I spend a lot of time playing multi-player video games with people all over the world. In the process, I have come to realize that the gamers I play with represent a wide range of age, ethnic, and gender diversity—sometimes even more than the range of people in my daily life. I started to wonder if this was true of other gamers: were their groups of in-game friends more diverse than their real-life friends? What was the impact of these video game interactions on gamers’ awareness of other cultures?
I live in New York City, which has a pretty diverse population, but in the past I have lived in cities like Kyoto, Japan where my gaming friends were absolutely more diverse than my non-gaming friends. Could cultural awareness gained through online gaming translate into more positive attitudes and interactions with a wider group of people offline?
In the Left for Dead series, gamers play as one member in a team of four zombie apocalypse survivors. Similar to the dynamic in physical team sports, what makes a good Left for Dead player great is the ability to communicate well with other teammates. Cultivating this skill across language barriers online can be challenging. I often play with Chinese or Korean gamers. Since team composition is often very diverse, I have to learn to adapt my verbal communication style quickly to be easily understood by the rest of the team. Imagine playing pick-up basketball in real life and forming an impromptu team with a Mandarin speaker and a Korean speaker, both of whom do not understand English. How would you adjust to communicate that you’re open for a ball to be passed your way? I face this often in games like Left for Dead, where I have to learn new ways of universally communicating with my teammates.
In a class-based multiplayer game like Diablo 3, the behavior of the gamer is tied to the class of character they select. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to attribute a style of play with a gender or culture. A good team in Diablo 3 is comprised of players who know how to play well as their characters. For example, good ranged-weapon gamers will fall back from the group while a close-range weapons user will lead the group. Diablo 3 gamers, like many multiplayer games, have developed their own micro-language. Game chatter often reverts to single-letter directions so that all the 6.3 million people that play Diablo 3 can communicate with one another effectively.
In multiplayer games like Halo 3, teams are often randomly assigned, especially when a gamer is new and has not yet created a list of "friends" for that game. If a gamer has a good time playing with a team, friend invites are exchanged so they can play again later. It’s a fast way to expand your social circle and build trust across gender, generational, and geographical lines. This is especially true as gamer demographics continue to grow beyond their adolescent boy stereotype.
Admittedly, you may know little about your game friends outside of the context of the game you play together. There is some downtime, however, for chatting in between matches or raids and in lobbies—where players wait for teams to be created before beginning a game. These moments allow for people to reveal details about their lives, learn about each other—and bond. For example, one of the gamers I used to game with regularly was an African-American woman in her mid-thirties who lived in Los Angeles and managed a GameStop. A Midwestern teenage boy I used to game with once asked the team for advice on going to college. Some of the other teammates were currently in college, some had long-since graduated, but each shared their experiences and made our teammate feel less intimidated by the process.
Sure, game friends have a completely different context in your life compared to real world friends from your hometown, your university, or your workplace. But these friends are people you spend lots of time sharing positive in-game experiences with as you learn to quickly build trust and communication to accomplish goals, overcoming cultural or linguistic challenges along with the challenges presented by the games themselves.
Video games have the ability to enable friendships that geography and society may restrict. As younger generations of gamers spend more time playing with a broader diversity of gamer friends, what they learn about their real lives—where they live, what languages they speak, what stage of life they are facing—outside of the context of the game, has the potential to build positive attitudes that could permeate through their real-world interactions.
Brandy Bora is an interaction designer at frog New York.