a bit monkish.
Around the world, metacommunites exist that are exceptions to our longstanding definitions of ‘community.’ These metacommunities play smartphone and tablet games together and have friendly relationships in off-game chat apps. When I heard about the existence of these friendships, I was skeptical. These folks don’t know each other’s real names. They don’t know where their friends really live. They don’t even know if these friends are the gender they say they are. Aren't these groups filled with predators? Can these people really develop lasting friendships and true community? And if so, what are the implications for those of us in the church?
So about four years ago, I dove in to discover this phenomenon for myself.
After a co-worker briefed me on the basics of online etiquette, I assumed the name “Bernard” (not surprising for those who know me) and started playing a game on my smartphone. I joined a guild/clan and instantly became part of a gaming community. I was introduced to people with names like Avalon, Bigspin, DaShadiest, Killabee, and NinjaBill. We played the game together, chatted with each other, and shared in each other’s lives without giving out too much information about ourselves. These folks said they were from Chicago, Eastern Canada, and California.
Before I knew what was happening, our little band of friends disbanded to play other games. However, three of us: Avalon, DaShadiest, and myself found ourselves in the highest ranking game guild in the world. We met new friends, like Jade, Flagg, Zedsta, Ruby, and Lee. When the app developer suddenly deleted the game, we were left without a game to play! But we had each other through our off-game texting app, so we continued to be in each other’s lives until we found another game to play.
I wasn't a gamer. I only played the games to be in the lives of the friends I'd made. I never revealed that I am a Christian (or a pastor/professor), but I was committed not to deny it if I was ever asked. No one ever did. They knew I was Bernard from the Louisville area with a PhD in medieval history. All true.
It’s amazing how well I knew these folks. In private messages I learned of marriage breakups, recovery from alcohol, I counseled them about relationship issues, helped people process job transitions, and where to go on vacation. I completely realize that all or some of these personal issues could have been fabrications. They could have been fantasies from people I only thought that I knew. However, my experience was that these people really were being honest with each other. I do remember one person from England named BillBob who briefly joined our game. After three days, BillBob said, “I’m not actually a guy. I’m using my boyfriend’s game name.” In my experience, BillBob was the exception. People were generally honest and were simply longing for friendly gaming relationships with each other.
And then came the news from my close gaming friend DaShadiest last December: He had just been diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer and had just a few months to live. I didn’t know “Shadi’s” real name. I knew he lived in California, but I didn’t know where. Yet when I learned of his cancer I was as devastated as if I had heard this news from someone I knew face to face. What began as a social experiment to see if online communities have merit had taken a very real-life turn.
Shadi's cancer produced in me the most surreal emotions I had ever felt. I was grieving for a friend and I didn’t even know his name. I didn’t know what he looked like or where he lived. I didn’t know the sound of his voice. Of all my gaming friends, I had only talked to Avalon on the phone once, and discovered that he, too, was facing some serious health issues. My online friend Shadi was facing a life-threatening situation and I was completely helpless to do anything.
Over the next few months, I had a decision to make with Shadi. I wanted to be sure he had a solid support system wherever his home was, and that he knew how deeply I cared for him. I also had some eternal concerns. Do I risk alienating him by sharing my faith? If I did that, would I be crossing a social line? Would he feel that I had used our friendship only to push my Christianity on him?
I finally decided to open up to Shadi a bit. Here’s part our conversation (Shadi's words are in white):
Over the next few months, Shadi wasn’t chatting as often as before, but we still kept in touch. I shared with him that God loves him no matter what he believes and that God had sent his son Jesus to the world to take the penalty for all the wrong things we’ve ever done. He thanked me and expressed his gratitude for our friendship.
In early May, I messaged Shadi to check in with him. Days passed and he didn't reply. I began to worry. My good friends Jade and Lee joined me in trying to find out if Shadi had died. I scoured California obituaries, but how do you find if someone has died when you don’t even know his name?
We had a phone number Shadi had used to register the chat app, but it’s considered an invasion of privacy to ever call someone’s number. I decided to send a text message instead, and addressed it to Shadi or someone in his family. A couple of days later, I received a message from his girlfriend stating that he had died.
As I continue to process Shadi’s death and my relationships with these online friends, I’m becoming more and more aware of the longing people have for friendships. We're so hungry for any type of community with others that we're willing to have relationships with people we don’t even know.
My experience with this online community has not been with the darker side of the Internet. I can’t express enough how cautious people need to be in these metacommunities. I’ve been very careful in choosing folks to befriend (although I must admit that a few of these gamers have seemed a bit creepy at times!).
Online friendships certainly can't replace face-to-face relationships. Recent studies have revealed that despite the interconnnectedness of people today through technology, we're feeling more isolated than ever before. We've been created by God to be in community with one another. Online friendships are just one way for us to do that. But online friends can't give us a hug when we need one.
Now that I’m facing my own, albeit pretty tame, battle with cancer, I’ve been amazed at the support and prayers coming from my online friends. They’re gifts of God in my life. I don’t know their names, or where they’re from, or information about their families, but I know God does. And I know God has brought them into my life, just as God has brought me into theirs.
And through it all, my understanding of the word 'community' has just been blown up.
(c) 2016 Michael C. Voigts
I'm a follower of Christ serving as an Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation at Asbury Theological Seminary.