Me and Leala often talk about our online B.F.F.s...people we know from all over the world and have met through this wonderful form of entertainment called MMORPGs. We talk about them pretty much as though they are the friends that we interact with on a daily or semi-daily basis, in real life. We share stories about them, laugh about them.
In fact, just today one of Leala's good friends, a guild-mate, announced the birth of his new little girl. We laughed that he said he would be on "later tonight".
Many of these friends we talk to on Skype, in game chat boxes, or over Vent. Some we only know through text over the years, but text is surprisingly efficient at gathering facts about some one's personality. Many of them we have even met in person at game conventions or through travel.
So, are they real friends? Do they exist in the same space as the friends we meet, in person, on a regular basis?
Well, what is a friend? To me, a friend is simply a person that has a recurring role in the book that is your life. Cheesy, yes, but a decent example: they are a character to you, with certain predictable behaviors, a personality, and little quirky things that make you laugh. Does it have to be a physical one to make the relationship real? Think about your friends as work, for example. Think about someone you like there. Even though you might consider them a good friend, how often do you touch them? Not a lot, I would wager. Even my best friends I might hug only once in a while.
So your friends are really, mostly I should say, just an image in your head. A kick-ass hologram, also, but still mostly an image.
And the same goes for many online friends. I can tell you that Leala and me, thanks to our busy schedules, spend more time with virtual people than with real people. Now, that is not to say that we don't have any contact with the real world, because we do and plenty, but we are at home more than we are out. Yet the virtual friends of ours are as vibrant and fun as any of our real life ones, of course minus the physical interaction.
But let's look at an example of how this might actually become less of an issue of people staying home, and more of an issue of people never leaving their friends behind. Thanks to technology, we will be able to maintain friendships anywhere and anytime:
Jen is logged in to her favorite MMO, playing with her 2 favorite online buddies. "Ok guys," she says "I've got to get ready, see you in about 30." Her friends say goodbye and she logs out. After taking a shower and getting ready, she takes the train to the coffee house, orders a latte and sits down with her friend Kelly.
Jen opens up her laptop and logs into the game. There are her 2 favorite online friends, and they all go into a little virtual movie theater together. Their avatars sit down, get comfortable. The lights begin to dim.
Kelly asks "What are you watching?" and Jen invites her to join them. Kelly pulls out her phone, links to Jen's laptop and downloads the game. Within minutes she is sitting next to the three of them as the movie begins to play. They watch the movie, talk to each other using their real voices, and if Jen looks over at them in the dark, she can see their faces in 3-D, as they look in real life, smiling at the movie screen.
Several lattes later, Jen and Kelly say goodbye to their online friends and head out to the dance club.
Look at the iPhone as an example. It is just a very small computer with mobile capability. It can make calls, play games, tell you about your surroundings, and help you communicate with your friends. Can you imagine it in 10 years or 20?
These friends you make online, these acquaintances, these guild-mates and add-ons to your friends list: they are real people and exist in your head just like real people do. In a recent Radio Lab episode, the scientists talk about how recent findings suggest that memories are fabricated every time you attempt to remember them. Each time you remember them they lose a little bit of the parameters of the original memory. Simply think of the last time you were out with a loved one or friend, and ask yourself to go over some of the smaller details of some of the memory. You will soon find that you are not sure about quite a bit of the memory, and it is very possible that it exists as fragments of your imagination more than as a concrete collection of facts.
So, if that's how you see "real" friends in your head, why makes them much different than virtual ones?
Now, I know what many might fear about these technologies: that many people will become home-bound, and never leave their house to go out into the "real world."
First of all, there are many reasons, physical and otherwise, why some people might not be able to leave their house. This article is not about that, but on a side-note, consider for a second that you might not know why any of your virtual friends might not be as able to leave their house, and what the game and it's interactions might mean to them. (I'm talking to you, developers, so go out there and make more accessibility features for your games!)
But there will always be those players that never leave the house, and yes the technology will only make it easier for many to leave even less. Those people have issues despite the technology or the availabilty of it.
But technology will also take our virtual friends with us thanks to portable devices!
So, are virtual relationships real? Are they valid?
I'd say that they are new and different.
We haven't had much time to see what happens with these type of relationships, being that most humans on the earth have only been online for the last 10 years. But they are relationships, valid and fulfilling, but definitely different than hanging out with your friend at the corner cafe.