The older I get, the more I think about social capital. Am I making enough friends to last me through my life? I'm naturally a bit introverted and don't work a regular job or go to church or have a social hobby, so making friendships doesn't come easy.
For the past three years I've been playing World of Warcraft. Playing a lot: 25 hours a week. And well: full Black Temple clear pre-3.0, Sarth+3D, Zul'Aman bear, etc. WoW is a very social experience. Playing seriously means being in a guild, playing intimately with 25 people ten or more hours a week, learning to work together, handling personal conflicts, etc. I got to know a lot of people playing WoW, made some friends, and at various times was a leader of my guilds and raids.
I just quit playing WoW. And looking back on all that time I invested, I didn't get much social capital in return. I'll never talk again to 90% of my guildmates. I have one friend from my old guild I keep in touch with via Twitter, mostly because he's so smart. And one friend from my new guild who I'm emailing with to talk about games, if nothing else. There's a few other people I'd enjoy keeping up with but haven't. And as nice as my former guildies are, none are "real" friends. I'd never invite them to a wedding, or loan them some money to help them through a bad patch, or expect they'd visit me in the hospital if I get sick. It's not just how well we know each other (all that time together!), it's that our friendship is virtual.
Why is that? The simple answer is online games are limited by not allowing face to face meetings, everyone's scattered around the globe. And that's certainly an important factor. But I've got lots of real friendships from other online communities. I met my partner Ken via a friend from Usenet. On my recent trip to Oregon I made a special point of seeing people I know through Metafilter. Even something as simple Twitter plays a more important role in cementing and reinforcing friendships than WoW ever did.
I think the difference with online games is that the experience is mediated via an avatar. To my WoW friends I'm not Nelson, I'm Flyv the bear druid (rawr!). Our primary shared experiences weren't talking to each other or eating in a cafe, they're exploring virtual temples and slaying synthetic monsters. All fun and productive social activity, but mediated, insulated by our virtual skins. And without a reason for our friendships to transcend the game world they remain locked inside it.
That's a shame. I like online gaming, I like the social experience. I'd like my friendships from online gaming to be more real. I wonder if the key is to better bridge out of the virtual world into the real one. I don't particularly need the role playing or anonymity of MMOs, I just like playing fun games. It'd be nice if my virtual game experience leaked out more into other online media, into Twitter, blogs, email. It's not an accident that the two friends I mention above have blogs and Twitter accounts; it's given me a handle to keep up with them after the virtual world ended.