The reality of friendship within immersive virtual worlds

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    The reality of friendship within immersive virtual worlds

    Nicholas John Munn

    Published online: 21 May 2011

    Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

    Abstract In this article I examine a recent development

    in online communication, the immersive virtual worlds

    of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games

    (MMORPGs). I argue that these environments provide a

    distinct form of online experience from the experience

    available through earlier generation forms of online com-

    munication such as newsgroups, chat rooms, email and

    instant messaging. The experience available to participants

    in MMORPGs is founded on shared activity, while the

    experience of earlier generation online communication is

    largely if not wholly dependent on the communication itself.

    This difference, I argue, makes interaction in immersive

    virtual worlds such as MMORPGs relevantly similar to

    interaction in the physical world, and distinguishes both

    physical world and immersive virtual world interaction from

    other forms of online communication. I argue that to the

    extent that shared activity is a core element in the formation

    of friendships, friendships can form in immersive virtual

    worlds as they do in the physical world, and that this possi-

    bility was unavailable in earlier forms of online interaction. I

    do, however, note that earlier forms of online interaction are

    capable of sustaining friendships formed through either

    physical or immersive virtual world interaction. I conclude

    that we cannot any longer make a sharp distinction between

    the physical and the virtual world, as the characteristics of

    friendship are able to be developed in each.

    Keywords Virtual worlds Friendship MMORPGs Interaction


    Many differences have been claimed between the rela-

    tionships developed online and those developed in the

    physical world. Dean Cocking and Steve Matthews have

    argued that net friends are relevantly distinct from

    friends, and do not fulfil all the characteristics of friendship

    (2000). More recently, Adam Briggle has critiqued this

    position, arguing that online communication can (but often

    does not) result in close friendships (2008). In this article I

    discuss the possibility of friendship formation in the

    immersive virtual worlds of massively multiplayer online

    role-playing games (MMORPGs), focussing on the concept

    of shared activity as a requirement of the development of

    friendship. This concept has most effectively been articu-

    lated by Bennett Helm (2008). I argue that MMORPGs

    facilitate friendship development through shared activity in

    a way parallel to that offered by physical world interaction,

    and that both the immersive virtual worlds of MMORPGs

    and the physical world can be distinguished from prior

    generations of online interaction in virtue of their ability to

    provide this medium for shared activity. As MMORPGs

    are a relatively recent phenomenon, I spend some time

    examining the fundamental shift that has occurred in

    moving to this kind of online interaction from previous

    generation forms of online interaction such as email, chat

    rooms, instant messaging and newsgroups. I also discuss

    the status of newly emerging immersive social environ-

    ments such as Facebook, arguing that these are more

    similar to the prior generation online communication than

    to either physical interaction or immersive virtual worlds.

    N. J. Munn (&)School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies,

    Monash University, Melbourne, VIC 3800, Australia



    Ethics Inf Technol (2012) 14:110

    DOI 10.1007/s10676-011-9274-6

  • In order to achieve this, I argue that the purpose and use of

    Facebook and similar online social networks is importantly

    distinct from the purpose and use of immersive virtual

    worlds such as World of Warcraft, drawing on a distinction

    between using these services for communication (as occurs

    in Facebook use) and engaging in shared activity within

    virtual worlds.

    The possibility of friendship formation within immer-

    sive virtual worlds is important as it enables the benefits

    of friendship to be shared more broadly. In particular, it is

    commonly held that special obligations arise between

    friends (Scheffler 1997; Mason 1997; Leib 2007) and the

    ability to form relationships incurring these obligations

    remotely has the potential to raise important issues of

    responsibility and expectation arising from virtual rela-

    tionships. Friendships elicit responsibility, such that when

    faced with a choice between acting so as to benefit a

    friend or to benefit a stranger, the fact that one possible

    beneficiary is a friend gives a reason to act in their

    favour. If online relationships can generate friendships,

    then they similarly generate these kinds of obligations,

    held by us to those we have never physically met. It is

    this feature of online friendships that is controversial, as it

    implies duties to act in particular ways to preserve the

    online friendship, including acting to the detriment of

    non-friends with whom one does have physical contact,

    when so acting is necessary to avoid similar detriment

    accruing to the online friend. If friendships can be formed

    online, then all the special obligations triggered by

    friendship generally are triggered by these friendships,

    and our accounts of special responsibility must be able to

    take this into account. A second important consequence of

    the possibility of online friendship development arises

    from the ability of friendships to enhance our knowledge,

    particularly in this case our knowledge of the world and

    those within it. Elizabeth Telfer argues that friendship

    itself is knowledge enhancing (1971), and as such the

    possibility of developing true friendships online opens the

    opportunity for friendship with a wider range of persons

    than are generally available through physical world social

    networks. People from divergent backgrounds, societies

    and status are available as potential friends who would

    not be available without the medium of the immersive

    virtual world. This second argument is probabilistic.

    Online friendships are distinctly valuable because they

    provide the opportunity for those that have them to

    interact with and gain knowledge of people in social

    settings distinct from their own, more easily than is the

    case without online friendship. This knowledge could be

    gained in other ways (as for example when you befriend

    new arrivals from abroad), but the possibility of real

    friendship formation online makes such friendships more

    feasible for more people, more often.

    The structure of the article is as follows. Firstly, I make

    the case for the centrality of shared activity in the forma-

    tion of friendships. Secondly, I apply the shared activity

    criterion to the four kinds of activity identified above: older

    generation online communications; social media; immer-

    sive virtual worlds; and the physical world. Thirdly, I argue

    that neither older generation online communications nor

    social media have the capacity to develop close friend-

    ships, while both immersive virtual worlds and the physical

    world share this capacity. Fourthly and finally, I argue that

    all four kinds of activity share an ability to maintain

    existing friendships.

    The characteristics of friendship

    Aristotle identifies three kinds of friendship, the imperfect

    friendships of utility and of pleasure, and the perfect

    friendship of virtue, in which each participant wishes well

    for the other for their own sake, rather than as a means to

    either the utility or pleasure of the lesser friendships. (1998,

    NE 8.34) It is this last, perfect friendship with which I am

    concerned in this article, as imperfect friendships do not

    have the same strong positive outcomes as perfect friend-

    ships, and also are taken by many commentators to be more

    feasibly established online. Cocking and Matthews, for

    example, confine their criticism of net friends to close

    friendships, acknowledging that some of the characteristics

    of friendships can and do develop through online interac-

    tion (2000).

    Certain characteristics of friendships are accepted by all

    who work in the area. Dean Cocking and Jeanette Kennett

    identify affection and well-wishing as components accep-

    ted by all accounts of friendship (1998), while Bennett

    Helm argues that the concepts of mutual caring, intimacy

    and shared activity are shared by the majority of philo-

    sophical accounts of friendship (2010). Mutual caring is the

    idea that each friend cares for the other and does so for the

    sake of the other, not themselves; intimacy is the notion of

    a deeper relationship than mere collegiality or acquain-

    tance, and shared activity is the idea that friends will do

    things together, as they each enjoy the thing in question,

    and, further, they enjoy doing this thing in the company of

    friends.1 In this article I focus predominantly on the shared

    activity criterion of friendship, which originated with

    Aristotle who claimed that friends will share their activities

    and in doing so improve themselves and their friendship.

    (1998, NE 9.12) I do so as I consider this criterion to be

    1 Discussion of these three criteria is, as Helm suggests, widespread

    in the literature on friendship. In addition to Helm (2010), discussion

    can be found in Cooper (1977a, b), Sherman (1987), Telfer (1971),

    Thomas (1987). Helm (2009) provides many further discussions for

    those interested.

    2 N. J. Munn


  • foundational. It is (usually, if not always) through shared

    activity that intimacy and mutual caring develop.2 Nancy

    Sherman for example claims that it is the capacity to

    share and co-ordinate activities over an extended period of

    time that is constitutive of friendship (1987). A possible

    exception arises in familial relationships, in which inti-

    macy and mutual caring between parents and child exist

    prior to any engagement in shared activity. However, it is

    standard to draw a distinction between friendships in

    general and familial relationships such that familial rela-

    tionships are not friendships. (Helm 2010) Such a distinc-

    tion begins with Aristotle, who distinguishes both the

    friendship of kindred and that of comrades from his

    general description of friendships. (1998, NE 8.12) I follow

    that convention here.3 I take it that outside of the familial

    environment, shared activity is the best available contender

    for providing the kind of contact which is required for the

    development of mutual caring and affection. If a particular

    mode of interaction does not provide meaningful oppor-

    tunities for shared activity, then this mode will also not be

    able to cause a relationship of intimacy and mutual caring

    to develop. As Aristotle says, friendship requires time and

    familiarity and men cannot admit each other to friend-

    ship or be friends till each has been found lovable and been

    trusted by each. (1998, NE 8.3) To illustrate this point,

    consider the development of a friendship between Jesse

    and Kelly. They meet during a multi-day bike ride, in line

    for the evening meal. Sitting together over dinner, they

    already know they share an enthusiasm for bicycling.

    Conversation reveals that they each work at a university,

    one as a librarian, the other an academic. This provides a

    further background of shared experience. Over the course

    of the bike ride, they have more opportunities to converse.

    It may transpire that they enjoy each others company, and

    have further interests in common. From here, intimacy and

    mutual caring can develop. While a chance encounter with

    a stranger may in principle lead to the same kind of out-

    come, it is at the least more likely that a foundation of

    shared activity will provide a platform for the development

    of a friendship than do situations which lack this


    Simply engaging in a mutually liked activity cannot

    however suffice for that activity to be relevantly shared.

    Two people may each enjoy bicycling, whilst having no

    preference to bicycling with others. They may each enjoy

    bicycling with others, without wishing to bicycle with a

    particular other person. For the shared activity to be a

    foundational component of friendship, it is also necessary

    that each friend enjoys engaging in the activity with the

    other. In this way, the pleasure of the activity is increased

    by the company in which the activity is enjoyed. This

    conception of mutual activity is articulated by Nancy

    Sherman who follows Aristotle in claiming that the best

    sort of friendship provides us with companions with whom

    we can share goods and interests in a jointly pursued life

    (1987). Not every person is a candidate for friendship. I will

    argue in the following section that there is an important

    difference between, on the one hand, earlier forms of online

    interaction and the current generation social media para-

    digm of online interaction, and on the other hand, interac-

    tion in immersive virtual worlds and the physical world, in

    the way that these realms facilitate shared activity.

    Shared activity

    In the four subsections below I address distinct kinds of

    interaction. I argue that the early forms of online interac-

    tion discussed in Early forms of online interaction and

    the social media paradigm of interaction discussed in The

    social media paradigm share a characteristic of not pro-

    viding an independent means of engaging in shared activ-

    ity, while immersive virtual worlds (Immersive virtual

    worlds) and the physical world (The physical world)

    both do provide such a forum. Before beginning this dis-

    cussion, I must briefly describe the content of the shared

    activity under consideration. I take it that the shared

    activity component of friendship requires friends to coop-

    eratively engage in activity, whether in pursuit of the

    experience of doing so or of some greater goal, and to do so

    not only for the sake of the activity, but in order to engage

    in the activity with their friends. This means that, as dis-

    cussed in Sect. The characteristics of friendship, one is

    not engaged in shared activity just because they like

    bicycling with others, and have found someone to bicycle

    with. That other person must also wish to bicycle with

    others, and each must want, specifically, to bicycle with the

    other person, rather than simply to enjoy bicycling with

    some unspecified other.

    This concept of shared activity is demanding. It can be

    contrasted with the accounts of social action theorists who

    are concerned with examining what it means for groups of

    agents to behave in a way that is coordinated through

    planning and deliberation (Helm 2008). These accounts

    are less demanding. A representative example is Michael

    Bratmans account of shared cooperative activity which

    does not require participants to have an interest in engaging

    in the activity with specified others (1992).4 It is enough for

    2 For examination of Intimacy and Mutual Caring, see Cocking and

    Kennett (1998), White (2001). I do not address these criteria in depth

    in this article.3 While some commentators, such as Rorty (1993) explicitly include

    familial relationshi...


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