Beyond the Screen: Exploring Deep Bonds in Online Gaming Relationships
Today’s parents are prone to lament, “I wish my child would stop playing video games and go outside and meet people!” They tell stories of their childhood when kids from the neighborhood met outside for hours of sports, tag, and other imaginative play.
But does online gaming mean forgoing deep relationships with others? Is it really just zoning out in front of a screen?
16-year-old Nathan Baker certainly doesn’t think so. After a year and a half of friendship with “John,” whose name has been changed for privacy, Baker noticed concerning social media messages from his friend. John had gone through a breakup and wasn’t doing well. Nathan was able to send a police officer in Dallas to John’s home to check on him, which connected John to the resources he needed to survive his mental health crisis.
John is grateful for Nathan’s care, and the two remain friends.
Online friendships can save lives, but they also introduce challenges not found in person-to-person interactions. Understanding both the nuances of online gaming relationships can help you navigate them in a healthy way.
The Power of Virtual Friendship
We all need people that we can rely on, but some people have less of that support in their “real” lives than others. For example, many people are bullied at school, may have absent or unsupportive parents, or face other challenges.
Online gaming can provide an outlet for people with these struggles. A recent Texas A&M study found that in a gaming community for young men, players who had more depressive symptoms and lower levels of real-life support were 40% more likely to form and maintain social ties with fellow gamers.
Social spaces in video games can allow people to form connections and discuss serious issues without the barriers that some face in accessing formal mental health services. Games are not a substitute for getting mental health care, but it can be an important support system.
Being able to communicate through the game interface is the beginning of most friendships, and it often grows to include out-of-game forums like a Discord community. Discord is a social platform for gamers that offers voice calls, messaging, and streaming, along with text chat. There are communities dedicated to specific games, making it easy to find folks you relate to and want to talk to.
Falling in Love Through Online Gaming
The deep friendships gamers form online sometimes turn into more. Whether it’s World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online, people who get to know each other sometimes find love in the middle of casting spells and killing monsters.
Yanina Remersaro and Scott Ellwanger met while playing Lord of the Rings Online, which includes voice and text chat, along with private messages. Although Yanina was in Argentina and Scott in the U.S., they found they had a lot in common and started talking outside the game. When Yanina went to Massachusetts for work-related training, they met in person, and in 2020 Scott proposed. They were married in August 2021 and live together in Pennsylvania, and credit online gaming for teaching them how to communicate about their relationship.
The newest generation, Gen Z, is already open to dating online. The bonds they form in online gaming are as deep and authentic as the ones they form in their daily lives because these digital natives don’t see technology experiences as separate from “real life.” Gen Z is also more open to non-traditional relationships, delaying marriage, and exploring gender norms.
Staying Safe While Meeting People in Online Gaming
While the people gamers meet online can become lifelong friends and romantic partners, even marrying within the game, it’s not always a legendary loot drop.
Unfortunately, some of the people you meet online can misrepresent themselves and may even be dangerous predators. The good news is that by taking some simple steps, you can keep yourself safer from those with bad intentions.
Keep your address private. There’s a dangerous prank known as SWATTING where a “friend” calls and tells police that a dangerous crime is happening at your home, causing the SWAT team to be sent while you’re completely unaware. This has led to innocent people being killed, so keep your address information private until you truly trust someone.
Sharing your address can also expose you to criminals and stalkers, so be as general as possible — for example, sharing your state — when asked where you live.
Never send money. This seems obvious, but sometimes it seems more believable than you expect, especially if you’ve known someone in the game for a long time. Unfortunately, in online communities, people fake dramatic problems, illnesses, and even their own deaths to get sympathy and money from others.
If you meet in person, meet in public. Meeting an online friend is exciting, but it’s also dangerous. Be sure to meet in a public place during the day, and consider taking other friends with you so it’s a group situation instead of one-on-one.
The danger with meeting people online is that you might feel you know them better than you truly do. You might be honest, sharing your deepest feelings, and they could be making up their side of the conversation. Remember, until you’ve met them in person and seen their daily life, you don’t really know them.
Online Gaming Can Result in Helpful, Deep Relationships
Connecting with other gamers online can fill an important void for many people who don’t have strong connections in their daily lives. Research shows that the quality of your relationships is central to predicting your mental and physical health, so don’t be afraid to reach out!
At the same time, keep yourself safe by protecting your personal information, never sending money, and remembering that as honest as you might be, others may be less so. You don’t truly know people until you’ve spent time around them in person.
And to those concerned parents watching their kids play video games — you never know, they may be forming lifelong friendships.