When there's bickering and Twitter wars and death threats in the gaming industry, sometimes it's difficult to see the up-side. To restore a little faith in humanity, we need only look as far as the friendships we've formed online, and the support we find there.

The past 24 hours or so has been pretty depressing for me as I watched Twitter explode with yet another round of Gamergate vs. Feminist Gamers tweets. It’s another one of those Long Stories that I won’t get into. If you want to get caught up (it’s a dangerous Pandora’s Box to open), start with The Huffington Post, where 8Chan administrator Fredrick Brennan and 8Chan target Brianna Wu appeared in an adversarial battle of opinions and perspectives yesterday.  (Another feminist target, Zoe Quinn, declined to appear after learning that she’d be confronting the man behind the site that harbors those who’ve threatened to kill and rape her. Can’t imagine why.) And, in addition to that, feminist blogger and videographer Anita Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a speech at Utah State University after a school shooting threat. And this entire mess is obscuring what Gamergate is supposedly about. If someone were to ask me what the message behind Gamergate actually was, at this point I’d have to say, “The fuck if I know.” Whether it’s in religion, politics or even gaming, extremism kind of kills the message, don’t you think?

But Gamergate and the attacks on feminist gaming personalities isn’t what this week’s column is about. I needed to get that bit of heaviness off my chest before I begin with the real purpose of today’s article. You see, as bleak as everything can look in the gaming industry sometimes—as broken and adversarial as communication between gaming factions can seem—it’s not all bad. A lot of good comes out of the communities we share in online worlds. On a large scale, there are things like Extra Life happening, where we gamers band together in a 24-hour gaming marathon for a common purpose. On a smaller scale, when we’re not busy tearing one another down, there’s plenty of evidence of gamers uplifting and supporting one another. I looked at gaming addiction and depression recently, and when I did many folks stepped forward to tell me that they wouldn’t have survived some tough times in their lives without the help of their online gaming friends.

“My Gaming Friends Kept Me Sane”

The recurring theme from the gamers I spoke to was that their friends in gaming helped them to keep their heads when times were difficult, whether by providing a source of distraction, support, or both. Here are some examples. (I’ve used first and/or gamer names only to preserve some anonymity.)

“MMOs provided a connection with like-minded people, something lost when I lost my job. [It] kept me distracted and sane!” said Lisa.

Herb had a life-changing experience. “I met my wife on EverQuest Online Adventures while going through a rough patch after a divorce,” he said.

Cirolle had rough times, too, but also found love in an online world: “I married her, and everything turned out much better.”

Zekseidu has a story of self-discovery:

“I believe gaming saved my life, specifically Landmark. I've endured many struggles most people endure over a lifetime in the span of a year, and it's not over yet. I started playing Landmark before being hit with the worst of it.

“I paid close attention to Dave  ‘Smokejumper’ Georgeson's welcome video for closed beta. It braced me for a slower pace, helped me to remember to slow down and learn, and encouraged me to dream. Not just to dream, but to keep going and keep learning until I can build what I can dream. At some point I realized I could apply the same thing to real life.

“Landmark helped me be brave enough to dream, which led to rediscovering a dream I felt strongly about but had given up on to pursue something more stable and guarantee-able. I decided that it doesn't matter that my dream is almost impossible if I try my hardest. What does matter is that mediocre isn't good enough. I'll never regret trying, the things I'll learn or the people I'll meet. This dream kept me going when nothing else could. And I will never quit. SOE games and community helped me accept who I am, and pursue who I want to be. I'm thankful to be part of their work and their lives as both a customer and a member of the extended player family.”

It's the people behind the pixels who make all the difference.

Matt wrote: “I had started playing EQ in the winter of 2004. I was separated form my wife at the time and, as we had a 1-year-old daughter, being apart was very hard. I worked 6 days a week, but my evenings were empty. I joined a guild at level 11 and begin hanging out with people daily. The loneliness of an empty apartment was tempered by the social outlet of EQ. I could interact with my fellow guildies and alliance-mates and never have to face the real world. The first year of my EQ life literally saved mine, at least in my opinion. Having people that accepted you, no matter what your self-imagined or real failures, was a godsend. Those same folks, some whom I have known for 10 years, are still very important to me. We get together at SOE Live every year. At the most recent we had 30+ alliance members there.”

But Matt’s story made me wonder— was he ever concerned that his EQ life was acting as a crutch, or keeping him from trying to make positive changes in the face-to-face world? Was he able to find acceptance in his day-to-day life as well as online?

“No, it never became a crutch,” he said. “And yes, I found acceptance. During that period it was more I did not feel like being out ‘in the world,’ yet social interaction is a must for a human, at least for this one. My wife and I got back together after that year of separation, and we’re still together to this day.”

Others who hadn’t necessarily had experiences themselves were witness to stories that unfolded within their online communities. “Several years back a coworker of mine lost his teenage son to a tragic car accident,” wrote Carvell. “The coworker was a longtime druid in EQ since launch with the same guild. Through gaming together he had made close friends with several of the guild members—closer than I would have expected from my experience with online gaming at the time. I was skeptical as to how ‘real’ the friendships could be until this tragic event. When the time came for his son's funeral several of the guild members traveled from the southern US to Nova Scotia, Canada to be of support and attend the funeral. I was floored! From that day on I have always corrected people when they said true and lasting friendships cannot be created through online means. Maybe it is rare, but based on this experience it is certainly possible.”

My Story

I’ve written before about how my own online experiences (starting with my days on the Prodigy ISP service) yielded lasting friendships, so I had no doubt about the quality of online relationships when I started playing EverQuest in 2000. Still, I’d also occasionally seen the dark side to gamers—from childish taunts to full-on guild in-fighting. So, I didn’t know what to expect when tragedy struck the United States in 2001.

That September morning, I’d been getting my kids ready to head out the door and I was almost certain they were going to miss the school bus. There was dawdling, lost assignment notebooks, and whining over not having enough time to eat breakfast. By the time the phone rang, I was frazzled. I knew it was my husband calling to tell me about yet another bit of drama at work that I just didn’t have time for. Didn’t he ever look at the clock before he phoned so that he’d know not to call me when I was trying to get the kids ready for the bus?

“What?” I snapped. (Not my usual greeting. Did I mention I was frazzled?)

“Do you have the news on?” he asked. “A plane just hit the World Trade Center.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s awful. But honestly, I’ll have to check the news later. I don’t have time for this right now. I’ve got my own crisis on the home front. These kids are going to miss the bus and they’re getting on my last nerve.” I was thinking of a small craft, some damage, certainly a dead pilot and perhaps others. Heartbreaking news, to be certain, but not catastrophic.

Those words would haunt me: “I’ve got my own crisis!” I’ll never forget that I said them, and I’ll never stop feeling selfish for saying them even though I understand that I couldn’t have possibly understood the magnatude of what was happening in New York at that very moment. Eventually, I did get the kids to the bus (just in time) and I did turn on the TV. It was then that I watched the second plane fly into the twin towers. Smoke billowed, newscasters fumbled for words, and I sat there on the couch with my fingertips pressed to my lips, crying. I watched as much of the devastation as I could handle before I felt as though I was going to fly apart with anxiety. I called my husband back, and we talked and worried and cried together, but he was nearly an hour’s commute away. I considered picking my kids up from school (some parents did), but realized that I didn’t want to let fear win the day, and that my reasons were selfish anyhow—I wanted comfort.

Like many people, I don’t deal with violence and intense, graphic imagery well—I don’t tolerate it in fictional movies, and it’s excruciating to me when it’s happening in real life. I needed to avoid the TV. I tried to work or read a book, but couldn’t concentrate. Finally, I decided to log into EverQuest. I didn’t plan to do anything other than fritter around, perhaps turning in a quest or two. I just wanted to lose myself in Norrath for a little while and forget the world.

Chat was incredibly silent. It was, after all, early in the work day in North America. But finally someone spoke:

“I just can’t believe what’s going on in NYC.”

“I know. I came here to get away from it for a while. Too mind-boggling.”

Me too, I thought. And then it happened...

“I’m in Australia,” someone said. “We are all heartbroken for our friends in the US.”

“London here,” someone else chimed in, “But we’re all New Yorkers today.”

And the sentiments came pouring in. The support was overwhelming and thinking about it brings me to tears to this day, 13 years later. Not a single harsh or political word was spoken. Instead, the channel flooded with words of support and solidarity. Where hours ago I had seen nothing but a bleak world filled with hatred and extremism, now I saw humans showing just how decent and kind they can be, especially in times of crisis. And I felt better knowing they were out there.

Do you have a story to share about how online gaming communities helped you through a difficult time? I’d love for you to share them in the comments below. If you’d prefer to remain anonymous, you can make a free account with Disqus.

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Last Updated: Mar 18, 2016

About The Author

Karen is H.D.i.C. (Head Druid in Charge) at EQHammer. She likes chocolate chip pancakes, warm hugs, gaming so late that it's early, and rooting things and covering them with bees. Don't read her Ten Ton Hammer column every Tuesday. Or the EQHammer one every Thursday, either.