Are online friends real?

This is kind of topic that will always be debated. Given my non-chalant attitude about everything, my answer is, “I don’t really care if they’re real or not, I only care about if I care about them.” Can you quantify the amount of fucks given? Can you put a number on how much you care?

The anime series Recovery of an MMO Junkie has a protagonist who revolves her life around gaming. There are many types of games, with MMOs only being one type that is addictive to people who are lonely or socially motivated. While the show is fiction, there are people who play for hours at a time and the problem itself is based in reality.

The r/StopGaming subreddit is a support group for anyone who is trying to quit video game addiction and become more productive in real life. A common occurance is that when a gamer quits gaming, they have to quit their gaming friend group and move on. As your interests change, your friends end up changing too. Now, I’m sure you can compromise, but if the group enjoys gaming as a common activity, then quitting means leaving. It’s the same situation as a Burger Appreciation member announcing that they’re going vegan.

We could say that gamer friends are not real friends, since you don’t see them in real life unless you make the effort. Yet I’ve always wondered how I would react if I heard an “online friend” has died. Would I spend the money to buy a plane ticket and visit their funeral? I’d like to imagine I would, but that also involves me imagining myself as a millionaire. The real answer is, “No I wouldn’t,” and especially not during the COVID-19 pandemic (or is it COVID-22 now?).

An “online friend” of mine has died recently, and I heard the news through the usual Discord gossip grapevine. This community itself is loosely interconnected through a game that many people no longer play, but we keep hanging around each other and keep the game alive through private servers.

This person, who I will call Louis as a placeholder name, is someone who I’ve never seen his face. I don’t know his real name. I’ve only heard his voice, and know that he exists. I still share a Discord server with his profile, and I’ve had generally positive experiences with him. I have video game clips, highlights, where he is speaking.

Louis took his own life.

I am saddened, but not surprised. Many people I’ve met online tend to be suicidal. Some have attempted suicide before and are living with the consequences. Why do I meet a lot of depressives? Maybe it’s just cognitive bias: I remember those who admitted feeling suicidal to me, either privately or jokingly.

The internet has made it easier for outcasts to find a community. When your local “tribe” is simply too insular or incompatible, or has no concept of mental health wellness, and doesn’t give you validation for emotions, it’s natural that people flock to an online refuge.

Now, I have no idea what Louis’s situation was. All I know is that he was the same age as me and he lived in Australia. We briefly discussed the differences between Australian and American secondary education systems. When we quit the game, we quit speaking to each other. Our relationship was cordial, and he never admitted anything about contemplating suicide to me. Perhaps never being able to release the negative emotions, an unwillingness to be a “burden,” or being “carried” through life, is the core of the problem?

All I can say is that college is really stressful, and it’s not a good sign to be gaming a lot in college. (HEH, I say that, but I did play a lot of games in college even though I really shouldn’t have). To be fair, his parents probably have no idea what was going on either. By the time the child becomes an adult, they have the choice to ignore you.

Now, I’m not going to blame myself for someone else’s decision to end life, but I do wonder if I had helped him. Did he enjoy his time on earth? Did we have fun together and make it worth living for even a little while?

Suicidal intentions brew for a long time, and yet the actual death seems to “come out of nowhere,” because we hide our weaknesses. When we reach adulthood, aren’t we all trying to convince ourselves that life is worth living? I don’t know if acknowledging or caring about people is supposed to make a difference. I don’t know if imagining someone caring about me is just as good as someone saying they care about me, or whether someone lives up to my expectations of what caring is supposed to look like.

The only good thing I’ve ever done for Louis is introduce him to a Discord server that is predominantly Australian. The people have a better schedule that matches his, understands the social customs better, still plays similar games of his interest, and they meet up in real life because they are geographically close.

I don’t even know why I keep the server on my list, because I barely play with them. I also had some awkward drama about benching someone from a raid team. That server really is a ghost. I keep it for the flimiest reason: nostalgia.

Even then, the benefit turned out to be more for Louis’s family. While I had long stopped interacting with the server, during that time, the Aussies added each other on Facebook and extended the relationship beyond Discord. Once they received news of his death, they will be able to organize a trip to visit Louis’s grave.

Online friends are a kind of Pinnochio, where they aren’t real and yet they’re tangible. Maybe some day, they can become “real friends,” but it’s also okay to keep them as puppet friends.

I suppose people will judge you for having “puppet friends,” which I don’t think is any less important than acquaintances. It’s okay to be satisfied with what you have. People say they dislike when acquaintances share too much information, which never made sense to me. What’s the point of living if you don’t acknowledge your own experience, and other people won’t either? What’s the point of talking if we’re all going agree to lie about our lives and pretend things are fine?

I know there are people who will use sensitive information against you. It’s funny that we are hurt by our own truths. Because we cannot handle criticism well, we will always put up a front. Because we have to simultaneously share vulnerability to feel alive, yet keep our lips closed about vulnerability, a mistake slips out. An innocent statement triggers PTSD that no one knew existed.

For example, I was making fun of people who waste money on Starbucks coffee and my friend got triggered and said, “How is spending money on coffee any different than on video games, or any other hobby?” Then I got triggered. Really a stupid situation, and I deserved it. That’s the kind of deep-seated PTSD I’m talking about. If I didn’t enjoy video games so much, I would’ve interpreted it as a clinical example; a fair debate point. Instead it affected me. When my heart was panicking I said, “Let’s drop the discussion” because I couldn’t think clearly.

Am I considered a real friend? I would’ve liked to meet Louis in real life, get to know his name, and know about him as a person. I would’ve liked to say, “I consider you a friend. Come talk to me if you want.”

I don’t want to sound fake or like I’m trying to eat a piece of a pie I don’t deserve. It’s better to respect people’s privacy, and if they don’t want to mix their online and real personas, that’s fine. People want to hide. People want to reinvent themselves. We’re shy about being judged, we’re burnt out by relationships that didn’t work. We make our choices.

If a video game is what it takes to feel successful, is that bad or good? Why is it so hard to let people define happiness and success for themselves? Is it hard to accept that reality is not static, that it can change, that diversity and difference is what keeps our ecosystem alive?

Whether you quit gaming, quit friends, or quit life, the decision to quit what you love is very difficult.