Psychology & Authentic Connections
"For many people, the relationships they form online are just as strong and real as the ones they form face-to-face."
There’s Nothing Virtual About Online ConnectionsPsychology
By Kira Bailey
March 30, 2020
Two weeks before our wedding in 2007, my soon-to-be spouse and I received a package. It contained a paper towel holder and a spice rack from our registry. The gift receipt was signed, “Love, Antal.” Antal was the character name of someone my fiancé had played World of Warcraft with for several years. They had never met in person, but during many hours of conversation in an online video game they forged a friendship deep enough that Antal bought us a wedding present.
A few years later, a happy chain of events led us to meet Antal face-to-face along with his then girlfriend. Through a handful of in-person meetings and a lot of online communication, our friendship as couples grew, and eventually my husband officiated their wedding. That was almost seven years ago.
We still “Hangout” weekly online to play games or chat about our lives and what’s going on in the world. They came to visit us with their 3-year-old daughter last fall. She calls me Miss Kira and asks when we’ll visit again. These are some of our closest friends, and we never would have met them at all if not for an online video game.
Anyone who has spent time with online gaming will not find this story surprising. They know the stereotype of the lone gamer sitting in front of a computer completely shut off from the rest of the world has always lacked nuance (as most stereotypes do). Sixty-three percent of gamers play with other people, and adult gamers spend about five hours a week playing with other people online. While the media has often focused on the negative effects of gaming, there are positive outcomes, as well. For many people, the relationships they form online are just as strong and real as the ones they form face-to-face.
Not that long ago, people may have looked skeptically at someone who met their significant other through a dating website or app, but today around 40 percent of romantic relationships begin online. eHarmony boasts the best track record, with a higher number of marriages than any other dating website. But here is the impressive part: The divorce rate of eHarmony couples is less than 4 percent, while the national average is around 50 percent. Certainly, this is a testament to the efficacy of eHarmony’s matching algorithms, but it is also evidence that strong, meaningful, and real connections to other human beings can begin in an online environment.
Humans are social animals—we long for connection. We are accustomed to connecting with one another face-to-face, so we tend to believe that in-person communication is more “authentic” than online interactions.
But humans are also adaptive. Right now, we need to adapt to a world where the primary way we can connect with one another is online, not face-to-face. As gamers and eHarmony couples can attest, if we approach our online interactions the same way we have always approached in-person communication, then it will be “authentic” because what makes a relationship work is the people, not the format. Social distancing does not have to mean social isolation, and if we embrace online interactions, this time in quarantine will not sever our connections to one another—it will strengthen them.
Kira Bailey is an assistant professor of psychology. She studies the effects of video games on emotion and cognition.