2 July, 2009
Gordon over at We Fly Spitfires wrote an interesting article about The Philosophy of Friendship. He takes a look at what friendship in the online world means. The comments are equally insightful, too. Gordon then followed up with a post about Consequences in Virtual Worlds where he expands on the idea of how separate "reality" and the actions in "virtual worlds" really are.
Instead of writing an epic-length comment there, I figured I'd write blog post here.
Master of the two worlds
It's interesting that the comments in the first post worry so much about "split personalities" in today's kids. One of the last few steps in the Monomyth (also known as the Hero's Journey) is the "Master of Two Worlds". This is the part at the end where the hero comes back to the "real world" he or she started in after his adventures in the "other world" (those would be the two worlds). The hero has conquered the challenges of other realm and the lessons learned there give the hero the confidence and competence necessary to survive back in the original world he or she came from.
Now, obviously, not every lesson translates from online to offline, but the idea of a person living in two worlds shouldn't seem so alien. Many of our heroic stories have this as an element.
I'm a two-faced monster
I'm trying not to be too defensive here, because I certainly fit the bill of having a dual existence. Most people reading this only know one side of me, the side I present as "Psychochild". He's the confident (and sometimes even cocky) game designer who has a quick wit and verbose writing style. He's not afraid to leap into a good discussion and present his point of view as somewhat authoritative. He's not afraid to be abrasive, even being an asshole to those who are rude to others.
This contrasts with "Brian", the side few people here really know. He's the introverted, quiet guy that prefers to sit on the side and listen at a get-together instead of being the center of attention. In fact, his most notable characteristic is that he's a great listener. He's not socially suave and often freezes up in unexpected social situations, creating a distinct level of discomfort often associated with dealing with tech geeks and the autistic. Although he's very incredibly smart, he doesn't necessarily show it off. He's quick with a raucous laugh when something funny happens. In contrast to Psychochild, though, he's often wracked with self-doubt and overanalysis of situations and sometimes has an explosive temper when he gets pushed too far.
He also feels weird talking about himself in the third person.
I find the distinction useful as it lets me separate out the two sides of my life and let them live in their respective worlds. A quiet observer doesn't get much appreciation in the online world. A loudmouth, arguing jerk isn't pleasant to hang around with offline. The names people use when talking to me also give me cues about what the person knows about me and what they want. Someone calling me "Psychochild" offline probably only knows me by reputation. Someone calling me "Brian" online, especially if I'm meting out punishment in Meridian 59, might be trying to create a feeling of a connection that isn't there.
Of course, the two worlds aren't entirely separate. I once had dinner with Mark Jacobs at a conference one time and he commented that it was nice to see I wasn't a raging asshole as my online persona might seem to indicate. ;) People who meet me offline are likely to judge me based on my online writing, and I suspect more than a few don't really believe I'm as introverted as I claim. I think that the teenagers who separate face-to-face from texting or Facebook chatting might accept my duality a bit easier than the older people in the audience can.
Life and love on the internet
I got into MUDs in college, which was a huge turning point in my life. This is where I grew a lot as a person, where I learned how to socialize and extrovert in a setting that I had a lot of control over. If I started to get frustrated or tired, it was easy enough to log out of a MUD and give an excuse people could believe.
I also had good, meaningful relationships with people online. I spent a lot of time with one person in particular, a woman from the southern United States. Having lived a relatively quiet life in the Midwest at that point, it was a learning experience to get to know people from all over the U.S. and all over the world. I'll spare everyone the details of our relationship, but let's just say we spent a lot of time talking about our lives during the quieter moments in the game.
She told me was in a rather unfulfilling relationship in the offline world. She was engaged to someone, but didn't think he really appreciated her. I figure part of the appeal of our online relationship was that she could get the appreciation and attention she felt missing from her engagement. Our relationship ended abruptly when I mentioned this observation to her; I haven't heard from her since.
The thing is, while this may not have been the most healthy relationship she could have had, it was a valuable experience for me. Instead of fumbling through a few sour relationships with women in the "real world", I was able to experience a relationship in that environment I had more control over. I think that my experiences definitely prepared me for my long term relationship with my GF I have today. Yes, sure, maybe "she" was really an older guy who got off on preying on college guys, but it still helped me. In the end, she still had her real relationship to go back to; I hope she was able to resolve her problems and find a life of happiness.
People lie offline, too
One point Gordon (and others) bring up is that in the online world, people may misrepresent themselves and suffer fewer consequences for dishonesty. To that, I just have to laugh.
Go start a business, and you'll find out quickly how false people can be if they think you can get something from you. Quite a few times I've had people express interest in helping out with a project (or even Meridian 59) but then go silent when things don't go their way.
Let me share another, more recent story. At last year's GDC I met a business guy who was referred to me by another game developer friend. We chatted, and he wanted to work with me on a project that he wanted to fund. I agreed and shared a lot of my knowledge and contacts without any hesitation; after all, he seemed nice enough and really seemed to appreciate my advice. I invited him in to a discussion I was having with a lot of other developers about potentially working together on some projects. He wanted to develop a game, and I was talking to people who wanted to do just that.
To make a long story short, it didn't end well. He eventually decided I was "too greedy" and "just using him for his money", so he invited some of my contacts to work with him instead of me. He took advantage of some information that I shared with him about a developer's personal situation to get him to work for him.
This is where Gordon's "there are laws to protect people in the offline world" theory falls apart. Technically, the guy did nothing illegal. Morally, he's a sleaze bag who didn't care about me as a person and was ready to push me aside when he found a better deal. Even though we had met in person, he still presented a false face to me. Yeah, maybe the people in the industry to whom I have told his name and shared this story with may make things difficult for him, but last I heard through a third-hand source he's still working on a project with a poached colleague.
But, honestly, people do this to some extent in the offline world. When you're on a date, you generally put your best foot forward. You might listen to the other person drone on even if they bore you, pretend to like things you don't really like to forge a bond, or avoid picking your nose while out with a potential romantic partner. Is this dishonesty? Perhaps in the strictest sense of the word, but most people do it and accept it anyway. I don't think it's surprising that people try to put the best foot forward online as well; it's just easier to fib since there are less cues to pick up on the fibbing.
The rule is simple: be smart
Online isn't some magical realm where rules don't apply. You have to be smart about how you interact with and treat others. The rules may be different, but you still have to be aware of them. Even if consequences for bad behavior are lower, that means that risks are lower, too. Even if the person you're talking to on the other side of that in-game character is a knife-wielding psycho with a swastika carved in her forehead, you are at a lot less risk than if you were in the same room with that person in the offline world. And, it's easier to extract yourself from the discussion when that person starts typing "helter skelter" and "kill all pigs" or wants to share her Beatles song collection with you.
Really, it's not that much different than the offline world, except you have to worry about being stabbed face-to-face. ;)