You spend your days playing with them. Maybe they're your backup in a first-person shooter. Perhaps they heal your World of Warcraft guild raids. You count on them, and they count on you, but do you count them as friends?
As I was wondering through the morning news, I stumbled over a Charm City Moms column in The Baltimore Sun asking the question, "Are Your Virtual Friends Real Friends?" In the short article, Liz Atwood observes her children talking about playing games with friends online, prompting her to ponder that question.
"When they play with children on these gaming sites, are these friends? Does a friend have to be someone you see face-to-face or can you be friends with someone you never meet?"
I've been playing MMO games for more than a decade now, from Ultima Online to World of Warcraft to Second Life, and I've often referred to the people I play with on a regular basis as friends. It just seems natural.
But to someone looking in from the outside, like Liz Atwood, it must seem rather peculiar, referring to people we will likely never meet as friends.
Are we labeling these people friends out of convenience, or is the definition of friend changing with the times?
Looking back on my online gaming "career," I've called lots of people my friends. I spent a year and a half in an EverQuest guild, spending more time hanging about virtual avatars with strange names than I did anyone in real life. If I had a problem, I would bounce it off one of them. If one of my guild-mates stumbled on hard times, we'd band together to help them out.
It felt like friendship. Hell, it felt like family.
The difference is, once I quit the game, those people disappeared. Once I was outside of that virtual community, it was as if I no longer existed. Is that how virtual friendship works?
And perhaps it's a testament to the importance of internet anonymity, recently highlighted by Blizzard's attempt to use real names in the World of Warcraft and StarCraft II forums, that I never knew anyone's real name.
Sure, there are a few online folks I talk to outside of gaming circles, particularly those from Second Life, who seem as a whole more willing to take the virtual out of virtual reality. On the whole, however, I've spent months of my time playing with friends that I will never see again.
Looking back, perhaps "friends" was too strong of a word. Maybe it was just easier to say than "acquaintances," or perhaps calling them friends made the time spent seem more worthwhile.
Has the word "friend" simply lost its meaning on the internet? We have Xbox Live friends, Facebook friends, Wii friend codes. Perhaps there should be two different definitions, one for online and one for off.
Do you consider your online gaming friends real friends, or do you need more than a screen name and an avatar before the label sticks?