Page last updated at 11:05 GMT, Thursday, 9 July 2009 12:05 UK

Playing together and staying together

Wow screenshot, Blizzard
Many are finding that Warcraft is a powerful way to stay in touch

Nick Ryan
BBC News

There is no doubt that for many, online games such as World of Warcraft (WoW) are an escape from family and friends.

But for others, time-pressed, divided families, those divorced, living away from their loved ones, or simply with grown-up children, these games are increasingly being used to stay in touch.

They are becoming a natural way to maintain family ties because so many people play them. Many now boast player bases that number in the millions. Also they are no longer the preserve of teenage boys. Grown-ups play them too. The average age of the regular gamer is 25 and it has been estimated that up to 30% of the 11 million WoW players are women.

THE LOVERS

Professional musician Marcus Miller turned to Warcraft when he felt his life was falling apart.

Death knight, Blizzard
With 11 million players WoW is no longer the preserve of the young

"There came a point about two years ago where the band I was in just finished recording an independent album and I was sacked due to my relationship with the keyboard player, my girlfriend at the time, ending. I became depressed, renouncing both music and relationships."

"I played World of Warcraft more with the free time I had because of the escapism it brought. My problems didn't seem so bad if I had something to take my mind off them."

Whilst out "questing" in the game, he found himself talking to another Warlock character, who appeared to have bought some items he'd manufactured.

"Over the course of a few days we quested together, and as we did conversation would start to turn to real life and what we do when we're not playing WoW. It was around this time that we established the other's gender and to me it felt like I'd met someone I could like. I felt the first blush of a potential romance. However, she lived in Greece and I in England."

Over the weeks they swapped e-mails and their conversations took on a more erotic turn leading, as he put it, "to as I'm sure you can imagine cybersex."

"I suppose in the back of my mind for a short while I did wonder if she was being perfectly honest regarding her gender but once we spoke on the phone I was delighted to hear her perfect English, spoken with a very cute Greek accent."

"Over the course of around six months we became very close and decided that we should meet. We made a plan, and for one long weekend in August 2007 we actually met."

"It was slightly surreal to meet in real life, but not really awkward beyond the first 30 minutes or so as we got to know each other really well beforehand."

Now they talk to each other regularly over headsets, and using webcams whilst playing, and the relationship has been going from strength-to-strength, visiting each other in England and Greece every few weeks.

"I think we fell in love before even meeting and the Internet, or particularly MMOs, can provide an unbiased and safe way to act out and test the emotional water before risking as much personally. We 'roleplayed' falling in love and real life followed."

"Coming from someone who has met girls in many different settings - at work, in clubs and bars, through friends, even reaping the benefits of being 'a guy in a band' - meeting someone through WoW has been a real eye opener."

"In fact, the romantic in me would suggest that the chances of meeting 'The One' in your very own home town are slim. And what with the world becoming smaller and more accessible, this is becoming more and more common."

THE STUDENT

James Dugdale was a student at Lincoln University until 2008. As he now puts it: "I'm living in a house with three of my friends from Uni ... trying to get a games design portfolio together, and trying to write a novel to try and kick-start a creative career."

WoW artwork, Blizzard
Online games are becoming a platform in their own right

An MMO veteran, Mr Dugdale said he approached most of them "purely for the gaming experience".

"WoW being the only real exception," he added. "I was actually approaching WoW as a world as much as a game. I look at these games both as videogames, and as social platforms."

He regularly met with his guild in real life, and had made many friends through the game. He chatted away to his old university friends inside Azeroth, the game world, even though distance now separated them in the real one.

It also allowed him to stay in touch with his parents, living several hundred miles away in Gillingham, Dorset.

"Whilst I occasionally keep in contact with my parents via phone, I have far more contact with my younger brothers via World of Warcraft. Both of them have characters in my guild, The Haven, and the elder of the two, 16, has raided with me on numerous occasions."

"Sometimes messages from my parents are relayed via my brothers through the game," he said. "If the message is short enough to not warrant a full phone call. There is sometimes as much communication with my parents via my brothers in-game than there is via the phone. Sad, I know, but I don't phone home all that often these days."

"Finally, two of my dearest friends live in Holland, and whilst I didn't actually know them until I met them through WoW in the first place, it is now my main method of communicating with them until I can raise the funds to go see them again."

"Bad communities often cripple big online games, and bad gameplay can cripple the communities. But I believe the communities are multiplying and growing, and that we're going to see that become a more and more important strength in the social aspect of the games."

THE FAMILY

One Portuguese businessman, who prefers to remain anonymous, met his wife 15 years via Telnet which then migrated to a shared interest in an online game Lineage.

Blood elf, Blizzard
Some use Warcraft to pass messages on via siblings

Five years after moving to Florida, where he worked as an IT consultant, he returned to Portugal for his grandfather's funeral.

"My grandfather was the owner of a family business that employed more than 1000 people, now leaderless. I was given the opportunity to take control: I was bored with the job I had and the income was going be a lot bigger, so the idea appealed."

But his oldest child was in school and doing well; his wife and other two children didn't speak Portuguese.

"After much talking with my wife, we came to the conclusion that we were gonna try it: I was going to come back to Portugal, work here and go to Florida every chance I had."

"And that's where World of Warcraft came into the scene," he said. "I can even play it from my office, on my laptop anywhere, and spend as much time as I can with my wife online."

The two play together with their children, and meet and talk virtually as often as they can, via the game.

"So every day, me and my wife spend all the time talking, using Skype when I'm at work and have time to play together, or just talking. At night I log on my webcam and we even have dinner together as a family."

"My oldest is already eight and can play it with us... he is a hunter of course! The youngster already sits with mom and watches her play too."

He described the game world as a community or a neighbourhood.

"WoW helps our family in the sense that it allows us to keep things in common. It allows us to have a theme of conversation for hours. I don't want to bore my wife with stupid work problems every day, because that's what I would do. And looking at the webcam saying 'sooo how was your day?' can only take me so far. WoW changed that."

He said he would pay 10 times his monthly subscription fee to have the service he felt it provided him.

"I am sure the day I go back home to Florida, will be the day we will play a lot less WoW. But it has served his purpose."



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