Simulated Friendships?

The Sims Online (TSO) was my first experience with what would become a multi-million-dollar industry: MMOs, or Massively Multiplayer Online games. Gaming in TSO was much different than modern gaming because the principles of the game were very basic: helping a cartoon person with basic need and goal fulfilment while chatting with other players in the game. Many of today’s MMOs are much more complex and geared toward group play with quest-oriented goals. Strangely, it’s because of the simplicity of TSO that I learned to love MMOs, and as a result I have made such strong friendships online that they have become my friends offline, too.

Setting up a popular property in TSO was a challenge, but also a priority if users wanted to meet other players. Once users put their “sim” on someone’s property, they were connected to everyone else there via the chat function, which in many ways was the genesis of texting shorthand. People with limited English skills could type in chat shorthand without fear of being judged as inadequate. Headsets with microphones hadn’t been incorporated yet, so people could stay as anonymous as they wanted. I only had to share what I wanted to share. Implicit trust among most players, in the early days, dictated that even though people didn’t reveal everything about themselves, they were expected to be genuine. I wish that rule held true in today’s social media.

My favorite properties in TSO were the discos, where players could take their sims to dance. A few users had the ability to run a DJ station and could take requests for live music streamed into the game, a novelty at the time. I remember some wild parties with trivia and strip poker. We even had drinking games, although the cards and booze were played on our honor—we had to promise not to cheat because we had no webcams, a feature built into most modern game systems.

I had my TSO property set up like a school, and I role-played a school principal, herding visitors from room to room for math, English, home ec, history, and science classes. A full day’s schedule only took about a half hour, and I had very strict rules about how my visitors could behave (raise your hand, be courteous to the teachers, etc.). I had guests from all over the world tour my school in a fast-paced typical American school day. Some would even set their alarms so they could be on my property by 8:00 a.m. Mountain Standard Time. They’d go through my structured schedule, then hang out in the virtual student lounge afterward, chatting and laughing about how their “day” went. They seemed to find it entertaining that their “principal” was a teacher in real life.

The best part about connecting with people from all over the world was that in TSO, everyone appeared the same. Regardless of real life origin, race, ethnicity, disability, language, or any other distinguishing factor, when users entered the game, none of that mattered. One of my friends was a female dentist in Dubai. She and I had many conversations about what it was like being a woman in our respective countries. She said she had to work harder to be a dentist than a man did, and she had to share an office with a man because no one would rent her a space by herself. I often wonder how she’s doing today, with such a drastically changed political climate in her home country. I hope she’s safe.

I also met my friend Dale in TSO. His sim’s biography read something like, “I can’t stand bad grammar,” which of course caused me to strike up a conversation. He is a computer specialist who, at the time, chatted with me about some printer issue he was having. As we got to know each other, we found ourselves looking to see when the other person was online. Dale introduced me to Stan, his best friend in real life, who had asked Dale to play the beta-version of TSO the previous year to help the developers test it. Their test accounts evolved into charter memberships when the game went live, so they knew about all the technical aspects of the game. We chatted often, and over the course of several years, we grew to be close friends, eventually visiting each other’s homes and meeting at conventions together. Stan gave me his “Charter Edition” CD set of TSO several years ago, and even though we can’t play it anymore, it serves as a reminder of when we first met.

I stopped playing TSO in 2006 and it went offline in 2008. I still miss the daily banter with my old friends, because modern games, with their headsets and webcams, just aren’t the same. The only reason I can type 106 words a minute without looking at the keyboard is because of TSO. I’ve played lots of different MMOs since then, making several more friends through gameplay, and it’s all because of the jump start into online gaming that TSO gave me.

Currently, I have a level 109 guild in Dungeons and Dragons Online. Our guild is a collaborative effort among several dedicated players, each with their own goals and style of play. We try to game together each Friday night and Sunday afternoon, although with my school schedule I rarely have enough time to devote to the sometimes lengthy quests. We’ve been a close team since 2011, and I often find myself missing the sound of their voices and the relief from daily pressures that gaming with them gives me.

Over the years I’ve discovered something special. Just because players can’t see someone’s face every day doesn’t mean they can’t be close friends, and share victories and life experience with one another. Maybe the world would be a happier place if more people followed our guild’s number one rule: “If it’s not fun, stop playing.”

Photo By: DeLyn Martineau