I have recently come across several articles discussing if and how people who socialize in online games are learning social skills, such as “how to meet people; how to manage a small group; how to coordinate and cooperate with people; and how to participate in sociable interaction with them” (Ducheneaut & Moore, 2005).
Some of this research says things such as, “Online groups make people more social online and offline: they have more close friends online they participate in social activities more often, they have more social contacts with players offline, and they are more loyal” (Axelsson & Regen, 2002, p. 9).
Not sure about the causal direction, here, but the bottom line is a) being part of groups online is related to being more social both online and offline; and b) you can learn how to get along with people from interacting online. Studies like those from Jakobsson and Taylor (2003), Kolo and Baur (2004), and of course Yee (2006) emphasize how important the social connections, activities, and goals are for folks who play in general.
I was thinking a bit more about this last night after a conversation with a fellow WoW player. We talked about different ways that we develop relationships with folks in WoW: my tendency is too do a lot of chatting, hers is to talk mostly to those she already knows (from offline, basically). We ended up talking about ways to participate in the group, roles that are and are not palatable to us (e.g., “the ingenue” vs. “accomplished player”), and figuring out how to get know people via the relatively limited communication that text chat can be (although perhaps only at at first, see Walther, 1992).
It occured to me that I have spent a lot of time thinking about how I and others communicate in this space, styles of speech, how guild chat reflects my overall social tendencies, how I see some people find ways to be more expressive there than elsewhere. I’m not positive that chatting in WoW is consistently “identity play” and explorations of otherwise inaccessible social modes of being for everyone. As Gergen (1991) argues, media provides alternative possibilities for values, identities, and expressions, but that does not necessarily translate into active alterations to who we believe we are.
But there is no doubt in my mind that a) we manifest different communication patterns and social behaviors in spaces like WoW; and b) we learn some social stuff along the way.
So what I have learned?
I’ve learned a lot about leadership and group participation as a non-leader. In my offline challenges, I am often in somewhat of a leader role; in WoW, almost never. Figuring out how to be a good little team member was, I think, a bit of a challenge, and I confess that one of my major weaknesses is putting up with crankiness from other team members. I’m terrible at tolerating a negative environment for long. I just shut down and try to make myself disappear.
I’ve also learned something about how I form relationships. I’ve always been a pretty outgoing kind of person, and that translates for me in WoW. But when you are typing rather than running your mouth, you have more time to think about (and, thankfully, delete) what you’re saying. I’ve become more aware of how things I say might sound to someone else in some ways.
I think my friend, who is also quite a sociable person offline, is thinking more about how she sees herself in groups, what kinds of things she wants to “be” in the role sense, and how she tends to respond to different kinds of people.
So yes, I agree with Ducheneaut and Moore: We do learn social skills online, especially when we stick around in those groups we join for a while.