Has Online Gaming Become a Social Lifeline?

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An author and business consultant, Gord Hotchkiss has written about how online games are displacing social interaction in the physical world. "The first generation of MMO video games were massively popular because they allowed people to experience a level of social presence that has never been experienced before," he says.

"They certainly increased the percentage of people participating socially over what was available before."

But it's possible that these new communities are crowding out traditional face-to-face friendships. Evidence is starting to suggest that playing online games may cause people to lose many offline opportunities for meeting and communicating with others, reducing their sense of community overall. Is this just another form of technological displacement? Let's review some relevant studies:

Researchers at Stanford looked at the way MMORPG gamers socialize and interact in both virtual and real worlds. They found that people who played these games primarily for socializing tended to play with a group at home and then meet other friends in the game. And those who primarily wanted to play alone tended to stay online because they didn't know anyone else playing.

Another study, conducted by researchers from Brigham Young University (BYU) and Arizona State University (ASU), asked players why they spent so much time playing games like World of Warcraft, StarCraft 2, or Eve Online. The key finding: Adults who commit the most time to these activities reported "greater offline friendships" than those who spend less time gaming. Those numbers held even if their gaming wasn't very socially oriented. It wasn't just that gamers were playing with friends in the game, either. The study found that they were also "gaining valuable skills in areas like teamwork and leadership" that they applied in their workplace or in offline environments.

A recent article in ScienceDaily suggested that unlike other forms of entertainment, even live casino games actually help people interact better with others because the environment is highly structured. Games like World of Warcraft are designed to encourage social activity by putting players together in teams to achieve specific goals. If there's an obstacle blocking the goal, they have to work together -- if not with strangers, then at least with people they know at some level -- to defeat it. Players learn how to communicate effectively with each other through countless hours of repetitive play.

A recent entry on the blog 'Priestly Gaming' also supports these findings. Author Tethtoril writes that

“Online games help players forge lasting social connections, become more physically active, and learn effective problem-solving skills."

He adds that all of these benefits can be applied to real life situations too.

The evidence seems clear: Online games like World of Warcraft may actually serve as a net benefit to players by providing them with stronger social ties than they'd find in the physical world. The positive effects apply even if gamers aren't playing socially oriented games simply because they're spending time playing something. So next time you see someone sitting alone in front of their screen fighting dragons or trading for ore, don't assume they're wasting away in front of an empty life. It could be their way of connecting with others without the need for a physical presence -- or even, at times, by choice.

Has online gaming become a social lifeline?

New research shows that playing video games can provide people with all sorts of benefits, ranging from stronger social ties than those found in real life to positive effects on problem-solving abilities. So next time you see someone sitting alone fighting dragons or trading ore, don't assume he's wasting away; it could be his method of connecting with others without having to go physically or even by choice.