In a world where technology has become so commonplace that many of us are reachable 24/7 – assuming we bother to answer those texts, of course – could we be taking for granted the invaluable tool of online gaming as a long-distance social interaction? With countless apps available on our cellphones, the popularity of Xbox Live and the Playstation Network, not to mention the success of hundreds of Steam-based multiplayer games, it’s obvious that many of us are using these digital platforms as a means of interacting with friends and strangers alike.
When geography is a challenge, how much can a virtual world help to bridge that gap and make us feel closer together?
As a long-time online gamer, I’ve logged a considerable amount of hours over the years in multiplayer, interactive environments. From the peak of MMORPG popularity, to the more recent explosion of apps that allow us to send assistance – or doom -- to our friends, the variety of options in cooperative and competitive titles only becomes increasingly vast. It seems like every week there’s at least one announcement for an upcoming title, sequel, or spin-off that will feature some sort of multiplayer mode; each quarter, the Best Of/Most Anticipated lists of pending releases is punctuated with highly anticipated games that include this feature. Steam has an entire section of their Store catalog devoted to Multiplayer options.
With the decline of the “couch co-op” feature, in which players can access a co-op or competitive feature while using the same console in the same room, it’s no surprise that we’re seeing an increase in online-only multiplayer. One often understated benefit to this is that long-distance loved ones can feel much, much closer when you’re working together to slay hordes of zombies, racing cars down winding roads, or even battling in a 2D, side-scrolling platformer.
Especially in conjunction with voice chat, a feature that Xbox Live locked down ages ago, gamers are able to work together in real-time in a highly interactive, and often hilarious, manner.
Those of us who prefer PC gaming to console have even more options: Skype, TeamSpeak, Mumble, and other programs are a big hit with people wanting to shout at their friends while sniping the enemy. Even highly competitive MOBA titles that generally have the player interacting with a huge pool of strangers, such as with League of Legends and Dota 2, has seen a huge increase in the amount of members using programs like Curse Voice; the fact that these programs are generally free to use and fairly reliable – if a little demanding on bandwidth and PC resources – seems to just increase their popularity.
At this point, online gaming is so commonplace and familiar, that perhaps many of us underestimate just how useful it can be to maintain friendships from afar – or create new connections. Many times I’ve convinced friends across the country, or even on the other side of the world, to join me in vast gaming worlds with almost unlimited spaces for players, like in 7 Days to Die, ARK: Survival Evolved, and Don’t Starve Together, where the only true limitations on population is what your server can handle. Even games with limited amounts of player slots, like Payday 2, Dying Light, and Damned, allow for 4-5 friends to get together and get up to mischief. With games like World of Warcraft seeing a steady decline in membership, this new generation of Massively Multiplayer Online video games appears to be the replacement format and style. Plus, many of these titles have a one-time purchase price rather than an ongoing subscription fee (possibly on top of an initial retail cost), so they quickly become a more frugal option for those of us trying to avoid reoccurring charges.
Not to mention that these virtual worlds are a great place for meeting folks with one specific, common interest: Video games!
I’ve developed very strong friendships over the years with fellow gamers I met, at random, on some server. There’s also been numerous websites that have sprung up here and there for gamers seeking romantic connections, within and outside of their favorite video game haunt. While these sites seem to come and go, it isn’t surprising that love over long distance blossoms when players come together in a gaming community they both enjoy.
While nothing can truly replace the simple joy of sitting around a campfire sharing stories with your best friends, or being able to travel across the country to spend a holiday with your family, taking the time and setting the intention to meet up for gaming can be a unexpected balm for missing someone. Technology continues to give us wonderful ways to connect with others, from our consoles, our PCs and Macs, even our cellphones, and it’s certainly a perk of the era that I will continue to utilize – and promote – as often as possible.