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My Virtual Family

More and more of us are finding ways to stay in touch with family and loved ones via online game worlds or "MMOs", says Nick Ryan.

They are the 'Twitter generation'. Couch-potato teenagers, addicted to video games and instant messenging, dangerously cut-off from the outside world.

That, at least, is one depressing stereotype painted of today’s youth: we have a disgruntled, alienated generation ignored by its guardians and parents.

Video games, from 'first person shooters' (FPS), to massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs, or MMOs), are often blamed for heightening this apparently self-destructive behaviour.

Psychiatrist Dr Richard Graham, a specialist in treating adolescent addiction from the Tavistock Centre in London, has even said that the teenagers he saw were living entire days inside virtual game worlds. Their time inside hugely popular fantasy games, such as World of Warcraft, was damaging their health and studies.

"One young man described vividly to me a sense that having achieved very high success in the game, when he switched off he felt downgraded," he said.

But is there another side to this picture?

Time-pressed, divided families – those divorced, living away from their loved ones, or simply with grown-up children – are increasingly using online worlds and games to stay in touch with one another. It's an interesting, and as yet unreported, shift in the new ways we're being forced to associate. It is the rise of a virtual family, you might say.

Game worlds such as World of Warcraft (WoW), Lord of the Rings Online, EVE Online (set in a universe said to be partly-inspired by Iain M. Banks' science fiction novels), Age of Conan (dark fantasy) or the recently-launched Warhammer allow you to completely "immerse" yourself in a fantasy or science fiction environment.

Such games are no longer the preserve of the anorak: this is big business. Activision-Blizzard (owner of World of Warcraft) has up to 11 million players worldwide. The company (which is 54% owned by French multimedia giant, Vivendi) was recently valued at US$3.8 billion and supports growing real-world economies ("gold selling" companies and "power levelling" services in Asia, working 24-7 in boiler rooms). There is even a Hollywood film in the making based on the ‘lore’ developed for the game.

Not only that, the online profile of players is changing: whilst many teenagers do play in these worlds, they are also home to a large number of adults, both male and female (up to 30% of WoW players are women, it’s been estimated). You may even find colleagues or friends immersed in one or other of these games: whilst inside the World of Warcraft, I actually "met" a printer working on behalf of News International in the UK; another was a cameraman for NATO in Afghanistan.

The Family

A Portuguese businessman, who requested anonymity, met his wife 15 years ago via a shared interest in an MMO called Lineage.

Five years after moving to Florida, where he was working as an IT consultant, the Portuguese businessman was called back to his homeland for his grandfather’s funeral – and World of Warcraft came to play an integral part in family life.

“My grandfather was the owner of a family business that employed more than 1000 people, now leaderless. I was given the opportunity to take control: I was bored with the job I had and the income was going be a lot bigger, so the idea appealed.”

But his oldest child was in school and doing well; his wife and other two children didn't speak Portuguese.

“After much talking with my wife, we came to the conclusion that we were gonna try it: I was going to come back to Portugal, work here and go to Florida every chance I had."

"And that's where World of Warcraft came into the scene,” he said. “I can even play it from my office, on my laptop anywhere, and spend as much time as I can with my wife online.”

The two play together with their children, and meet and talk ‘virtually’ as often as they can, via the game.

"So every day, me and my wife spend all the time talking, using Skype when I’m at work and have time to play together, or just talking. At night I log on my webcam and we even have dinner ‘together’ as a family.”

“My oldest is already eight and can play it with us... he is a hunter of course! The youngster already sits with mom and watches her play too."

The Portuguese businessman described the game world as a community or a “neighbourhood”.

“WoW helps our family in the sense that it allows us to keep things in common. It allows us to have a theme of conversation for hours. I don’t want to bore my wife with stupid work problems every day, because that’s what I would do. And looking at the webcam saying ‘sooo how was your day?’ can only take me so far. WoW changed that."

He said he would pay 10 times his monthly subscription fee to have the service he felt it provided him.

"I am sure the day I go back home to Florida, will be the day we will play a lot less WoW. But it has served his purpose."

The Lovers

Professional musician Marcus Miller, from Bedfordshire, had turned 33 and felt his life was falling apart.

“There came a point about two years ago where the band I was in just finished recording an independent album and I was sacked due to my relationship with the keyboard player, my girlfriend at the time, ending. I became depressed, renouncing both music and relationships."

"I played World of Warcraft more with the free time I had because of the escapism it brought. My problems didn't seem so bad if I had something to take my mind off them."

Whilst out ‘questing’ in the game, he found himself talking to another ‘Warlock’ character, who appeared to have bought some items he’d manufactured.

"Over the course of a few days we quested together, and as we did conversation would start to turn to real life and what we do when we're not playing WoW. It was around this time that we established the other's gender and to me it felt like I'd met someone I could like. I felt the first blush of a potential romance. However, she lived in Greece and I in England."

Over the weeks they swapped emails and their conversations took on a more erotic turn leading, as he put it, “to as I'm sure you can imagine cybersex."

"I suppose in the back of my mind for a short while I did wonder if she was being perfectly honest regarding her gender but once we spoke on the phone I was delighted to hear her perfect English, spoken with a very cute Greek accent."

"Over the course of around six months we became very close and decided that we should meet. We made a plan, and for one long weekend in August 2007 we actually met.”

“It was slightly surreal to meet in real life, but not really awkward beyond the first 30 minutes or so as we got to know each other really well beforehand.”

Now they talk to each other regularly over headsets, and using webcams whilst playing, and the relationship has been going from strength-to-strength, visiting each other in England and Greece every few weeks.

"I think we fell in love before even meeting and the Internet, or particularly MMOs, can provide an unbiased and safe way to act out and test the emotional water before risking as much personally. We ‘roleplayed’ falling in love and real life followed."

“Coming from someone who has met girls in many different settings – at work, in clubs and bars, through friends, even reaping the benefits of being 'a guy in a band' – meeting someone through WoW has been a real eye opener.”

"In fact, the romantic in me would suggest that the chances of meeting 'The One' in your very own home town are slim. And what with the world becoming smaller and more accessible, this is becoming more and more common."

The Student

James Dugdale was a student at Lincoln University until last year. As he now puts it: “I'm living in a house with three of my friends from Uni ... trying to get a games design portfolio together, and trying to write a novel to try and kick-start a creative career."

A veteran of MMO games, Dugdale said that he approached most of them “purely for the gaming experience”.

“WoW being the only real exception,” he added. “I was actually approaching WoW as a world as much as as a game. I look at these games both as videogames, and as social platforms."

He regularly met with his ‘guild’ in real life, and had made many friends though the game, he said. He chatted away to his old university friends inside Azeroth, the game world, even though distance now separated them in the real one.

It also allowed him to stay in touch with his parents, living several hundred miles away in Gillingham, Dorset.

"Whilst I occasionally keep in contact with my parents via phone, I have far more contact with my younger brothers via World of Warcraft. Both of them have characters in my guild, The Haven, and the elder of the two, 16, has raided with me on numerous occasions.”

"Sometimes messages from my parents are relayed via my brothers through the game,” he said, “if the message is short enough to not warrant a full phone call. There is sometimes as much communication with my parents via my brothers in-game than there is via the phone. Sad, I know, but I don't phone home all that often these days."

"Finally, two of my dearest friends live in Holland, and whilst I didn't actually know them until I met them through WoW in the first place, it is now my main method of communicating with them until I can raise the funds to go see them again."

He was circumspect about the future of MMO gaming.

"Bad communities often cripple big online games, and bad gameplay can cripple the communities. But I believe the communities are multiplying and growing, and that we're going to see that become a more and more important strength in the social aspect of the games."

The Experts

Meanwhile, experts remain divided over the social/anti-social aspects of MMO gaming.

Researchers at Northwestern University recently surveyed 7,000 players of the virtual game EverQuest II. They found that depression levels in the groups ranged from almost 21% in people who didn't play the game very often; to more than 30% in those who played a lot. "This could mean that highly active players get more depressed or that depressed people are more likely to be active role players," said the author of the study, Noshir Contractor, a professor of behavioral science.

However, Nick Yee of the Daedalus Gateway Project has studied the psychology of MMOs and suggested that many gamers play with a romantic partner or family friend.

“About 16% of male players and 60% of female players play with a romantic partner, and about 25% of male players and 40% of female players play with a family member,” he found. “Many of these players say that playing together has changed their real-life relationships in unexpected ways.”

Parents who played with their children often talked about “how the online world becomes an important window in the identities and lives of their children which they seldom have access to in real life,” he said.

“MMORPGs not only change how new relationships form, but they are also windows into existing relationships as well potent catalysts that can restructure those relationships in beneficial ways.”

This story first appeared on BBC News Online ©2009

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