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Coronavirus: making friends through online video games

World of Warcraft’s open world fosters connection and has led to people making meaningful connections. Blizzard

We are all thinking about how we can socialise without going outside at the moment. While this situation is new to many of us, there are thousands of people who make lasting and meaningful connections from their homes. They are doing this through the world of online gaming.

Gamers socialise with others online and create a sense of community and wellbeing. Most gamers value the socialisation aspects very highly. They are among the main motivations for playing, particularly when it comes to engaging in “massively multiplayer online games”. These games have large numbers of players, typically from hundreds to thousands, who interact and play on the same server – like World of Warcraft and Runescape.

I never could have imagined back when I started my gaming research over 30 years ago that gaming would evolve into what it has become today. Over the past three decades, gaming has become more and more social and many players develop good friendships with the people they meet with online.

Online gaming friends

I first became interested in the psychology of video games while I was doing a PhD on slot machine addiction in the late 1980s. I spent a lot of time doing observational research in amusement arcades up and down the country and I soon realised there was a lot of psychological, social, and behavioural overlap between arcade slot machine players and arcade video game players.

In 2003, I published the first empirical study concerning online gaming and debunked the stereotypical myth that online gamers were socially withdrawn teenagers. Among a sample of over 11,000 gamers who played the online fantasy role-playing game Everquest (mostly adults) 23% said that their favourite aspect of playing the game was grouping and interacting with other people. A further 10% said it was chatting with friends and guildmates (members of a strategic playing team). We followed up with a study a year later and found almost identical results.

In 2007, I carried out a study with Helena Cole, one of my research students, that specifically examined social interactions in online gaming. We surveyed over 900 massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) players (who played games like World of Warcraft, Everquest, and Lineage) from 45 different countries and found that MMORPGs were highly socially interactive environments providing the opportunity to create strong friendships and emotional relationships. The study showed MMORPGs can be extremely social games, with high percentages of gamers making life-long friends and partners.

Read more: Playing video games is good for your brain – here’s how

About three-quarters of both males and females said they had made good friends within the game – the average number of “good friends” being seven. Many players even went on to meet in real life. The study proved popular with the press mainly because 10% of the participants reported having at least one romantic relationship with someone they had met in-game. We concluded that online gaming allowed players to express themselves in ways they may not feel comfortable doing in real life because of their appearance, gender, sexuality or age. MMORPGs also offered a place where teamwork, encouragement and fun could be experienced. A gamer in one of my later published case studies ended up marrying someone he met in the online game World of Warcraft.

Games are good

According to the latest gaming industry statistics, 65% of adults play videogames across different types of hardware – 60% on phones, 52% on a personal computer, and 49% on a dedicated console. What might be surprising is that among gamers, the gender split is narrowing – 46% are female (average age 34 years) and 54% are male (average age 32 years). One of the most significant findings is that 63% of gamers play with others and that many players get social support from the gaming communities that they are in. Other research has shown that there appears to be no difference in general friendships between gamers and non-gamers and that the more you time you play, the more likely you are to form friendships online.

Gaming often gets bad publicity because most media coverage tends to concentrate on the minority of gamers who play to such an extent that it compromises all other areas of their life (“gaming disorder”). However, we have to remember that millions of gamers play every day and many do so for the many positives it brings.

So, if you’re one of those people out there following government advice and think that checking social media and Skyping are your only options for friendship and social support, think again. Going online and connecting with hundreds and thousands of people in the gaming community might just be another string in your social bow.

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