Advance warning: some feels in here. I haven’t told this story in a while.
I spent much of the weekend watching Sword Art Online with Kodra– as of this writing, we’ve watched everything that was available on Netflix, so the first two seasons. The central premise of the show focuses on the concept of a relationship borne of a game and a relationship borne of a real-life meeting. Specifically, the show’s underlying message is that while most people have a hard time understanding it, the relationships forged digitally are every bit as ‘real’ as ones forged in ‘real life’.
I’m in a not-so-unique position to comment on this. Of my closest friends, nearly all of them are people I interact with digitally above all else. I have friends that I’m physically close to that I interact with more online than I do in real life. I’ve heard this described as ‘sad’, and I find that sort of dismissiveness irritating.
Let me tell you a story, of the first online friend I made. I was in high school, playing Everquest shortly after its launch. I had just hit level 29 on my Druid, which was an important level for that class as it unlocked a bunch of potent spells and let me travel and hunt like I hadn’t been able to previously. It was a big deal, and so I very quickly started using my new spells and got myself killed while soloing. Everquest had experience loss on death, so I was looking at a level drop to 28, locking me out of my new spells and setting me back days of progress. I was out in the middle of nowhere, on an island in one of the ocean zones, but I thought it was worth shouting for help, seeing if anyone could assist me. A reasonably-high level cleric could resurrect me, restoring enough XP to return my level to me. I didn’t really expect anything, and I told myself I’d wait an hour to see if anyone might come.
Forty minutes in, I’d gotten ten or so private messages asking for my location, and each one had said “too far, sorry” when they found out how out-of-the-way I was. When I got a response that was simply “omw!” I was genuinely surprised. It took nearly an hour for the cleric to make it out to where I was– I was THAT far out of the way (anyone remember trying to navigate those EQ ocean zones, particularly the islands the boats DON’T go to?), and we chatted all the while. I kept half expecting to hear “ugh, this is ridiculous, sorry man” but it never came. Instead we joked about the boats, the sharks, how I died, how exciting level 29 was for Druids, etc.
When she got to me, he was pretty battered. She’d had a run-in with some wildlife (who largely didn’t bother me, a perk of being a Druid that I’d forgotten about) but was still okay. It took her a while to recover and then resurrect me, and bam, I had my level back. I could get us both out of there, and cheerfully did– using the (level 29!) Druid ports to get us to safety, near a major city. I went to tip the cleric, per the standard etiquette, only to find that he was trying to tip *me* for the port. We laughed about it, I expected we’d part ways, and got a last PM for the day: “oh hey, friend me? lemme know if you need a rez, if you don’t mind porting me sometimes :)”.
We were never close in level (he was much higher level than I was, and he was gone by the time I got up in level), but we talked a lot, almost exclusively about game stuff. For the better part of a year, one of us would bug the other for a rez or a port and we’d come running to help out, often from the other side of the world, and we’d chat about whatever while we did so. I knew nothing about him in reality, but it didn’t matter– we were fast friends and the context of the game world gave us plenty to bond over. Instead of having lunch together and sharing the food experience, we’d chat while waiting on boats and bond over (lack of) inventory space.
Near the end of the year, I got a message from him: “hey, I’m probably gonna have to stop playing soon but I wanted to say thanks for hanging out with me. i know it’s rude to ask, but can i have your e-mail address? i want to send you something.”
Players left EQ on occasion; this was not a new concept for me. I was sad that he was leaving, but didn’t think much of it. This was the first time anyone who’d left had tried to make a connection after the fact, though, and I hesitated. Bridging that gap between game and ‘real life’ was sort of taboo– that was how all of the “abuses” and “scary people” on The World Wide Web got to you, to use the scare quotes of the late ’90s/early ’00s. This was my cleric friend, though, and if he’d been hiding his true self for a year, he’d done a really good job of it. With as much as we’d talked, it would’ve been very hard to hide anything, or so I told myself. I gave him my e-mail, not sure what to expect.
The next morning, I woke up to an e-mail in my inbox from a “Julie”, which I didn’t expect, with a character name, class, set of items, and a bunch of other identifying information to prove that it was, in fact, from my cleric friend. At the bottom was a link “to some pictures, nothing bad, I promise” and a note “thanks for everything, I wanted to show you the real me”. Having spent a lot of time on the internet up to this point, I was leery of clicking any links I didn’t recognize, but it was a livejournal link (yep, one of those) so I figured it was safe.
The LJ page was someone named Julie, the cleric I’d spent a year hanging out with. She was wheelchair-bound and a cancer patient– every picture from the last year was of her in the hospital. The post I’d been linked to read simply: “To my druid friend Tam: Hi.” and included a bunch of pictures and links to old posts. I wound up reading her livejournal back entries, finding out about this girl’s struggle with cancer and the ways she took her mind off it, and started to realize that all of the references to “my best friend” were me.
We never spoke after that– when she left EQ she also dropped off the internet, and her LJ stopped updating. It was updated one more time, six months later, by her brother, with a “rest in peace, thanks for reading” message. At the very bottom of the post, there was a picture of her, happy, in her hospital bed. Next to it was a laminated picture, clearly a computer printout, taped up on the wall. It was a shot from Everquest, of a druid and cleric.
There’s nothing less real about online friendships than ones in physical space. RIP, Julie.
Source: Digital Initiative
Relationships in Cyberspace and Realspace