At first, they only knew each other by their screen names, and whatever could be gleaned through the clunky text chat programs of the 1990s. “For years, I thought she was a male,” Kaplan recalled.
They became close all the same, then met, then married. At the dawn of multiplayer video gaming, Kaplan and his wife understood what a Washington Post-University of Massachusetts Lowell poll just made abundantly clear three decades later: The myth of the lonely gamer is a lie.
Nearly three quarters of Americans age 14 to 21 had played or watched an online multiplayer game in the past 12 months, when the poll was conducted last fall. The survey is among the first to gauge the growing popularity of e-gaming and finds 25 percent of all adults played or watched games in the past year, peaking at 43 percent among those under age 40.
Over half of gamers age 14 to 21 considered friendship an essential part of playing, the poll found. And nearly half had made at least one friend through a game, be it in a Call of Duty arena or one of the countless online role-playing games that succeeded Everquest.
These friends may talk by text, like the Kaplans in the 1990s, or lately by voice — which has become a standard component in most online games — and video, through game streaming websites such as Twitch. Or they may meet in person, dragging an Xbox to a friend’s living room or crowding into a bar with hundreds of other gamers, like NFL fans on a football Sunday, to catch a match from the exploding esports scene.
The medium hardly matters. Many of these friendships deepen for years, until the bone knife duels and deathmatches that enabled them are nearly forgotten, and only bonds between people remain.
The Kaplans are still together. Jeff set aside his writing ambitions to help make multiplayer games. He worked on World of Warcraft and then as lead designer on Blizzard’s ultra-popular, team-based shooter, Overwatch. Both are largely designed around in-game friendships.
Multiplayer games are more popular than ever now, and what Kaplan and his wife knew in the ’90s is becoming something close to an industry motto:
“The most important story in a video game is between the people playing the game together,” Kaplan said.
Bonding in battle
Riggie Medina and Christian Alaniz are nearly the same age, 18 and 19. They’re both Catholic and both plan careers in law enforcement. They both bowl, work out and listen to ska and rap in their spare time.
All their lives, they have lived a few miles apart in neighboring central California towns of a few thousand people. But Medina and Alaniz never met until a couple years ago, when they ended up on the same team in a Call of Duty match and got to chatting afterward in the game’s target shooting arena.
“When we were all tired out from playing against other people, we’d usually go shoot offline bots,” Alaniz said.
It was there, in a virtual arena that connected their separate lives, they found out all they had in common.
They struck up a friendship and now game together nearly every weekend — one usually driving to the other’s house to shoot up imaginary worlds in each other’s personal company.
The Post-UMass Lowell poll found a 54 percent majority of teen and young-adult gamers said enjoying time with friends is a major reason they play or watch games, far more than said they play to improve their skills or to have a chance at winning championships. A similar 52 percent of young gamers said they play or watch online games with friends they met offline, while 45 percent said they have become friends with people they connected with while playing games online.
None of this seems strange to Rebecca Adams, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro who studies and has written several books on the science of friendships.
Sociologists identified the fundamentals of friend-making decades before the Internet existed, Adams said. Two people meet more or less accidentally, often because they both regularly visit the same places — a baseball field or coffee shop or office. They discover a few things in common, and a relationship develops naturally, in a setting they’d frequent regardless of the other party’s presence.
As the friendship deepens, it eventually transcends the place where it started, moving from the coffee shop to, say, dinner parties. Or from a fantasy dungeon to a voice chat program.
In some cases with video gaming, a deep friendship can form without ever moving off the screen. Pearl Lee, a 21-year-old college student who lives on Long Island, says she could never afford to travel overseas. Likewise, her friend who stocks shelves in the United Kingdom could never afford to visit New York. And yet the pair have known each other for years — ever since they met on a dungeon raid in the role-playing game Mabinogi. Only Lee still plays that particular game, but she and her friend talk nearly every day through the voice app Discord.
“I don’t think this is such a new thing,” Adams said. In some ways, video games might even be more natural places to incubate friendships than a coffee shop. “When you’ve been through something together, it bonds you,” she said, giving the examples of World War II soldiers in a fox hole, or Grateful Dead fans who saw the same concert. “It’s going through those experiences that make you more likely to start talking. I can imagine this couple that went on the raid together probably wanted to debrief after, and that’s probably why they started to talk.”
A different kind of matchmaking software
At Blizzard, Kaplan jokes that “game designers are amateur psychologists . . . we spend a lot of time thinking about psychology and sociology with no degree in it.”
Nevertheless, his design philosophy sounds remarkably similar to the theories of friendship studied by Adams and her academic colleagues.
Overwatch features dozens of characters players can utilize while on teams with five other players, often randomly selected by the game.
One character, Pharah, flies around the arena with a jet pack and launches rockets from the air — but dies quickly if targeted by the enemy team. Another character, Mercy, can’t normally fly on her own but can tether herself to any player and heal their wounds. They are more or less made for each other, prompting their players to communicate and cooperate in the game.
It’s common to see a Mercy player tethered to a Pharah player for an entire match — flying around together, helping each other, often chatting through the voice lines as they play.
When the match ends, the teammates are briefly dumped into a sort of social lobby, where they’re encouraged to add each other to their “friends” list. If they do, they can easily connect and play together in any other Blizzard game.
This is all intentional. Blizzard realized that players’ friendships were transcending the particular games they formed in during the late 2000s, Kaplan said, and the company began to design around the concept.
Overwatch has no single-player story, because in a sense the players and the connections between them are the story, and the game mechanics are designed to encourage those relationships. Call of Duty’s latest iteration, Call of Duty: WWII, features a lobby where players can talk and show off their avatar’s latest accolades, uniforms and weaponry. The game even includes a social score, with special gear unlocked by higher scores.
The social dynamic is also a focal point of the game Destiny, which links up players to complete various quests and battles.
M.E. Chung, a game designer at Bungie, which publishes Destiny, told The Verge last May that the game’s purpose was to create challenges for players to overcome through cooperation.
“I describe that challenge as the fuel to memories between lifelong friends. I think a lot about games I’ve been playing, when you ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ ” Chung said. “We hope with Destiny they’re saying, ‘I’m spending time with my friends.’ Most people don’t regret the time they spend with their friends.”
“The first time I met my wife, she was a night elf warrior who kicked my ass,” Kaplan said. “That’s a more interesting story to me than how the dragon attacked the temple.”
Friendships in fandom
For years it has been common for sports fans to descend on stadiums or local bars to watch their teams compete. Increasingly, that’s becoming more common in the world of video gaming through the rapid rise of esports. The poll finds 38 percent of teens and young adults say they are fans of esports — about the same as the 40 percent who are fans of professional football.
And just like with football, the elite tournaments of esports, like the newly formed Overwatch League, inspire communities of fans and friends around them.
Blizzard says 10 million people watched the Overwatch League’s opening week. The matches weren’t on network TV, so most watched through streaming sites such as Twitch.
But fans also gathered in cities around the world to watch their local teams. In January, Mac’s Southside, a bar near downtown Dallas, filled up for a watch party to observe their local chapter of the Overwatch League, the Dallas Fuel. Chanting, cheering and eyes glued to a wall screen, the crowd looked not much different from a group of Cowboys fans. The chief difference was that the players they cheered were also staring at screens.
As with an offline sport, you don’t necessarily need to play Overwatch (or Hearthstone or League of Legends or any other game with a pro scene) to become a fan. Among 14- to 21 year-olds, the poll found 58 percent have watched people play video games on Twitch, YouTube or another platform, only one point lower than the percentage who played multiplayer video games.
Twitch (owned by Amazon, whose CEO, Jeffrey P. Bezos, also owns The Washington Post) is a website in some ways built around this insight. It is an online video forum where people watch others live-stream themselves, usually playing video games. Friendships form between the streamer and their viewers — or among the viewers themselves as they use a chat interface while watching the game. Streamers with a regular audience of even a few dozen people can sometimes support themselves through Twitch subscription fees.
When she was younger, Marsi would lose herself in single-player adventure games such as Paper Mario or Kingdom Hearts. A few years ago, she stumbled across a Twitch streamer who was doing speed runs of Super Mario Sunshine — trying to complete the game as fast as possible. She was fascinated by the streamer’s skill but even more captivated by his personality — and the dozens of viewers who watched with her and talked among themselves in the text channel.
“It was the first person where I was, like: ‘Oh my gosh. I get his jokes,’ ” she said. “It was a combination of wanting to bond with the streamers, and the viewers were really chill, so I was attracted to the community.”
Four years later, at age 27, Marsi is friends with the speedrunner and fell in love with streaming enough to make a career of it. She streams herself gaming every night under the name kungfufruitcup, building her own audience community and supporting herself with the subscription money.
Alex Bailey, 25, played Overwatch casually — at best — before he stumbled across the channel of a streamer named Dibz in 2016. He became a regular, watching the stream in part for Dibz’s friendly on-screen personality, and in part for his community of viewers.
He learned that Dibz’s real name was Jason Chiu. They were about the same age, were both in college and lived only half an hour or so apart outside Los Angeles.
They began to chat daily on Chiu’s Discord server. After a few months, last July, Chiu invited Bailey to grab dinner at a sushi restaurant between their houses.
Chiu brought his girlfriend and brother, and Bailey brought his fiancee. Another regular who lived in the area showed up, too. A table of gamers, without the game.
“It was kind of weird at first,” Bailey said. “We’d played [Overwatch] a couple times. From the Discord, we knew what we all sounded like, but we didn’t know what we looked like — except of course Dibz.”
They tried to use each other’s real names but kept falling back on screen names. The dinner began a bit stilted, as Bailey recalled it. It was hard to make the transition from the screen to real life. But they broke the ice with some small talk, then moved on to more meaningful things.
“He said he wanted to get a job in mathematics, and maybe cut down on the streaming” after college, Bailey recalled. In turn, he told Chiu about his training to become a rugby coach, and move to England, or maybe Japan with his fiancee.
They chatted, and ate, then went home. They’ve met up in person once since then. They still talk, mostly through screen or microphones, and plan to keep doing so, even if they one day outgrow the game.
This Washington Post-UMass Lowell poll was conducted Aug. 22-Sept. 8, 2017, among a sample of 522 teens and young adults on a probability-design online panel with a margin of sampling error of +/- six percentage points. The adult sample was based on a telephone survey of 1,000 randomly selected adults conducted Aug. 14-21, 2017, with an error margin of +/- 3.7 points.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.