS).

MMOs are just that: Fantasy Islands. We enter them wanting them to be freed of everyday constraints, but more often than not find we can’t escape ourselves. In fact the very opposite happens: we are more likely to be confronted with truths about ourselves.

Four things MMOs have taught me

Watching players implode in raids, guild drama and friendships come to life and die in online worlds, I’ve long since come to the conclusion that the true self is much more display in game worlds than in real life. Fantasy Island Syndrome is alive and well.

So what has FIS taught me? There is very little difference between how both myself, and others, act both online and in RL. At a pinch I can list at least four things I’ve learn’t;

  • The true self will always show itself – In RL we try to put on a good front, especially with people and groups they’ve just been introduced too. Same with the online world. Joining a guild is like starting a new job. People have to learn how to navigate it’s culture, find out who the “power players” are and work out who they could potentially be friends and/or ally with. They’re conscious of the impression they will make in guild chat, Vent and on the guilds discussion forums . But as time passes, and they become more comfortable with individuals and the group you start to drop your guard and reveal more aspects of their true self.
  • I’m a Fox – No, I’m not a small red animal of the canine family. I’m a fox in the sense of the metaphor the philosopher Isaiah Berlin conceived: that of the Hedgehog and the Fox . Broadly speaking, Berlin classed the artists and thinkers into two categories: those who purported to know one very big thing (the Hedgehog) and those that knew many little things (the foxes). I know players who understand WoW, all the classes and the underlying mechanics of the game with such depth that I can never hope to match their knowledge. Ever. I prefer to play a multitude of games, classes and explore as much as I can. I like to know a little bit of everything about not only the game I’m playing, but other MMOs. This is true in RL where I pursue multiple interests.
  • The nature of friendship – some friendships are the product of convenience, others more lasting and genuine. The former are more common and transitory, the other rare and often long lasting. Friendships at both work and in-game can trail off once the thing you have in common no longer exists. Stop playing WoW with some people, and there is nothing else to talk about. Stop working at an organisation, and the friendship does not survive the lack of mutual interests. But occasionally, at work or in the metaverse you make genuine, lasting friendships based on respect and understanding.
  • Community creates meaning – there is the “bowling alone” theory still popular in some circles which states the the pace of technological change and the pressure of capitalist societies are atomising individuals, sundering the traditional links people have had to their broader communities (i.e. neighbours, church and community groups). This leaves the individual lonely, depressed and prone to unhappiness. Again I’d challenge that assertion, as for many individuals the guilds, collectives and even their “Facebook” friends are the new forms of community. Previously communities where one of convenience – that is to say geography dictated which church, volunteer organisation or club you joined. Schools and families shaped are choices. Today we choose the community we wish to belong too. Geography no longer determines your community. From my experience, I’ve been in my WoW guild for four years. I view it as a community. It has it’s own culture, personalties and even values. My guild is representative of a phenomena happing in MMOs around the world. What draws people together first and foremost is their love or interest in online gaming. From their communities evolve. Friends are made and lost, people fall in and out of love. Goals are set. New members are welcomed and embraced, others leave. Most importantly people draw meaning from being a member of their community. Knowing they make a difference to a group – even if it’s your regular raid team – give people a sense belonging.

I game , therefore I am ;P