Guys say their gaming friendships are as “real” as any IRL bonds.
By: Sean O’Neal /Mens Health
MEN ARE LONELY, or so we’ve heard. Not from our friends—that would require actually sharing our feelings, which we’re not great at—but from an endless cascade of think pieces and scientific studies sounding the alarm on the growing crisis of male loneliness. Reluctant to engage with other men on anything that could make us seem vulnerable or too needy, we’ve been forcing the women in our lives to shovel our shit, becoming “emotional gold diggers” in the process. The most cloistered among us have retreated into a sort of petulant nihilism, finding strength in toxic web forums filled with self-righteous anger and Jordan Peterson quotes, a modern-day Fight Club where the first rule is never shutting up about it. Having more friends won’t magically fix these problems—the real solution is therapy, folks—but we could all stand to get better at making and keeping friends, because social isolation is deadly. In 2014, former Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy went so far as to declare loneliness a public health epidemic, saying it poses a greater threat than smoking or obesity. Men, who shed friendships more easily (and die earlier anyway), are most at risk. Without any meaningful connections, they say, our only companion as we breathe our last will be the flickering light of our laptop, open to the latest trend report highlighting the links between loneliness and a heightened risk of cardiovascular disease, strokes, or suicide (death, death, and more death).
The heightened tenor of this anxiety may be new, but the problem’s not—and neither is the solution. According to a landmark UCLA study conducted in 1982, women’s friendships tend to be based around “emotional sharing and talking,” while men connect through “activities and doing things together.” If you want to keep your friends (and you don’t want to die), the experts agree, you have to make actual plans and keep them. Grabbing beers, shooting hoops, tipping cows; whatever loose framework is necessary to force another man to hang out with you, just long enough that some genuine bonding accidentally slips through the margins.
Of course, like making friends or tipping cows, this is a lot easier said than done, especially as we get older. In our school years and in those shiftless early 20s before we start really pulling our lives together, friends are just there, splayed across the futon and waiting to be herded toward your next hangout with little more than a grunt of assent. But once careers and marriages and kids start getting in the way, grabbing drinks requires a complex process of coordinating schedules and risk assessment, measuring the estimated quality of fun against any potential negative effect it might have on the rest of our overbooked days, which sucks the joy right out of it. It’s little wonder so many of us choose to put away the actuarial tables and just stay home.
But what if you could get the shared experiences and idle chitchat that are so necessary to nurturing these connections, without having to worry about hangovers, or babysitters, or even putting on pants? This is the idyll offered by multiplayer and “co-op” video games, which more and more people have been turning to of late. Some 25 percent of all adults either played or watched an online game in 2018, according to a Washington Post-University of Massachusetts Lowell poll, and somewhat surprisingly, half the respondents reported that “friendship” was one of their main reasons for logging in, whether it was finding new relationships or checking in with real-life friends they don’t see as often as they’d like. It’s a growing phenomenon that questions the stereotype of the gamer as isolated, even socially maladjusted. And it’s an increasingly common means for men to make the all-important act of doing something with their buddies, even when time, commitments, and geography get in the way.
Matthew, 35, is a quintessential example of this. He was forced to leave his college friends behind when he decamped for law school, and since gaming was already a part of their routine, it seemed like a natural way to keep in touch—first through co-op titles like Resident Evil 5 and then, as their displaced group swelled, rounds of Dungeons & Dragons. These days, it’s just one friend in particular he keeps up with through gaming, but it’s also more regular than ever before, with the two making time nearly every weekend to spend a couple hours playing together. Matthew estimates at least 25 percent of those sessions are spent just checking in—talking about their jobs, about Matthew’s new dog, about his friend’s break-up with a long-term girlfriend. They still see manage to each other maybe once or twice a year, he says, and often they’ll chat through more traditional messaging platforms. But it’s really the gaming that’s kept them close, their idle banter during the loading screens allowing them to stay abreast of each other on a near-constant basis.
“I think we’d still be friends, but I don’t know if I’d be thinking about it in the same way,” Matthew tells me. “Because this way, we’re always talking. There are some friends I was very close with but don’t see very often, and when I do see them, I feel like the entire time we have to catch up on everything that’s happened in their lives. And I don’t feel that way with him.”
Even at the relatively young age of 27, Lucas had also lost track of some of his friends, many of them he’d known since elementary school. Gaming likewise gave him the pretext he needed to reach out to those guys he’d once spent nearly every afternoon with, huddled around a Nintendo 64, but hadn’t heard from since. He looked up their old usernames on his Playstation, and through games like Rocket Leagues and Fortnite, he managed to rekindle many of those old friendships via biweekly sessions, learning about the surprising turns their lives had taken. He tells me that gaming reduced some of the inherent awkwardness of having those kinds of conversations over the phone.
“I’m a pretty open guy, and I think some of my friends aren’t,” Lucas says. “So after losing touch, it took a while for some of them to open up. But now I think we can be pretty honest with each other. Having the game to play sort of breaks the ice.
Brian, 53, has a similar story. His trio of friends met in the same astrophysics department back in the ’90s, spending their downtime massacring aliens in the first-person shooter Marathon over the school’s local-area network. After graduation, as everyone dispersed to different states, they kept it up by playing Halo through Xbox Live, meeting every single Monday night for nearly a decade and a half now. Although one of those friends has more or less fallen off (“He’s waiting for the new Halo,” Brian explains), Brian and Greg still spend a few hours online together every week, using voice chat to gossip about old friends and colleagues, commiserate about their jobs, and even fill each other in on major life events.
“It’s how I found out he was getting married again,” Brian says. “He told me he wouldn’t be able to play for the next few weeks because he was going on his honeymoon. I knew he was dating someone, but I didn’t know it had gotten to that point. And I guess I told him the same thing. I didn’t send out invitations or anything. I just said, ‘Oh, I’m getting married next week.’”
GRANTED, FROM AN outsider’s perspective, maybe this doesn’t sound like much of a friendship. If you can just sort of casually announce something as life-altering as your own wedding while you’re waiting for a screen to load, are you really connecting? But of course, this is a question that’s not specific to video games. In a way, it’s the defining existential crisis of our age, where we spend more time interacting with each other’s various social media profiles than we do the far less curated people behind them. Games are just the latest, most literal manifestation of this kind of virtual friendship.
A few years ago, as the debate grew louder about this illusion of intimacy created by our online connections, there was a lot of renewed talk about “Dunbar’s number”—the theory from evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar that humans are capable of maintaining, at most, 150 stable relationships at a time, no matter what your Facebook “friend” count says. As he made the trend-piece rounds, Dunbar reiterated that Facebook, et al. were still no substitute for face-to-face interactions, or the physiological and neurological responses we get from doing real-world together, sharing a laugh or a fleeting touch on the shoulder. In 2014, he told The New Yorker that the data is still pending on whether the younger generation, which has been raised on these sorts of virtual interactions, can ultimately form the same kinds of relationships. Still, Dunbar and many of his fellow researchers have cast doubt on their ability to create truly lasting bonds—or worse, to help people develop the necessary social skills to find them.
“If I’m only interacting with people on video games, I’m not going to be open to these other ways that friendships can be emotionally and physically healthy to me,” Greif tells me, giving me the example of a friend noticing that you’ve put on weight and suggesting you see a doctor about it. It’s the kind of helpful (albeit kinda shitty) little thing friends do for each other naturally, and it’s just not possible when you’re only avatars on a screen.
Dr. Greif says his first response to anyone who says they spend all of their time talking online would be to advise them to cut it down to 90 percent, and use that remaining 10 percent to seek out more ways to engage with the world face to face. Still, “If somebody is lonely and they find a way of communicating with people around video games, and that helps them, then I think that’s a good thing,” he says.
While none of the guys I spoke to characterized themselves as lonely, per se, some of them admitted to turning to games as a means of coping with social anxiety. When Belvin, 23, was barely out of college, his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The ensuing year of losing him in “slow motion” was devastating, he tells me, and Belvin spent much of it as a recluse, unable to muster the enthusiasm to go out and meet new people, or even engage with the things he once enjoyed doing. He spent about four nights a week playing Fortnitewith friends who had splintered off at graduation, which he says kept him from falling into full-bore loneliness and despair.
“Video games sustained me through a very dark time,” he says. “Having the ability to play video games with my friends—which led to both conversation and a shared activity, with a relatively low investment for me—was very helpful in just keeping my spirits up.”
Belvin says he didn’t really discuss his dad’s illness during gameplay, mostly sticking to the sort of “typical male surface-level conversations” about music and TV shows that define men’s friendships, both online and off. But he also doubts he would have talked about it face to face: “I just have a natural tendency to not want to bring people down,” he says. Mostly it was just the fact that he could find someone every evening to talk to, about anything and nothing, without having to pull himself together enough to leave his apartment. It was a valuable lifeline when he needed it most.
For Scott, 38, the connections he’s made through gaming have long since transcended superficial chatter to provide a similar kind of emotional support. Scott has played the baseball simulator Out Of The Park (“like fantasy baseball but nerdier,” he explains) with the same group of guys for approximately 15 years, all of whom he met through the game’s messaging board. He now considers many of them to be his best friends, and they stay in near-constant contact through the private forum where everyone congregates to talk intimately about their lives; some don’t even bother playing the game anymore.
Over the years, they’ve attended each other’s weddings and helped each other through divorces, provided career counseling and parenting advice, and generally been there for each other in a way that would probably put your own company softball team to shame. For example, when one member’s wife died suddenly of cancer, the rest of the group rallied to raise funds to offset medical costs, then worked out a way to get him to attend batting practice for his beloved Detroit Tigers. And if you ask Scott, these are the kinds of connections that could only happen because of the remove that gaming allows, which has allowed these men to share their true selves with each other in a way that they probably wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
“I think you know each other on a more personal level, actually, and the distance kind of helps with that,” Scott says. “I have really strong friendships in real life, but I don’t think there’s that depth of personal connection. My real-life friendships, you know, you talk about things, but you definitely don’t tell all. It’s always easier when you can type out your thoughts. You have time to gather your words and figure out what you want to say. It’s intimidating to be face to face with somebody, trying to figure out how to tell them what’s going on in your life or how you really feel. Here, it’s like you’re talking to other people, but it’s also like you’re talking to yourself at the same time.”
And despite the fact that these conversations might be taking place in a purely imaginary setting, and lack the natural give-and-take you’d get from having them in person, that doesn’t make these virtual communications any less “real,” they argue.
“So much of our experience in this century has showed us that all kinds of interactions can have meaning to us, even if they’re purely text-based, or auditory,” Belvin says. “People listen to podcasts and feel like the podcasters are their friends, and to what extent is that ‘real’? What’s real these days?”.
IT’S A FAIR question, and one that only promises to grow more complex as technology evolves and, with it, our ability to connect with people in ever more artificial realms, and ignore all the flesh-bags shuffling through this one. But even in our crude present, it’s worth noting that most of the men I spoke to took pains to delineate between the friendships they maintain through gaming and those they have out here in the so-called “meat space.” Several requested that I also not use their full names or even their real ones, wary of the stigma of being identified as a “gamer.” The distance and relative anonymity of games might actually allow men to be more intimate with each other and express themselves more freely, and it could also be an avenue for unexpected emotional connection, even personal growth. Yet it still carries a connotation of awkwardness and artificiality, so it’s not surprising that so many were reluctant to advertise that it was such a key part of their social lives.
Ned (not his real name) is one of those who keeps his gaming friends and his “real world” friends separate. Although raised on Atari and Nintendo, he was a bit of a late adopter to games as a social outlet. “I would log into Grand Theft Auto IV online for just a minute, and as soon as I saw another person I would log off,” he tells me. But in his mid-30s, Ned became a stay-at-home dad, stuck at home in a new city and hungry for any kind of human contact, preferably one he could make from his basement. He found his way to the co-op gaming hub Co-Optimus, where he discovered he could play games like Borderlands and Destiny with other guys who were looking for a little fun and conversation about anything but their kids.
Ned is 45 now. His children are more self-sufficient, and his law career has picked back up, but he tells me he still plays with that same group nearly every single night. He also spends every day trading messages with them via the group chat app, Band. One of them even came to visit for a few days and, despite Ned’s initial reservations, it was “totally fine.” The rapport they’d developed while exploring the moons of Saturn translated smoothly to fairly hanging out in Minnesota, it turns out, and Ned said he believes it would probably be the same if he ever dropped in on the rest of his teammates. Still, when I ask whether he feels like his online friendships have ever intruded on his “real world” ones, he seems to draw a line between them.
“I have definitely had opportunities to hang out with people here—let’s go see a movie, let’s grab a drink—and I’m like, ‘Eh, I don’t know, we were gonna raid tonight,’” Ned tells me with a laugh. “Sadly yes, that has happened. Maybe it’s a little bit of a problem? I should probably go out and see my real friends more.”
He’s certainly not alone: Most of the guys I talk to say they spend far more time with their gaming friends than those they see in the real world. Some tell me it’s also diminished their eagerness—or willingness—to go out and make new friends, seeing as they already have these relationships to fall back on, with the literal push of a button. As Dr. Greif tells me, this is a common problem as we age, as men especially have the tendency to believe they can only be friends with guys they’ve already known their entire life, and who don’t require us putting in the work to get them up to speed on all our references, or to understand when we’re joking. Besides, who just walks up to a dude and starts talking? Won’t he just assume we’re hitting on him, or working out a way to wheedle money? We’ve been conditioned to find overly friendly strangers suspicious—that they’re probably just Mormons or con men peddling magazine subscriptions. Overcoming those kinds of social hurdles can prove to be a much bigger challenge—and a lot less fun—than just staying home and shredding hordes of zombies with guys you already know, even if they’re only voices in your ear.
Nevertheless, just as text chats have given way to Twitch video streams, and “esports bars” have sprung up around the growing leagues of professional Overwatch players, our notion of video games as the sole province of lonely shut-ins has evolved. So it stands to reason we should adjust our attitudes about the relationships you can have within games as well, whether they’re just an excuse to keep in touch with old pals, or even a means to meet some brand new ones. When I suggest to him that some people might find his mostly online friendships to not be “real,” Brian openly scoffs.
“That sounds silly to me,” he says. “People bond over all sorts of stuff. If we bonded over fishing, is that not ‘real’? All you’re doing is drowning worms and drinking. Is that not a real friendship?” In other words, your virtual friendship can be as real as you make it. And suffice it to say, it sure beats the alternative.