The Secret to Long-Distance Friendships Could be Online Gaming

Tag in the front yard, football in a field, hide-and-go seek in the neighborhood and, yes, sometimes video games online.

Children today have more ways then ever to bond and play with friends, and while outdoor real world play is essential, don't knock the benefits of supervised gaming online either.

While we keep a watchful eye on the games our 9-year-old son plays and limit how long he can play them, we've discovered that gaming online can allow him to do things he normally couldn't do outside or free of a console: Play with friends in other States.

Most Saturdays find our son spending an hour or so on his Xbox 360 chatting away about the latest music, school, his favorite books — everything but video games — with a friend he made in Texas during a visit years ago. (We're careful to only allow him to chat with friends we know and have authorized on his account.)

It may not be able to replace in-person play, but it allows him to maintain a sense of connection and immediacy that no amount of letters, e-mails, even phone calls could replicate. Through video games Tristan and his friend can hang out in these virtual settings and craft their own ways to play.

Their favorite hangout seems to be the player-created sandboxes of Halo: Reach. In this game, this place designed to allow gamers to hunt and virtually shoot one another, they spend all of their time instead in the game's Forge, a place that allows players to make their own maps.

Instead of working on these playfields for Halo's online matches, though, the duo create virtual clubhouses — digital dioramas — and then tell complex stories about those forts. They use these spaces as backdrops for tales about warriors, cops and robbers, even the doldrums of work-a-day life. This is video gaming as I know it, as imagination engine, not creativity killer.

This is video gaming as I know it, as imagination engine, not creativity killer.

While the console currently augments his play time, allowing him to virtually hang out with a pal in another State, we're sure it will play a bigger role later this year when we move half-way across the country. I hope it will ease the transition of a childhood move that pulls a 9-year-old away from the friends he's had his entire life.

Growing up on military bases in Thailand and Korea, moving around the country every few years, I know the importance of staying in touch with those friends. As a child of the 70s, I used to write letters, or even record audio tapes and send them to my friends. But the natural delay in response, the awkwardness of one-way communication spread over weeks or months, led to a childhood devoid of long-term friends.

Craig Davison, senior director of Xbox Live, wasn't surprised to learn that a 9-year-old uses the Xbox 360's online service to stay in touch with distant friends. "Xbox Live members of every age are highly engaged and very active on the service," Davison said. "It's cool to see this level of social interaction extending beyond gaming to entertainment.

"Our history in gaming has helped us build the best platform in the world for socializing while you enjoy entertainment, regardless if that entertainment is gaming or watching a video."

And this isn't just found on the Xbox 360. The Playstation 3 has Home, a sort of virtual world built to let people wander around in avatar form, play quick games, watch videos together, chat and just hang out. Plenty of PC games support in-game chatting as do some Wii titles.

This spring Microsoft plans to launch Avatar Kinect, a service that will allow people to drop into colorful rooms with their cartoon-like avatars to sit and chat, a game built to do what I already find Tristan and his friends doing in other games.

Davison says Xbox Live currently has 30 million active users worldwide. Those Xbox Live members spend almost 40 hours a month on the service, that works out to a billion hours a month, he said. At any given time there can be as many as 2.4 million people logged into the service at the same time and more than 4 million personal messages are sent between Xbox Live members every day, he said.

Of course, as with any form of entertainment, it's important to limit a child's exposure to video games. But a healthy child is a child who can as aptly socialize online and as they can offline.

Any doubt I might have had about the very real benefits of my son gaming with a small group of friends online were quickly erased the first time I heard Tristan's joyful laugh during a gaming session. It's the same one I hear when he's outside with his friends playing or talking. A ringing golden sound that makes me smile every time I hear it.

Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.