How Imaginary Worlds Can Lead to Real Life Connections
Achaea, Dreams of Divine Lands is perhaps not a game you’ve heard of, but it is one that has been hugely impactful in my life. It’s a text-based MMORPG, and it is the most immersive and engaging game I’ve ever played. It introduced me to roleplaying as well as its own version of coding and hooked me with endless vivid scenery to explore, cutthroat in-game politics, intense and complex combat, myriad deities that grant boons with one hand and shoot zaps of lightning from the other, scandalous romances, and deep friendships all at once. It honestly has everything… except, you know, pictures.
My favorite way to explain Achaea (or perhaps any multiplayer game without graphics) is to say that playing is like you’re in a novel and are writing your character’s arc live while someone is doing the same for each of the player-controlled characters around you. The best part is that, similar to real life, while you might see yourself as the main protagonist, the other characters in this real-time “novel” think they’re each the hero of the story, and you’re all inhabiting this universe alongside each other, building your characters and crafting their lives, each reacting to the stories being constructed around them in order to exist together—whether as friends or enemies or something in between—in one single, cohesive world. Things can get just as complicated, dramatic, death-defying, and deep as you want them to be, and it’s easy to get sucked in.
A brief and woefully incomplete glimpse into Achaea.
Achaeans were some of the first friends of mine to really encourage my writing. When I moved across the country alone, from Arkansas to New York City, Achaeans were the first people who helped me settle in and invited me into their homes and friend groups. Achaeans are some of the first people I met (and are sometimes still the only people I know) from certain countries around the world. I’ve become best friends with Achaeans. I’ve dated and fallen in love with them. I’ve been in the wedding party of friends I met through the game. I’ve shared some of my darkest secrets and biggest successes with Achaeans. In a way that no other game has been for me since, Achaea is truly a community.
My hypothesis for why that’s so is that text-gaming is unlike any other gaming style. You have much more control over your character, from the way they look to even how they speak and move. They still exist within the confines of the universe, of course: your race and class choices determine your stats and combat, you take damage and heal it with elixirs or magic, and you react to the environment and items around you just like in any other fantasy game, but there is more customization, freedom of gameplay, character motivation, and drive to be unique in manner and personality than in any other game I’ve ever seen—and this is all a product of the fact that there aren’t graphics to limit you. It’s no surprise that you can very easily end up pouring your heart into all those little touches and flourishes, and when you put that much thought and love into your character, those who interact with and help mold, motivate, and complicate things for your little creation end up meaning something not only to the character you control, but to you, the player, as well.
That all being said, I don’t think this phenomenon is unique to Achaea. I still keep up with folks I was matched with again and again during the Overwatch beta years ago. I cried with my WoW guild over Discord back in the day when we finally downed Yogg-Saron for the first time. These connections are everywhere in multiplayer games.
Because of this, I feel very strongly that any type of gaming can lay the groundwork for a real, tangible community of players, and that the connections we make as we move through these digital worlds together are real, are important, and are valid.
And I’m not alone in that. I interviewed several other gamers to get their take on relationships that extend beyond in-game interactions. Lennon, a front-end web developer who spends most nights a week engaging in long gaming sessions, says that, like me, he’s met a few people he’d consider real friends through gaming. He clarifies that these are, in fact, the “I'd help you hide a body” kind of friends, not just the “we could have an awkward beer together sometime if we ever end up in the same town” sort of friends, and I know exactly what he means. Patrick, a father, paramedic, and self-proclaimed nerd, has had a similar experience. He says that he has been able to "make friends in other states and countries that [he] never would have met otherwise,” many of whom he considers to be lifelong friends. Lisa, a video game producer who is into everything from RPGs to strategy games and city builders, says that she’s made most of her real-life friends through gaming. “As a kid,” she explains, “all of my friends were also into video games. When I wasn’t playing video games with friends, I was pretending to be the characters from them while we ran around outside.” As someone who spent a ton of her childhood crashing through the woods pretending to be Lara Croft, I can easily relate.
Perhaps a surprise to those who don’t seek them out, gaming relationships can sometimes come easily in a way that making friends as an adult often does not. Gaming friendships are developed by shared interests, sure, but also proximity and circumstance, similar to how many kids find that their very best friends happened to have been in the same classes as them since first grade. Like school, games often provide a regularly scheduled meeting of the same folks who are engaging in the same experiences, and it gives people something that’s easy to bond over. It’s an experience we oftentimes don’t get as adults. Anyone who has ever moved to a totally new city alone and tried to make friends without being in a classroom or a traditional work setting can tell you, making friends without a common thread can be exhausting. Gaming gives us that link that we’re so often missing when attempting to forge new adult relationships, and it can make all the difference.
Lisa explains to me that she’s had periods in her life where her online communities were her very best friends, but not because of a lack of real-life companions; she had those too. Online relationships are regularly formed in addition to school, work, and neighborhood friendships, and are simply another place to make connections and find common ground, and the bonds formed there can be equally as meaningful as the ones formed in person and are often maintained in the same way. Similar to how many of us have those old friends from school on Facebook and reach out from time to time, so too Lisa keeps in touch with gaming friends from across the years through social media. She still considers the folks from these online communities some of her closest friends, and keeps up with them, she says, “just as [she] would any close friend from school who no longer lives nearby.”
And much like we may take trips to visit old college roommates or meet up with childhood friends if we happen to be in the same city, so too do gaming friends take trips and make time to see each other. I’ve gone to a few meet-ups myself, from meticulously planned conventions and slapped-together gatherings at parks and house parties alike, and I’ve walked away with lasting friendships every time. Gaming, and making connections through gaming, isn’t limited by age or personality or playstyle, so these meet-ups are often a wonderful mix of all sorts of different kinds of folks who meld together over a common interest, and it creates a diverse and inclusive mix of people that often makes each experience as novel as it is rewarding.
Lisa recounts how her dad, also a gamer, would often warn her about being careful about meeting up with these “internet strangers.” But even a cautious father can see the value in the relationships formed through keyboards and controllers, as Lisa explains:
Fast forward about 6 years into [my dad's] WoW career, and I’m preparing to move across the country for graduate school and my industry. My dad was planning to come out and help me move, as we’ve always been close. As we’re planning, he asked me (a bit sheepishly) if I would mind having lunch with him and a friend from World of Warcraft—another dad who had continually joined and left guilds along with my dad over the course of the last 6 years, sticking together in scenarios where it was usually a bunch of college students and these two “old guys.” I was ecstatic to see that my dad had formed a connection with someone, and was thrilled to watch them recount stories together over lunch. This is one of my favorite “meeting in real life” stories. It felt like my dad had given video games to me, but I had warmed him up to the idea of making meaningful connections through them.
The value of these connections is clear. Lisa's dad might or might not have thought of it that way until they met in person, but he had had a true friend in his guildmate for over half a decade, and that's nothing to sneeze at.
But what about the stereotype of the shut-in, anti-social gamer? While as with everything there certainly is the possibility that you can overdo it, most people seem to balance gaming and the real world just fine. (In fact, at least one study could find no evidence that even violent video games have an effect on prosocial behavior.) Even so, gamers themselves are often sensitive to the stereotypes and can be found measuring themselves against the whispers of a life wasted in front of a screen. There is always the fear that gaming might be replacing a person’s social life rather than enhancing it, and Lennon has found himself weighing this compromise carefully. He explained that he was gaming so much during COVID that he worried it might have slipped into the territory of gaming addiction. Since it wasn’t safe to go out, his time playing had nearly doubled, and especially in such confusing and unprecedented times, it can be hard to gauge whether that’s a product of circumstance or habit driven by unchecked desire. After Lennon got vaccinated and passed the two-week mark, however, he “took a whole-ass week off gaming and just spent [his] nights hitting the spots [he’d] missed over the past year.” If real addiction had taken root, this likely wouldn’t have been such a simple feat. Lennon adds that “it wasn’t even intentional; it just happened,” continuing that “as soon as it was reasonably safe to do so, gaming took a backseat to being around other people.” This further demonstrates the point that for most people, even people who may have ramped up their gaming during the extended hours at home over this past year, gaming can be an important part of your social life without taking over the whole thing.
In fact, I think each of the folks I spoke to for this article would say that gaming is often a way to enhance one’s social life. I certainly would. And while my experience with Achaea was mostly from the inside out—that is to say that I met people from inside the game and then got to know them in the real world after—it doesn’t always go this way. Patrick plays probably three to four days a week, and he enjoys everything from Final Fantasy to Pokémon to Counterstrike and Overwatch. While he has this same inside-out experience, like meeting friends through Elder Scrolls Online and keeping in touch with them long after he’s stopped playing the game, it’s gone the other way for him as well. Gaming is something Patrick loves sharing with his wife, nephews, nieces, and his own children. This outside-in approach—bringing in people you love from your non-gaming life to share gaming experiences with you—is one that can be just as rewarding and fun. It can also be a way to connect when friends and families are apart, like when Patrick, for instance, games with his nephews, who live several states away.
In the time of Zoom happy hours, social media watch parties, TikTok dances, and online dating apps, it's probably no hard sell that time spent with technology can lead to person-to-person connections, and gaming is no different. But in addition to the individual relationships that playing games can strengthen and provide, gaming can also connect us to life experiences, to dearly held memories, and to feelings of love and togetherness in a way that I think is often discounted. Even as children, these special connections are being formed. Louie, a successful business owner and lifelong gamer, has the perfect example of how, in his and his brother's experience, gaming as kids drew "real-life connections with people we already knew and respected in ways that made adults a little more accessible to us.” Luis demonstrates that childhood connection with an anecdote, recounting how his love of gaming as a kid led to an experience that helped him understand and appreciate his parents from a new perspective:
My father would come pick me up around 7pm on Friday every other weekend for visitation. Essentially, as soon as we got to his house, he would start playing a game. It was always something that was for adults, or at least too complex to be a children’s game, and I would watch […] him play until the wee hours of the morning. The truth was that it was a PS1 with one memory card and one TV, so I was staying up to try to get a turn if he ever got tired and I could play, but I don’t think it ever happened once. I tried and tried to stay awake, but I just couldn’t. The next morning, I would generally wake up before him and I would dominate the TV for most of the hours that the sun was out (not the best time to play Resident Evil), and he would come give me tips and tricks and poke fun at me for making mistakes. Then something happened that cemented this era of games in my mind forever. My mom and dad did not and do not like each other […] and neither of them hid their feelings from me or my brother, but when Christmas—I want to say ‘99—came around, my mom and my dad actually got together and bought me a PlayStation 1 of my very own. I remember how peculiar this was to me, but how much it meant that not only could I play a game whenever I wanted, but that even with the disdain they had for each other, my parents could come together and make something really special happen for me.
For many of us, gaming has been an important and memorable part of our lives for years, if not decades, and whether they start from within the game or outside it, the significance of the connections that are forged through playing—either through making memories at home, strengthening bonds with far-away family, forging new friendships or finding new ways to maintain old ones—cannot be discounted.
It’s perhaps no surprise that the value of these connections has grown exponentially during the recent pandemic. Many people are meeting new friends online, but perhaps just as importantly if not more so, tons of people are using gaming to keep themselves connected to the people in their lives that they've been forced to be distant from for over a year. In part two of this series, we’ll explore the value of gaming, from what skills can be gained through regular play (and whether we should even care) to the way gaming has been a lifeline to many people during COVID-19 restrictions. We'll also discuss the concerns of certain gamers when it comes to playing too much and find at least one person who is a new convert to the "power" of video games.
This is part one of a three-part series. Part two can be found here.
Need some more fun gaming streams from cool folks? Find Lennon at youtube.com/ChopsTV
Did I make you interested in text-based MMORPGs? I can't recommend them enough! Check out Iron Realms Entertainment to see if there's one that catches your eye. (Not a sponsor, I just love them.)
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