The Secret to Long-Distance Friendships Could be Online Gaming

Illustration for article titled 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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"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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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DISCUSSION

theforgetfulbrain
TheForgetfulBrain

I absolutely believe in this. At the moment, all of my friends (excluding the significant other) have moved away. It seems like a lonely situation, but I'm okay with maintaining friendships and family connections through digital means.

I talk to my parents a few times a week over the phone and email them - and that's enough for me. I'll visit occasionally, but for the most part it's enough to just keep in contact.

Similarly, my closest friends and I mostly keep in touch through the occasional phone call, and it's nice to catch up, but it's still not the same as hanging out in person.

My friends aren't gamers as much as I am, particularly when it comes to shooters or MMOs. However, when we do find a game we can play together, it is an incredible bonding experience and absolutely one of my favorite ways to spend time.

When I was younger, I was never the type to want to go outside and throw or kick any sort of ball around - what I wanted to do was trade off lives and levels on my friend's Sega, or master trading blows in Soul Blade until we were down to boxing, thanks to our broken swords.

As I got older and eventually didn't have friends to play games with in the immediate vicinity, online gaming was kind of the best thing I could have asked for. Now, with numerous opportunities for free voice chat and ridiculously fast connections (almost) regardless of where you're located, gaming together online is the perfect substitute to hanging out in person.

A couple weeks ago I figured out how to set up a temporary server for Minecraft on my computer, connecting with just one friend - and I had more fun than I ever did alone in that game. Dodging Creepers together, laughing about losing my entire inventory in an unexpected lava flow (four times in a row) and planning out our phallic monuments to the gods - those are experiences I found much better shared.

It's a shame I don't get the opportunity to game online with friends more often, as it's a bonding experience unlike any I can really match it to. I suppose it might be like what sports fans experience with each other, watching a game on television over beers (Superbowl? What's a Superbowl?) or competing together in school sports. Gaming is the only place I ever really find that competitive spirit rising, and having even one friend to play with can greatly expand the shelf life of almost any game.

Alas, life is busy and it can be tough to coordinate that sort of time. However, without online gaming, it wouldn't even be a possibility for me. And that's something I can really appreciate.