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EditorialMar 26, 2019 10:00 am CT

Online gaming has always been a real place

Update: This was originally published just for our supporters, but now it’s available for everyone. Enjoy!

One of the statements we see from time to time is the notion that the internet and by extension online spaces where people congregate and socialize are somehow less valid because they’re not “real.” We see it in numerous flavors and forms, from people bemoaning that kids today are glued to their phones to the idea that people should unplug from the net and get out into the real world. The artificiality of online existence is an undeniable fact. The internet is as much a product of human artifice as a cityscape or a highway system.

But just as those things, despite being wholly artificial, contain within them a completely real existence so too does the online world we’ve cobbled together. Any game with always-on internet and social features, be it Diablo 3 or Overwatch or World of Warcraft, has an existence beyond simple gameplay. Once human beings begin conversing and forming relationships, there can be no more dismissal of these things as not real because real human beings are really having arguments, really forging friendships, really honing grudges, really falling in love. Ask people who’ve been swatted because they were streaming a video game how real that was.

People who’ve never met you in person can and do often touch your life in ways you could never have predicted.

Man-made doesn’t mean illusory

I speak from experience. I met my wife online. We first met via blogging, then spent time together talking via AIM before playing Neverwinter Nights adventures together. Then, after we’d met in person, we were separated for a long period and we used World of Warcraft to keep in touch before we could finally be together again, and the game has been a huge part of our lives. We’ve been married since 2006.

I’d say a thirteen year marriage is about as real a result as one could hope for, and it all started because two people who lived hundreds of miles apart met online. This happens every day.

It’s not new to argue that online experiences are real because they’re happening to real people, of course. Harassment online is real harassment because people are doing it to other people, it doesn’t matter what the vector is. The consequences of our human tendency to create these things piecemeal means that, instead of one big all encompassing virtual realm, we have dozens and dozens of smaller ones. We don’t have a matrix, we have the servers for whatever games we’re playing. We don’t have VR avatars, we have Mercy or a level 70 Witch Doctor.

The virtual didn’t form a sensory replacement, it simply became an iconographic level laid over our already present senses. It continues to evolve in fits and starts layered over the existence we trudge around in day to day without replacing it. But none of that makes it any less real because all the experiences that happen to us are still happening to us. A big WoW guild with dozens or even hundreds of members has much of the same drama, the same interpersonal strife, and the same stresses of any big organization, and the fact that you’re pretending to be a Gnome who talks to demons doesn’t change that.

You are not an Orc, but you are always you

I am not arguing that you actually are a Night Elf, or that the events of Battle for Azeroth actually happened. That’s not what I mean here. But what I am arguing is that when you go online and do Dazar’alor with friends, you are doing something with people, and that fact makes it an experience with its own validity and reality. Things that happen online can happen within a wholly fictional framework and that framework isn’t real — I am not a Tauren, no one has burned down any giant city-sized trees, and none of the fiction of the game is happening. But the people we meet and spend time with are as real as anyone you’d meet at a bowling league or pick up basketball game, and they matter. How we treat them, how we are treated by them, the small kindnesses and huge cruelties we engage in or experience? Trying to argue against their reality is like saying that you’re only human at prescribed times and places.

But you are always human.

Everyone is always human.

Why wouldn’t you be human when you play a game?

What we do and what is done to us

These online worlds are real already because they are full of people. The fact that they’re fictional constructions crafted by programmers and their physical existence is wholly within computers doesn’t change the fact that they interact with millions of people every day, and those people remain human during that interaction. Humans are the draw of these spaces: they’re the reason we go to them. Multiplayer online games are literally selling you the opportunity to interact with other people. You can’t do that and then deny that those human interactions matter matter. These human interactions are just as real as if they happened in a grocery store or a bar.

Harassment matters if it happens, no matter where or how it happens. Kindness does, too. Going into an Overwatch game and meeting that one Genji player who is talented and nice and saves you from Reaper while also being upbeat and friendly in chat can lift your mood all day — how is that any different from when someone compliments you at work? When I run a dungeon at 3 am and one of the players is rude and abusive, I get just as angry as I would if someone was a jerk to me on the bus. The fact that I’m not actually a seven foot tall blue man with hooves and face tendrils doesn’t change the fact that I don’t like being insulted.

Hardly virtual, quilted artificial, always there

We have created places that have no physical boundaries, yes. But they’re still real places, because we filled them with us. Azeroth isn’t real. The Horde, the Alliance, the events of the game story? These are fictions. But that person playing the opposite faction? That’s a real person. They have feelings, as you do. And in your interaction with them, you are both existing in a place that transcends physical space. You are both real and really together.

Gaming has become a super-liminal stage of existence. It is what’s next as it grows into what it will be, and it is where many of us spend much of our lives. There are sports leagues that only play online. There are relationships that will last a lifetime where the interaction will be primarily or even exclusively online. People make their living online. We are, and have been, already folded into an online existence. You only know who I am because I wrote things online.

We can stop debating how real it is. Both its horrors and its joys are demonstrably real, because you are real, and they happen to you.

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