Alone in the Dark

Tracy King chal­lenges the lonely gamer stereo­type, par­tic­u­larly when on­line gam­ing is so pop­u­lar

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Tracy King takes on the stereo­type of the lonely gamer.

Some of them even had War­craft­themed wed­dings

re you lonely? Those words could be the open­ing to an agony aunt col­umn, some ter­ri­ble dat­ing ad­vice or hokey self-help. But it isn’t. It’s the open­ing to a piece that gen­uinely ques­tions whether gamers are lonely and, pos­si­bly more im­por­tantly, whether that’s a worth­while ques­tion to ask.

One of the rea­sons gamer tropes are heav­ily as­so­ci­ated with lone­li­ness is that gamers can ap­pear to be so­cially iso­lated. Head­set on, door closed. Punch­lines heav­ily rely on the stereo­type of base­ment-dwelling, so­cially in­ept nerds.

The stereo­type is some­times even true, but even when it’s un­true its ex­is­tence speaks to a strange su­pe­ri­or­ity of hob­bies; that go­ing to the pub or play­ing foot­ball with friends is some­how bet­ter than gam­ing.

It’s an at­ti­tude that essen­tially places phys­i­cal – face to face – in­ter­ac­tion above vir­tual in­ter­ac­tion. I some­times for­get that most peo­ple don’t have friends they only know on­line, let alone friends they only know in­side a vir­tual world, but cul­ture is lit­tered with in­cred­i­ble sto­ries of gam­ing friend­ships hav­ing real-world im­pacts.

Even Cos­mopoli­tan mag­a­zine no­ticed, and in 2016, it ran a sweet story about mar­ried cou­ples who met in World of War­craft. Some of them even had WoW-themed wed­dings. There are true sto­ries of lives be­ing saved by on­line gam­ing com­mu­ni­ties, from at­tempted sui­cides to house fires.

We must be sure to get our cause and ef­fect straight here too. There’s a world of dif­fer­ence be­tween gam­ing caus­ing so­cial iso­la­tion, and so­cially iso­lated peo­ple seek­ing out gam­ing. Cer­tainly, in my teens I was in the lat­ter cat­e­gory, well be­fore on­line gam­ing ex­isted. Had I been able to play – anony­mously or not – with other real peo­ple, I would have felt con­sid­er­ably less iso­lated. Gam­ing was a niche hobby then, yet the stereo­types

Aper­sist now it’s main­stream. In May, a new study claimed to put the stereo­types to bed at last. ‘Re­search breaks stereo­type of “lonely” on­line gamers,’ said the head­lines.

Edge Hill Univer­sity’s press re­lease claimed, ‘Re­search has re­vealed that con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief, on­line gamers are so­cially com­pe­tent, have high self-es­teem and aren’t lonely and iso­lated.’ Well, duh. You can’t per­form very well in an on­line game if you aren’t so­cially com­pe­tent, fun­nily enough – it doesn’t make for a par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tive raid.

A to­tal of 780 MMO gamers were in­ter­viewed – 67 per cent were male, with an av­er­age age of 29 (that it­self sug­gests higher so­cial com­pe­tence, as most peo­ple have de­vel­oped a few con­ver­sa­tion skills by that age).

The study was, of course, self-re­port, mean­ing re­spon­dents could the­o­ret­i­cally have said any­thing with­out it be­ing true, but there isn’t an­other way to find out what peo­ple think, so as long as the sam­ple size is very large (it is), it’s pretty much okay – it’s un­likely 780 peo­ple con­spired to skew the data. Some stud­ies have cor­re­lated on­line gam­ing (usu­ally MMOs) with lone­li­ness, although a sim­i­lar 2013 study pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Ap­plied So­cial Psy­chol­ogy looked specif­i­cally at WoW play­ers and found they weren’t at all lonely. The new study cor­re­lates MMOs with in­creased self- es­teem and de­creased lone­li­ness.

That all rep­re­sents a po­ten­tial change in per­cep­tion of gamers, but it also sug­gests that gamers are ag­ing out of lone­li­ness and this new, con­fi­dent gamer is sim­ply the prod­uct of a gen­er­a­tional shift that’s been brew­ing for a few years, as MMOs have in­creased in pop­u­lar­ity and com­mu­ni­ca­tion tools have im­proved. If you’re feel­ing a lit­tle lone­some, the ob­vi­ous fix is to jump on­line and talk to other gamers.

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