File this one under the category “The more things change, the more they stay the same”….
My daughter (a teenager) wrote me to ask for money recently.
She was away from home and had – no surprise – overspent a bit. Just stuff she needed for survival, really, but prices are often higher than expected in a new place, and so she was nearly broke with more necessary expenses staring her in the face.
In her defense, she pointed out that she wasn’t wasting money. She was buying food and tools she needed. And she was learning a trade – two, in fact. But the cash wasn’t coming in as quickly as she’d been expecting in her new location, so could I spare a bit to help her out. She’d even agree to pay me back. Or trade me something for it. In fact, she offered to let me come to her shop and pick out anything I wanted. Anything.
Now, that was a pretty generous and responsible offer. She has a nice shop, and I’ve often envied her items for sale but never purchased anything.
We did the usual dickering over “how much do you need” until I finally just sent her half of what I had, which ended up being 5 silver pieces and 26 copper….
“Huh?” I can hear people say as they read that last line.
Yeap. 5 silver and 26 copper. Which is not a huge sum of money anywhere, especially where we were – in World of Warcraft. I don’t know what that works out to in US dollars since I haven’t seen any official or unofficial exchange rate posted for this virtual world, unlike those of Lineage, Second Life, or Gaia Online. But it really doesn’t matter. The important thing was the relationship between mother and daughter gamers playing peers in a virtual world, but often finding ourselves replaying – and sometimes evolving – our relationship as parent and child even in an alternate world.
Virtual worlds and the games played in them often get a bum rap from social observers and educators as being escapist and isolating. A place for social misfits who live on Cheetos and Mountain Dew and who have no social life outside of their world of pixels. An easy way for people to avoid the messiness of real relationships or a trap for those who tend toward addictive behavior and who abandon reality in favor of an alter-ego.
To some extent – with some people – this negative impression is well-deserved. However, I would question that virtual worlds, computer games, or video games are any more (or less) isolating than the television set, which has become the center of many people’s evening life. As authors such as Putnam have observed, American society has already shifted a great deal away from engaging in structured or unstructured face-to-face social activities. We are often alone when engaging in leisure activities for a variety of reasons, including convenience and the challenges of scheduling things into our too-full days.
I am often struck by the observation that what we do as part of the gaming “community” is really very similar to what others around us do, with only a minor focus shift. My daughter and I talk about events that take place in Gaia or in WoW in a fashion similar to how people around us talk about their favorite TV shows. LAN parties replace the Sunday afternoon sports gatherings (after all, how often can you stand to see the Vikings or Twins lose?). Online meetings to discuss the direction the guild will take next follow similar paths of social interaction as do the club discussions about the next soccer or hockey season – with the same 5% taking an active, leadership role whether online or not.
Slowly, social research is taking place and finding – in general – that online communities mirror face-to-face ones in structure and in fulfilling a social need. For a beginning list of resources, you can check Constance Steinkuehler’s MMOG research page to get a taste of the beginnings of social research into online cultures. But more needs to be done – following methods used to investigate any other culture – so that we develop an understanding based on research and observation rather than our own fears about how things that are different are to be suspect.
It is my tentative hypothesis that, the more we look into these worlds of pixels and our own imaginations that we will find that we recreate face to face society within the virtual one. With its good points and its not so good ones. And that includes how we form relationships and interact with one another.
As Joel Greenberg notes in his blog, Friends Talking (, “if you feel dizzy thinking about Second Life and virtual worlds, stick with it. It soon becomes familiar because ultimately, it’s about people.” And about the relationships between them.