Social Connections on the Gamers’ Plane

On-screen friendships made over video games often transcend personal barriers and can lead to closer relationships than the same friendships made with real-world counterparts.


| November 2016



new leaf

Animal Crossing: New Leaf is a game played on the Nintendo DS3 hand- held console. The player homesteads in a town where she can become mayor, interacting with inhabitant NPCs as well as other human players who can visit her town using network capabilities.

Screenshot courtesy of Kotaku (2013)

In How Games Move Us (The MIT Press, 2016), Katherine Isbister takes the reader on a timely and novel exploration of the design techniques that evoke strong emotions for players. She counters arguments that games are creating a generation of isolated, emotionally numb, antisocial loners. Games, Isbister shows us, can actually play a powerful role in creating empathy and other strong, positive emotional experiences; they reveal these qualities over time, through the act of playing.

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

Human beings show and cultivate closeness with others through small everyday actions: putting a note or an extra treat in a child’s lunchbox, leaving a sack of tomatoes from the garden on a neighbor’s porch, setting out an item where it won’t be forgotten in the morning for your partner, feeding the cat for a friend. Gift giving and favors are part of the social glue that holds us together and strengthens our connections with one another. We also engage in other sorts of ongoing non-conversational exchanges that reveal who we are and how we feel about each other: playing a chess game by mail; keeping track of an old school friend through the extended social network, mass holiday letters, Facebook, and Google, punctuated by brief interactions at the occasional class reunion. These aren’t conversation but they nevertheless strengthen the social fabric.

Digital games enhanced with network access can provide these sorts of social exchanges as part of the play experience. Consider, for example, Words with Friends (WWF). This Scrabble-like game allows two people to compete for points as they fill a board with words. You can play with a friend in whatever turn rhythm works for each of you — you make a move, then when they make a move the app will let you know. There’s no need to talk (though chat is an available feature) to see how things are going. The kinds of words you play and their values are a form of communication, as is the rhythm of play itself. Researcher Amy Bruckman reflected on the real-world impact of social connection through Words with Friends, explaining how Facebook matched her up for a game with her old high school friend Mike, whom she hadn’t seen since the 1980s.

It felt great to reconnect with an old friend… I would be inclined to dismiss the sense of connection as an illusion, except for one thing: Mike mentioned that next time I’m in New York I should look him up — we’ll get coffee. The likelihood that I’ll take him up on that invitation is fairly high. Before we played WWF, it wouldn’t’ve crossed my mind. The chance of meeting up in person has gone from near zero to moderately high–a difference of multiple orders of magnitude. The real re-connection will take place in person. But it wouldn’t have happened without the online connection.

Games like WWF allow people to engage in a slow form of coexperience with enough expressive range to allow them to reveal themselves through their moves. Players enjoy weaving these interactions into the daily rhythm of computer and mobile phone use, which is generally more task-oriented. It’s a light- weight way of keeping in touch, interwoven with existing social networking software that players might be using anyway — for example, WWF can be played through Facebook as well as on a mobile device as a standalone app. For a few moments here and there, these games can offer the feeling of sitting with a friend to play a hand of cards. They may not be enough to forge or sustain a tie on their own, but they do offer an access point and a kind of shared experience that can help strengthen a tie over time. Players express things about themselves as they strive to win, and competition provides spice as well as a frame for interaction.