Arts Online quality time 

Massively multiplayer games may be the new town square (or hotel room)

Weak and bruised from battle, I stagger into the tavern with Skador by my side. This burly dwarf has saved my life several times tonight. He is also my lover. Who would have thought that a gnome sorceress and a dwarf hunter would make such a perfect match? Climbing the stairs in search of a private bedroom, we exchange farewells with our companions. There is enough time for one last kiss before we get into bed together.

And then the world stops.

It is well past midnight in San Antonio, and I am alone in front of my computer monitor on a cold February evening. More than 2,600 miles away, my girlfriend (a.k.a. Skador) has just turned off the computer in her Seattle apartment. It will be several weeks before we see each other in the "real world" and months before she joins me in Texas.

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The love connection: Through online multi-player games, you can keep the flame of your long-distance relationship burning bright.

Long-distance relationships are abysmal, but new media technologies help to bridge the distance. When we lived apart, my girlfriend and I maintained our connection through every possible communication channel: the U.S. postal service, cell phones, electronic mail, text messaging, and a massively multiplayer online game called World of Warcraft. With a bit of imagination and a high-speed internet connection, we were able to meet up with each other every night.

In the real world, she is a graduate student at the University of Washington and I am a communications professor at a local university. The roles we enact within the game are different than those we play in real life. In the game, she is a testosterone-driven dwarf with a penchant for physical combat, while my character is a female gnome specializing in magical arts. Such gender switching is common practice in the world of MMOs, and we find that our relationship is strengthened by this playful approach to identity.

With more than 3.5 million subscribers worldwide, World of Warcraft is the most popular MMO in North America. Typically rooted in the mythos of fantasy and science fiction, games such as World of Warcraft deliver compelling three-dimensional worlds inhabited by thousands of users simultaneously. Within these persistent spaces, players assume the identity of highly customized game characters called avatars. Players work alone or with others to explore new territories, fight monsters, and collect virtual currency.

Much attention has been focused on the potentially addictive nature of virtual worlds, but the more interesting story is the way that these games make it possible for friends and lovers to stay in touch over great distances. Nick Yee, a game researcher at Stanford University, reports that more than 60 percent of female MMO users play with a real-life romantic partner. Approximately one-third of all players regularly enjoy the game with a sibling, parent, or child.

James Barr, a 22-year-old real-estate professional in Seattle, would not be surprised by these figures. For the past eight months, he has been engaged in a long-distance relationship with a woman who lives in Las Vegas. "We play nightly," says James. "The game has only helped, and it has not been a negative influence in any way. It's a great way to spend time with the one you're in love with, over distance."

Platonic friendships are also enhanced by online gaming. In a website devoted to the sociology of online gaming, Yee offers the example of a 23-year-old gamer who explores virtual worlds with an old friend who lives far away. "It gives us an opportunity to 'see' each other and be able to do things together," reports the gamer. "Being able to 'see' one another and then go hunting or hang around town feels much closer to getting together in real life than talking on the phone or e-mailing one another does."

Gamers are often stereotyped as introverted young men who hide from other human beings in the depths of their computers. Yet, MMO players are driven by social motivations. Women and men pay monthly fees to play these games because they enjoy interacting with other people online. At a time when videogames are widely criticized as a threat to human decency and family values, MMOs remind us that games can also bring people closer together.

By Aaron Delwiche


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