Nobody can deny that almost everything is online these days. When corporations have Facebook and Twitter accounts to interact with customers and produce advertising at a staggering rate, it’s hard to imagine that at one point, the internet wasn’t in every household and in everyone’s hands at all hours of the day. With the rise of the internet, more and more people have connected to each other that might not have otherwise been able to, and we have seen an increased presence of online communities. Message boards, IRC, chatrooms, and, of course, online video games are all examples of mass communication and subsequent community formation.
In many online games, the game itself allows for players to group together and unite under a common banner. These groups can take on many names — clans, guilds, and so on. By allowing players to have a dedicated game infrastructure to their group, communication is easier, and players can cooperate on in-game goals. However, sometimes those goals don’t always stay to just the game, and this sort of thing can lead to circumstances such as those that led to Dr. Mark J. Kline’s fascinating column titled, “Physician, Gank Thyself”. In essence, a licensed psychologist who was treating a particularly bad game addiction in one of his patients got curious about the game World of Warcraft, which was the source of his patient’s addiction. He wondered about how a mere video game could result in someone rebuking every part of life that “got in the way” of the game. As a result, he took to playing it, and he eventually found himself addicted to the game — though not as extreme as his patient’s addiction, he noted that games like World of Warcraft are of a different magnitude than offline games, and part of what rooted him to the game were the people he played with in his in-game “guild”. They regularly confided in him and each other about different problems they faced — dull, monotonous jobs, marriages in trouble, mental health, and more (Kline, 2010). Within the game, they could seek comfort in an escapist world while still remaining in contact with other human beings. But can an online game really have a sense of community when it’s so divorced from real life that it can serve as escapism?
Schneider et al. (2012) define a sense of community as having four components: Membership, Influence, Integration & Fulfillment of Needs, and Shared Emotional Connection. Using Kline’s experiences as an example, we can see that his guild absolutely met these four criteria. Membership in his guild was exclusive; one had to be invited into the guild to be part of it. Influence within the guild was also possible, even though one might think in a game, everyone would be on the same level of influence. Kline (2010) found that once he disclosed his profession, more and more of his guild’s members relied on him for emotional support and advice, demonstrating a higher level of influence within the guild. He also realized that his guild was a fulfillment of many guild members’ emotional needs; while his patient’s addiction became debilitating, some of these people clearly used World of Warcraft as a more healthy hobby to take off the edge of long days of work at grueling jobs. In this sense, the guild they had formed together in the game met the need to have somewhere to belong to without having the stress of real life. Finally, the shared emotional connection is perhaps one of the most tangible elements of an online game’s community. When the guild succeeded, so did the individual members. Kline noted that he specifically did not want to let down his guild by being ill-prepared or bad at the game, indicating a social connection and even obligation to the community he was part of.
An online game cannot replace conventional social interaction; however, as the world becomes increasingly virtual and always online, it’s important to recognize the relationships that form within these virtual spaces. Sometimes, they can be to the point of debilitating escapism as Dr. Kline’s patient and eventually Dr. Kline himself discovered. In moderation, though, perhaps online games with groups like Dr. Kline’s guild can supply a community for lonely and isolated people.
Kline, M.J. (2010). Physician, gank thyself. The Escapist, 253. Retrieved from http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/video-games/issues/issue_253/7529-Physician-Gank-Thyself
Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understand and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (2nd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.