My Internet Friends

I learned the other day that a friend I’d lost touch with passed away. He was a good person who had helped my wife and me when we were scraping by. We still are, but so is half the country

Although I’d known this friend for years before we lost touch, I had only seen him once in person. That’s because I met him the same way I met the people who notified me that he had died: PC gaming. We knew him as “Space,” and alongside him, our group would raid the war-torn continents of Auraxis in a first-person shooter game called Planetside 2

It occurred to me how meaningful these communities have been in my life. Space was one of many friends I’ve made online, whether through Twitter or gaming. Like many people I have met this way, he was funny, intelligent and in search of community, as all of us are.

There’s a part of this story that is, by now, obvious. Virtual social networks have made it easy for people with common interests  to befriend others like themselves without the constraints of geography. “Birds of the same color do flock together in the online world, too,” said Dr. Ying Xie, professor of marketing in the Naveen Jindal School of Management. Xie and her colleagues published a paper in the Journal of Marketing Research on how strangers become friends. It draws on social science to confirm what anyone who has participated in these special interest communities already understands.

“Similarity matters a lot when strangers choose to become friends in an online social network,” Xie added. “Having common friends, common interests and common demographic traits—age, gender and location—all improve the odds that two strangers become friends in an online community.”

The less obvious part of this phenomenon is that the communities created are much more than common interest spaces. 

I met Space and our group of gamers during a transitional stage of life. A door had shut, and I had no idea what to do with myself. Though I had casually gamed in high school, I hadn’t touched the stuff for years afterwards. I had read the memoir of the late U.S. Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle around that time, and he mentioned spending a lot of time playing Command & Conquer, a real-time strategy game, while in Baghdad. I wasn’t in Baghdad, but with time to kill, I needed a distraction. Instead, I found lifelong friends, people with whom I still keep in touch, and who I can say had a profound impact on my life in a positive way. 

Space and I lost touch around 2015 or 2016 when real-world politics infected our little online community to the extent that it eventually became just as polarized as any college campus. It was a bummer. Friends were scattered to the winds by politics that, in the end, were far less important than the camaraderie we had. It all came flooding back to memory after I recently,  after a long hiatus, picked up the mouse and keyboard for Helldivers 2, which is sort of like the movie Starship Troopers but in a video game form that incorporates myriad science fiction influences, from Aliens to Terminator

Somehow, I stumbled into another community comprised mostly of men, from boomers to zoomers, including many fathers who, after the kids are tucked in, deploy from destroyers in orbit above hostile alien worlds to spread “managed democracy” below. People play to unwind. They also play to have other people to talk to. Anonymity breeds honesty. But the stories you hear are real.

Fathers raising children with disabilities will tell you, as they exterminate hordes of bugs and automatons, what it’s like to love unconditionally through hardship in such a casual way that it puts your own problems in perspective. You meet guys who run successful businesses and use their profits to fund good causes. You run into men who served overseas and hear their stories of service, which are often told in a self-deprecating way. They are usually the ones to tell you that if you need anything, they’ll help you—and they mean it. 

It’s little wonder, then, that these spaces—where mainly men congregate, organize (online and then in the real world), and, above all, have fun beyond the reach of the censors—have long been targeted by the hall monitors of political correctness who want to tame the wild frontiers of virtual reality. See the Gamergate ordeal. 

I was told that right before Space passed away, he disappeared. Nobody knew what happened. He just stopped logging in. My friends managed to get in touch with his mother, and they learned that the disease he had been battling took a turn for the worse, and he died after a sharp decline.

Space didn’t seem to want to tell anyone what was coming. I knew he had endured a lot of suffering in life. Gaming, for him, as for a lot of us, was a way of tuning out. I don’t think he wanted to bring others down, and I noticed that Space was always trying to make other people laugh or offering them help. That’s how most of my internet friends are, and that’s how I’ll remember Space.

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