In the late 90s I had my first experience with Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) through Ultima Online. I have only ever been a casual gamer but after exposing the game to my college roommate I was able to see first hand what many now refer to as "online gaming addiction." It started out innocently enough, a few hours here or there, but soon he was shirking his friends and classes and spending more time on the computer. That was his first, and also his last, year of University.
I know what you are thinking, what a horrible argument against online gaming as antisocial behavior, but there is more to the story. The truth is, my roommate was already headed in the dropout direction. His unwillingness to go to class had little to do with a video game and much more to do with a general disinterest.
As for abandoning a social life, it is hard to make that point as well. Online gaming creates an environment filled with social interaction. My roommate merely chose to associate with others in an online environment instead of the classic first-year drinking fests which, one could easily argue, are far more detrimental to your health. To top it off, it was in-game where he met his future wife.
Now I am a sociologist, not a psychologist or psychiatrist, so I will not take take the approach of disproving the claim that WoW is antisocial through the use of the DSM IV. Instead I would like to focus on what it means to be social in an online world, especially with respect to online gaming.
It is true, that for an outsider, online gaming gives the appearance of "antisocial behavior." Just ask any parent with a teenager locked in his room if they believe that to be social. But things are not always what they seem.
I have not come across a social interaction definition that is limited to a face-to-face environment. The textbook definition of social interaction, from Society the basics, is "the process by which people act and react in relation to others." From article comments to Facebook status updates, the online world is filled with opportunities to interact and not only is World of Warcraft no exception, it is exceptional.
WoW is a social interaction catalyst and unlike many social web environments it is much tougher to be socially passive.
Comments to this article can be seen as a form of interaction but only a small percentage of those that read this article will comment. WoW on the other hand requires social interaction for full participation and contains many structural mechanisms that create opportunities for this interaction. The following are some of these mechanisms.
A guild is the simplest example of a social group in World of Warcraft. Basically a group of players join together for any number of reasons. From the casual, just wanting some other people to play with, to achievement driven raid/pvp guilds. Guild development is heavily supported within WoW. Here is the website for one such guild.
Questing is the way most characters increase their level (Every player's first character starts out as a level one newbie, while the current max is level 80). Questing is like performing little missions, completing these missions increases experience. Many of these quests are strung together sometimes culminating in tougher quests that require small groups of characters. Even the most casual of players has 'grouped up' to complete these types of quests.
Certain in game experiences (especially "end-game" ones that occur after a character has made it to the highest level) require a large group of players, anywhere from 5 to 40. Currently, following the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, the traditional raid groups are 10 person or 25 person. PVP or player versus player is mostly groups of players fighting groups of players in game developed "battlegrounds."
This type of in-game content requires varying levels of coordination. A 25-person raid requires 25 people to be playing together at the same time so it is often scheduled. The makeup of these groups also must include a variety of classes (character types - healers, tanks, etc.). Once a raid group has been formed players must work together in order to achieve their goals and often use VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) services to increase the level communication.
Auction House/Trade System
World of Warcraft has a rich economy. Characters have professions that allow them to collect, gather, and create items which other characters might need or want. Mechanisms such as auction houses and a chat trade channel allow characters to swap these items for either in game currency or other items. Since the auction houses exist almost exclusively in main cities, players are required to flock to these often crowded areas to participate.
Finally there are countless examples of casual social interaction in WoW. A character might save another character with a heal and then be thanked for it. Another character might strip to their digital underpants and dance on a mailbox eliciting cheers from other characters in the area. Somewhat strange I know, but there is a lot of traditional social interaction that is just as strange.
For any parent out there worried about their teenager's "video game addiction," ask yourself a few questions. While WoW may be claimed to be more addictive than crack, is it not preferable and less socially hazardous? Would you rather your teenager be out with a group of friends, even if they could potentially be involved in destructive behavior? What kind of social interaction is your child experiencing outside of the game, what are they experiencing inside of the game, and are they gaining social companionship or losing it by playing? Is a friendship developed over a shared computer game interest any less valuable?
If you are really concerned try to understand their world before demonizing it, setup your own account and talk to your kid. The social world is always changing and it might just turn out that your perceptions need to change as well.