Game On: Online Gaming and the Influence of Digital Communities

It's summertime! That beautiful time of year that some look forward to as the season of road trips, barbecues, and strolls along sandy beaches. For others, however, the added downtime is a welcomed opportunity for a very different kind of escape. Though confined to a screen, and a mere corner of our physical world, the reach of online gaming can be far more expansive than appearances lead us to believe.

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When we talk about the rapid integration of technology into our daily lives, we often lose sight of the myriad experiential offshoots that stem from our own interactions with it on a generational basis. For each of us, there is a special advancement or particular device that holds a great degree of nostalgia. From the monolithic computers that towered over their early keepers like the engines of a foreign world to their palm-sized descendants that make ours feel increasingly smaller, we hold our impressions of technology like the memories of a loved one. Most of us have grown up right alongside it. Our experience with technology, our weighing of its potentials and its dangers, is shaped by this relationship. 

And while my parents and grandparents may readily recall the more practical contributions technology has made with a hint of relief and admiration, my own impressions stem from what I like to think of as its “awkward teenage years”. Somewhere in between the transition from bulky processing units with gut-wrenching dial up tones to the sleek accessories that feel inextricable from our daily routine, my generation took its first steps digital world. Unlike our parents, our first relationship with machines wasn’t one of business, but play.

My earliest memories of technology involve games. I may never have fully grasped the strategy to “Oregon Trail” (if there is one beyond the acceptance of the influence luck, fate, and dysentery in our life journeys), but I did learn a thing or two by escaping into its narrative and the story lines of the myriad games that succeeded it. It was a revelation built story by story. But as captivating as these little escapes were, I wouldn’t come to fully appreciate the transformative power of technology, or the profound role it was destined to play in our own history, until I waded into the broader world of online gaming as a teen.

It was a childhood friend who first introduced my brother and me to MMORPGs (“massively multi-player online role playing games"). They offered an experience, he assured us, well beyond that of the hand-held games we’d grown up with. Behind the screens of our gameboys and even the privacy of our keyboards, our digital experiences up to that point had largely been solitary ones. That changed as sites like Myspace popped into being and instant messaging platforms provided a quick and discreet means of keeping our youthful chatter flowing outside of the classroom. Our web experience was becoming more and more communal.

Hand held games could easily ensnare one’s attention and hold their focus for hours, with rich narratives and well-structured objectives that played off of our sense of accomplishment to push us toward attaining just “one more” prize. But as rewarding as these prompts could be, the sense of fulfillment started to linger less and less with each replay. These games always fell just shy of being wholly “engaging”. It was time for an upgrade. Adding a host of “others” to the mix proved to be the missing ingredient. The developers of multi-player online environments recognized that it wasn’t the prize set out at the end or the journey that kept bringing players back into the realms they created, but the other users that players shared the experience with.

That is precisely the added punch that the first online game I joined, Maple Story, had to offer over the collection of cartridges that I’d collected over the years to power my gameboy. Rather than rack up points on an individual scorecard or beat down pixelated monsters into oblivion for the umpteenth time, this new online frontier’s greatest treasure came from the explorers that flocked to be a part of it. Looking back, I spent far more time talking to the other players that I connected with than I did pursuing quests or slaying formidable boss characters—a reason, perhaps, for my dismally low level compared to the time invested.

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It was my first experience with online communities, a niche carved out well before social media fully developed into an actual thing. Guilds and friend rosters offered an opportunity to categorize others and assign them a role in the fledgling narrative that I was developing under my assumed screen name. Anonymity afforded me the immense power of opportunity. Behind the mask of my digital avatar I could be whoever I wanted to be.

That was a deeply alluring concept for a shy kid who wasn’t wholly content with his RL (“real life”) avatar or the narrative he’d found himself in. Over time, online gaming became more of an escape than a release. Rather than shed the weight of real world pressures and stressers, it offered a chance to run off and build a new story entirely.

For a couple of years, which also spanned that formative arch transitioning from high school into college, I balanced my time between two worlds. I would routinely shed my school and work personas, as well as the burdens they carried, to reclaim the mantle of my digital sorceror and sink steadily back into the social network of shadows that I had collected online. In reality, I knew next to nothing about the “family” we’d assembled through our guild, aside from the first names we chose to share and the little personal details that slipped out through our conversations. There was no way to verify most of it. I felt connected to them nonetheless. We looked out for each other, laughed with each other, and built a spirit of community around the emblem that we adopted to represent our rag-tag assortment of cyber explorers under the banner of “Imperials”. When our Guild Master promoted me from general member to an admin on his “Junior Master” team, I felt a greater rush of excitement than when I received my first promotion in my after school job. For all the mystery and ambiguity that surrounded it, my time in the Maple World felt real enough to me.

These memories are just part of the reason I’ve come to embrace the old mantra warning just how greatly our perceptions shape reality. Though a cynic could note that our interactions as a guild boil down to nothing more than an online puppet show, a dialog between digital masks representing assumed identities that reflect little of their authors, who’s to say that the nuggets of authenticity nestled therein aren’t enough to make them “real”, let alone lead us further down the rabbit hole of debating which of the two personas holds more "truth". There’s a tendency, I believe, among some people (particularly those who did not have the opportunity to experience such an environment with the innocent eyes of youth) to see these creations as “fabrications” and look no further. The concerned whispers of my parents warning me to avoid the lies of strangers online assumes something inherently dangerous in their creation, an act of deception. Perhaps it’s my own optimistic naivety, but I’ve never been able to see them as such. To me, their motivation was always more aspirational. Like my own.

While there are certainly those lurking in the shadows of the web who wish to deceive and ensnare, my time in this realm has lead me to believe that the vast majority are simply seeking to create and express something that they cannot bring to bear in the real world―aspects of their identities that wont fit in anywhere else. As our world grows more and more crowded, and the boundaries between us dissolve into one main stage, the voices shouting out for recognition rise to a calamitous roar. No one hears. No one is heard. Social media, and the online gaming environments that preceded and now thrive alongside it, offer an outlet to these voices. It’s an opportunity to not only re-write their personal narratives in a way that suites them, but to establish the connections that, for one reason or another, elude them in their own, “real” lives.

I remember the closeness I felt while talking to our Guild Master, a sort of cyber mentor on life, happiness, and the community we set out to build. I also remember the sympathetic pangs I felt behind the keyboard when we told us he’d be stepping away from the game to sort things out in the world beyond our digital realm. I ponder how “real” the feelings of loss that followed could be when, to this day, I cannot tie them to a particular face or name beyond the pixelated grin of his avatar or his chosen screen name. But when I soon thereafter feel a brush of curiosity and a lingering sense of concern prompting me to wonder whatever became of my old friend, I have my answer.

Communication has always been the cornerstone of civilization, our stories the greatest tool in our evolutionary leap from tribal hunters to masters of myriad universes of our own design. As the methods by which we communicate continue to evolve, so too must we as a community, a society, and a species keep the pace. Advances in technology have now enabled methods of communication beyond so many of the prompts, pleasantries, and customs that we relied upon for social control. Our hands have momentarily been shaken from the wheel. Reclaiming our influence over the evolutionary march ahead requires us to embrace and understand the influence of the digital world over the rest of our lives. It requires us to accept it as a part of our “reality”.

Though perhaps a bit less animated than the avatars we crafted in my teenage years, we all continue to carve out digital masks these days. Today they’re collages of photos, memories, and moments that we hand-select to represent our personal brands across platforms that comprise new chapters in our own life stories. The game has crossed over into our world, and for the sake of the generations that follow it’s about time we learned to play it.

-Alch (MJ)

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Photos by Canva