Do online games have a sense of community?

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

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.


  1. Being a World of Warcraft player it is easy for me to understand the addictive nature of this game and others like it. You are right, similar to group therapy sessions, gamers share attitudes, emotions, opinions, and personal details. But unlike therapy groups, unless they share a camera, gamers are faceless. They could be 14 or 64, male or female, religious or not – what they are in real life may or may not be the online persona they use. It is as Dr. Kline says ‘escapism’ but it has the potential to have a positive impact as well as negative.

    Not all gamers are lonely or isolated. Some just use it to relax and interact with a group who has a common interest but no real demands. Unlike real life, a gamer can simply sign off without a reason. For some it is a challenge unlike their daily life challenges, it has problem solving and camaraderie and the only real loss is the time spent.

    The negative side of gaming can be when the gamer is spending money in buying weapons, potions, or secrets to stay in the game or time that should be focused on their family, friends, work, studying and the like. It can be addictive. For those who use it as their only contact with others, it can also create an alternative reality where faceless players feel like real friends.

    On the positive side, the online community can provide a broad range of positive feedback that might be missing in an individuals’ life. In this sense, the online community can fill gaps and can create opportunities to receive feedback that is supporting and honest. In a way, similar to group therapy, feedback from those with commonalities can be a positive influence.
    As a person who believes in both cognitive therapy and enjoys gaming combining both may be an opportunity to help those facing personal challenges. If Dr. Kline was able to use his professional skills to help those in his guild this may be an opportunity to create gaming groups that intentionally include mental health professionals. For some, this may be an inroad that visiting an office does not provide. Thoughts?

  2. Greetings,

    I found your blog highly engaging and interesting. I must confess that I am also a World of Warcraft player. I actually have played WoW since it’s launch day or “vanilla” version. I agree with the point that WoW provides an escapist type of atmosphere. For me, I engage in the game as a means of avoiding the issues of my current life where I lack control. It’s not that I like the desire to confront those issues, but it is nice living in an idealistic world that is shaped by you. In WoW, I can create and be the character I want to be and do things that interest me (e.g. fishing). I also agree with your points regarding guilds and the allure they offer. Actually, in my guild, two people actually got married to one another through WoW and guild are highly fully functional entities. Finally, games like WoW do provide a source of challenge since they can consume one’s life. Personally speaking, my wake-up call did not come until I realized I spent the accumulation of close to two years of “in game time.” That’s two years of my life spent with my characters instead of watching movies, socializing with friends, or just going for a hike. It was at that point that I realized I needed to play WoW in moderation. Despite my change in lifestyle, there is no a day that goes by where I do not think about one of my characters. Again, great post!

    For the Horde,

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