Most people think of homes as physical places. But a home can be a lot more than that. A home is every bit as much a product of who as it is where and what. Here are three definitions of “home” provided by Merriam-Webster:
- one’s place of residence
- the social unit formed by a family living together
- a familiar or usual setting
Virtual communities, like those that form around massively multiplayer online games, are homes for many people. No, we don’t physically live in these virtual worlds, but many view those with whom they interact in these worlds to be family, and they are absolutely familiar and usual settings.
Online gaming communities are so interesting that there are entire anthropology papers which are dedicated to the topic. Back in 2014, Sonja Sapach wrote an interesting discussion on the challenges of doing ethnographic research in virtual worlds (Sapach 2014). Her research focused on sacred spaces within the virtual world. While there are plenty of sacred spaces that we might consider on a regular basis, such as churches, monuments to fallen military or those who died under terrible circumstances, such as the 9/11 memorial, it might come as a shock that we can look at sacred spaces in online communities, but it just shows how much of an impact these communities can have.
I’m a huge fan of MMOs, though I don’t play them that often. It was actually pretty late that I got into WoW at all, and even then it wasn’t official WoW, but rather a vanilla server that I frequented. Specifically, I spent a lot of time on Nostalrius Begins. WoW has gone through many iterations. Vanilla WoW is the original unaltered version of the game. And a lot of people were nostalgic for it. Blizzard didn’t support vanilla WoW, so Nostalrius came along and made things happen.
The server had a huge following. People spent a lot of time playing, and the server became a massive collection of communities. It became a home for many. A video of the final minutes of the server show just how much interest there was in the platform.
For many, Nostalrius was more than just a game. It was a place from memory. It was a place to which people wanted to return. It was a home. And I honestly don’t think that’s a problem. Sure, it can be an issue if people stop working and just spend all their time gaming, but then again, it’s a problem if someone just wants to stay at home rather than make a living too. We need to be productive in our lives. We can’t just spend our days at home. And even if we can redefine “work” and monetize gaming, we still have to do something.
The “addiction” that some people might experience with online gaming is very much an indication of how much of a home these communities can be. A home is a place of comfort. And when we’re comfortable, we don’t want to leave that comfort zone. Will Greenwald said it well, in his “Anatomy of MMO addiction.”
It’s easy to give up on single-player games after a while because you run out of things to do. Even in normal multiplayer games, you can turn them off after a while when everyone’s tired and doesn’t want to protect the base/capture the flag/kill each other anymore. A big enough MMO guild can ensure that there will always be a handful of friends online and ready to adventure with you, no matter what time it is. These friends make it all the more difficult to stop playing, whether it’s for the night to get some sleep, or forever because you don’t want to pay the monthly fee anymore.
Leaving an MMO is not leaving a game. It is leaving a community. It is every bit as much like moving away from home, separating oneself from friends and family. Even if it is often better for us to move on and make a new home for ourselves, it can be difficult, because it’s home. And that’s what these MMOs are.
Do you have an online community that you call home? Do you know someone who does?
Note: This article was written because of a short discussion that I had with Mathabatha Sexwale, in response to his discussion on creating a home. More and more I think that we will start to see these virtual worlds, regardless of whether they’re games or other virtual communities, as more than just a place to kill time, but rather a place to call home, a place where our friends are, a place where we feel safe and can express ourselves.