I'd like to share something with the League community. It's not short, but I promise I'm not trying to waste anyone's time. If you stick with it, I hope you find it worthwhile in some manner. I've changed the names and nicks to protect people's anonymity.
A friend of mine, Tim, recently died of a heart attack. He was 45. I don't mention this to evoke sympathy, but rather because of something that I feel would be of interest to online gamers. You see, Tim was also known by another name: moTh aFlame.
There's a little back story needed first:
I moved from Connecticut to Boston in 2004. While living there, I played in a recreational sports league. Tim was on a team whose members I became friendly with. Several of the guys on his team were gamers, and we formed a weekly board game group that met fairly consistently for the next six years. Around 2007 or 2008, some of the members of this group started playing Xbox games online as well, usually whatever FPS game was popular at the time. When I moved back to CT in 2010, I kept in touch with Tim primarily through our weekly Xbox sessions. Our Xbox group evolved over time, with most of the old board game crew dropping out, and new people joining in. Everyone was introduced to the group through a friend or co-worker, but that meant that the majority of us only knew each other online.
One of the key members of our Xbox group is Steve (aka Sweddy), who was a one-time co-worker of Tim's. At Tim's memorial service, I found Steve and introduced myself. After playing Xbox together for years, this was the first time we had met in person. In addition to Steve, and all the old members of the board-game group, four other members of our Xbox group showed up – Neil (GrubbyGuru), Chris (Chubbster), Chris (narfail), and Eric (TacoMaster), the last three of whom had never met Tim in person. In fact, prior to Tim's death, half of our group hadn't even known “moTh's” real name. That night, each of us met, for the first time, people we had actually already known for years. It was understandably weird for a few minutes, both because of the nature of the gathering and the normal first-meeting awkwardness, but we quickly fell into a comfortable rhythm doing what is done in these scenarios – telling stories about our lost friend. And there were a surprising number of really good, really fun stories to tell, many by those same guys who had never met Tim in life.
That evening wasn't the first time I had begun to think about how online interaction is changing the face of what “social” means. Online dating, social networking, voice chat, video chat, blogs, pc games, online forums, texting - these are all ways millions of people spend time connecting to others on a daily basis. This is nothing new to any of you. Yet, there's an attitude about online relationships that persists – a devaluing of interactions that don't take place face to face. And it persists even among those people (like us) who use online media most often. It's not uncommon online to hear the term “in RL” or “RL friend” to refer to something offline as “real life.” Although a large part of the intent is to distinguish between online and offline situations, there is a strong connotation that online activities are trivial or escapist or temporary, but certainly less meaningful, less REAL, in some manner.
This devaluing of online social interaction as impersonal is one many people from pre-internet generations seem to harbor. My parents argue (unconvincingly, I may add) that face-to-face interactions hold some hard-to-define quality that is superior in every way to what they consider “impersonal” interactions via technology. This, despite the fact that they both hand-wrote letters for years, used the telephone to talk to far-flung family members, and even now use Skype on a weekly basis to talk to their grandchildren. From my point of view, face-to-face interaction can be personal or impersonal, just as a long-distance interaction can be personal or impersonal. The quality of any social interaction should be judged on the specifics of the interaction itself, not the medium through which it takes place. People who are online are REAL people. Therefore, online relationships are REAL relationships. Those relationships may differ in the manner of their...execution, I suppose...but that doesn't mean they have LESS impact.
As we move into an increasingly digital world, I don't think our definition of friendship needs to change. But we do need to change the way we think about the trappings, the circumstances of friendship. Start by considering the traditional ways in which friendships form:
When you were young, you developed school friends. These friendships were mostly formed by prolonged proximity – much like the work friendships many of us have today. Stuck in the same place, surrounded by the same people every day, you find people to socialize with.
Throughout our lives, we also have people we choose to associate with based on shared interests or activities. You like baseball, so you have friends you watch the game with, or you enjoy reading, so you form a book club, etc. The people you interact with at these times are probably better friends than many of the school or work friends you have, because all your interactions are voluntary.
For most of us, our closest friendships start in one of the manners above. However, good friends tend to share something more – values. You certainly don't have to agree on everything, but your best friends will have similar outlooks on issues that you find important – family, politics, money, religion, or whatever causes you are passionate about. Our best friends are kindred spirits who we impart with greater trust, intimacy, admiration, and affection.
Every single type of friendship I mentioned above can occur online. If we look just at LoL, our players (1) spend time together in (2) the pursuit of a common interest. Additionally, we often join clans or guilds part specifically due to some (3) value judgment, sticking with groups that share our beliefs in how, why, and in what manners online gaming should take place. That doesn't mean that all clan members are going to be best friends, but I believe anyone who dismisses the idea that an online friend can and should be valued the same as a “RL friend” is doing him/herself a serious disservice, and potentially doing a disservice to his/her friends.
Look, I know that our online interactions are most often dictated by our entertainment desires. We play the games WE want to play, and if our friends from the last game don't come along, or stop playing for some reason, those friendships start to fade. I liken it to moving. When I moved from Boston to CT, I kept in touch with maybe 10% of the friends I had in Boston. That's doesn't mean those other 90% weren't my friends, or that I don't think fondly of them now. It's just that life moves on, and circumstances change, and that has an impact on any friendship.
If you're still unconvinced that online friends are TRUE friends, or you simply want a good argument for someone you know in RL (sic) that bugs you about this, ask yourself a few questions:
1) Name the 5-10 people (outside of immediate family members) you spend the greatest portions of your leisure time interacting with. How many of those people do you know only (or mostly) online?
2) Try to remember the best, most thought-provoking or enlightening conversations/arguments you've had in the past year. How many of those took place online in some manner?
3) Consider the essential tenets of your personal life philosophy. Now think about how many people you've met in your life that you truly felt you connected to on that level. How many of them did you meet face-to-face, and how many did you meet online?
My guess is that, for most of us, the answer to number 1 is going to be highly in favor of online friends. The answer to number 2 is probably going to be somewhere between “a significant minority” and “all.” Even including conversations with your spouse, children, parents, or “best” friends, and chances are nearly every really good debate you've had in the past year took place at least partially over email, voice chat, or text chat. Finally, I'd say that our answers for number 3 are going to depend significantly on the place online activities has had in each of our lives. For instance, the less time you spend online, the fewer people will fit the bill. And if you were in the military, or part of a volunteer organization, or have experienced a significant hardship, you may have a strong connection to a certain large offline group. However, even if that's true for you, I bet you think your guild has a bunch of interesting people in it, and that you probably believe that the members are “good” folks you can feel comfortable spending fairly large amounts of time with. Just think about how many times you've said to yourself, “I bet X and I would be really good friends if we knew each other in RL” about a guildmate or teammate.
In my years with the few guilds I've stuck with, I've had any number of friendships with other members. Some have risen and fallen in short spans. Others endure after several years. I've met very few guildmates in person, but even though we've often been unfamiliar with each others' faces, we've known about each others' lives. I know about my friend Lilly's passion for teaching, and that we share a pet-peeve for grammatical mistakes. I've teased AngryFace about his avatars' names and his YOLO playstyle, and I take plenty of good-natured ribbing in return. I've had more honest-to-goodness fights and apologized more to my friend Ell than any other person in my life over the past 4 years. And I could name dozens more people I've met only online who I have spent time with, who I wish I had MORE time to spend with, and who I could tell you a personal story about.
And I think, ultimately, that's my point. If you've valued your time with a person, and if that time has been online, don't think less of it. Don't do that to yourself, or to your friends. Proudly claim your online friendships and defend those friendships as you would any others. Your friendships do not need to be approved of, validated by, or even understood by anyone but you. And if you have the chance to sit down together sometime, and eat and drink and tell lies about each other, I urge you to take that opportunity. Because, weird for a few minutes or not, you're going to be glad you did before the chance was gone.
And so last Saturday, I drove three hours on a snowy night to say goodbye to Tim. And afterward, I sat in a bar in Salem, Massachusetts with guys I interchangeably called by their real names and their online tags. And sometimes they called me Matthew, but most of the time they called me Corvo (as Colred is known on Xbox), and it was sad and good and fine. And we raised our glasses and toasted moTh aFlame and mourned. And we thanked him too, for as we remembered, we talked and joked in person exactly the way we talked and joked online, and we realized that we knew each other well. After all, we were friends.