|Excellent article: |
Real Connections in Game Land
By SETH SCHIESEL
New York Times
January 4, 2011
I used to talk to Natasha on the phone.
You remember the telephone. When I first met Natasha about five years ago in my neighborhood — the south side of Williamsburg, Brooklyn — we would, you know, call each other when we wanted to meet up for lunch or a drink.
As do many friends over time, Natasha and I eventually found ourselves texting each other. But now that seems like a long time ago. That’s because Natasha doesn’t call or write anymore. I’m even hard-pressed to find her on Facebook.
We’re still good friends, but there is only one reliable way to communicate with her these days: Words With Friends, the popular electronic Scrabble knockoff. You see, Natasha disconnected her cellphone service, but she still uses her iPhone on Wi-Fi. She always has at least a dozen Words games going, and she now uses the chat window in each game as her primary real-time link with the world.
Natasha might take a couple of days to respond to an e-mail or Facebook message, but make a new move in a Words game and she’s on it in minutes. When visitors from out of town want to let her know they’re around, they tell her via Words. After she reconnected recently with an old classmate, they flirted through Words for six months before meeting in person. (I hear it went well.)
When Natasha learned that I wrote about video games, she thought that was exotic. And it was, five years ago. Now an electronic game is a basic staple of her everyday existence.
This is not so unusual. Almost every adult in the industrialized world (and many in developing economies) now uses some sort of electronic device daily, and all of those devices offer some sort of game. As games become ubiquitous, they are not only content but also context, context for mundane human relationships among people who don’t even consider themselves gamers.
Just ask Shawna, to her chagrin.
Shawna is another neighborhood friend. Like Natasha, she is independently employed, works mostly from home and is around 30 years old. Like Natasha, Shawna is Internet literate but has barely the faintest interest in Xboxes, PlayStations or anything else to do with traditional video games. Also like Natasha, Shawna maintains some of her closest relationships through a video game.
The big difference is that Shawna has been pulled into game land against her will. The culprit is her own mother, a 50-year-old labor-and-delivery nurse in South Carolina. “My mother is obsessed with YoVille,” Shawna said the other day, her tongue not entirely planted in cheek.
Like many Facebook games YoVille is about letting players decorate a house, an apartment, a plantation, a town or nearly any other virtual environment. In order to keep making your virtual dollhouse larger and more attractive, you usually have to start spending real money or continue recruiting more and more friends. Logging in six times a day also helps. It is a formula that makes for insipid games but a reasonable business model. (Like Words With Friends, YoVille is owned by Zynga, the Internet game company that recently went public.)
Early home-decoration games like the Sims found their most fervent players among school-age girls, but the core audience for these kinds of Facebook games is middle-aged women like Shawna’s mom. When Shawna tried to quit the game, that didn’t go over well at home.
“She actually started complaining to me that my apartment in YoVille was a mess and how I needed to log in more and decorate it,” Shawna said. “I thought she was kidding, but she wasn’t. It’s like she was complaining about my real apartment.”
Shawna added that her mother must be at work around 6 a.m., and that she gets up early to play YoVille.
“Now she’s got my 10-year-old nephew into it,” she said. “I think it’s kind of cute, but the problem is she started sending me serious messages about family business in YoVille, and I was missing them because I didn’t play the game as much as she does.”
What sort of serious messages?
“You know, basic things like the fact that my brother was getting married,” Shawna said. “You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.”
When we play a game with or against someone, we get something out of it that we don’t find on a message board or in a bare chat room, e-mail, text or even a phone call: a sense that we are actually doing something together.
Sure, even in real life you sometimes just want to sit and talk. But no matter how artificial the activity itself may be, that warm feeling of participating in something together with someone you care about is genuine. The substance of the game is almost irrelevant; when you know that another person is logging in every few hours or days to make a move, that connection is surprisingly intimate.
Of course, as anyone who has ever played Monopoly or Risk with close family members can attest, competitive games with those close to you don’t always end well. That’s why people in the best relationships seem to play collaboratively.
You could ask a third friend of mine all about that, but she doesn’t talk about it much. It’s too painful. (None of my friends wanted to be publicly attached to these stories for the rest of their lives.)
Unlike Natasha and Shawna, my third friend is a real gamer. Her preferred console is the PlayStation 3, and she always played games with her boyfriends, curling up for hours and sharing the controller as they explored various virtual adventures.
Playing video games was one of the main hobbies she shared with her fiancé right until he died suddenly one month before their planned wedding last fall.
Many weeks after her tragedy, she asked me (via text) if I could recommend any “game therapy.” She needed something to take her mind off the hell she was in, even for a little while.
One game her fiancé had bought was the sleeper zombie hit Dead Island, which I had wanted to play anyway. My friend was camped out in mourning at her mother’s house (with her PS3), so we started to play together remotely.
Dead Island is great, but we didn’t get far before she told me she needed something stronger — an even more potent distraction from the real world. What else could I do but turn her on to World of Warcraft?
World of Warcraft is famously immersive, and within a week my friend was fully engaged: asking detailed questions about spells and weighing the pros and cons of different abilities. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, she chose to play as a night elf druid that specializes in healing.
To play with her I made a human paladin that specializes in protection.
When we type back and forth in the game, it’s mostly about how to defeat the next monster or about the dungeon we’re about to clear out. For her time in the game is time away from her grief. So I keep it light and try to keep her attention focused on the orcs and skeletons and ogres and demons we’re slaying.
I can’t quite do that on the phone.