The reality of friendship within immersive virtual worlds

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<ul><li><p>ORIGINAL PAPER</p><p>The reality of friendship within immersive virtual worlds</p><p>Nicholas John Munn</p><p>Published online: 21 May 2011</p><p> Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011</p><p>Abstract In this article I examine a recent development</p><p>in online communication, the immersive virtual worlds</p><p>of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games</p><p>(MMORPGs). I argue that these environments provide a</p><p>distinct form of online experience from the experience</p><p>available through earlier generation forms of online com-</p><p>munication such as newsgroups, chat rooms, email and</p><p>instant messaging. The experience available to participants</p><p>in MMORPGs is founded on shared activity, while the</p><p>experience of earlier generation online communication is</p><p>largely if not wholly dependent on the communication itself.</p><p>This difference, I argue, makes interaction in immersive</p><p>virtual worlds such as MMORPGs relevantly similar to</p><p>interaction in the physical world, and distinguishes both</p><p>physical world and immersive virtual world interaction from</p><p>other forms of online communication. I argue that to the</p><p>extent that shared activity is a core element in the formation</p><p>of friendships, friendships can form in immersive virtual</p><p>worlds as they do in the physical world, and that this possi-</p><p>bility was unavailable in earlier forms of online interaction. I</p><p>do, however, note that earlier forms of online interaction are</p><p>capable of sustaining friendships formed through either</p><p>physical or immersive virtual world interaction. I conclude</p><p>that we cannot any longer make a sharp distinction between</p><p>the physical and the virtual world, as the characteristics of</p><p>friendship are able to be developed in each.</p><p>Keywords Virtual worlds Friendship MMORPGs Interaction</p><p>Introduction</p><p>Many differences have been claimed between the rela-</p><p>tionships developed online and those developed in the</p><p>physical world. Dean Cocking and Steve Matthews have</p><p>argued that net friends are relevantly distinct from</p><p>friends, and do not fulfil all the characteristics of friendship</p><p>(2000). More recently, Adam Briggle has critiqued this</p><p>position, arguing that online communication can (but often</p><p>does not) result in close friendships (2008). In this article I</p><p>discuss the possibility of friendship formation in the</p><p>immersive virtual worlds of massively multiplayer online</p><p>role-playing games (MMORPGs), focussing on the concept</p><p>of shared activity as a requirement of the development of</p><p>friendship. This concept has most effectively been articu-</p><p>lated by Bennett Helm (2008). I argue that MMORPGs</p><p>facilitate friendship development through shared activity in</p><p>a way parallel to that offered by physical world interaction,</p><p>and that both the immersive virtual worlds of MMORPGs</p><p>and the physical world can be distinguished from prior</p><p>generations of online interaction in virtue of their ability to</p><p>provide this medium for shared activity. As MMORPGs</p><p>are a relatively recent phenomenon, I spend some time</p><p>examining the fundamental shift that has occurred in</p><p>moving to this kind of online interaction from previous</p><p>generation forms of online interaction such as email, chat</p><p>rooms, instant messaging and newsgroups. I also discuss</p><p>the status of newly emerging immersive social environ-</p><p>ments such as Facebook, arguing that these are more</p><p>similar to the prior generation online communication than</p><p>to either physical interaction or immersive virtual worlds.</p><p>N. J. Munn (&amp;)School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies,</p><p>Monash University, Melbourne, VIC 3800, Australia</p><p>e-mail: Nicholas.Munn@monash.edu</p><p>123</p><p>Ethics Inf Technol (2012) 14:110</p><p>DOI 10.1007/s10676-011-9274-6</p></li><li><p>In order to achieve this, I argue that the purpose and use of</p><p>Facebook and similar online social networks is importantly</p><p>distinct from the purpose and use of immersive virtual</p><p>worlds such as World of Warcraft, drawing on a distinction</p><p>between using these services for communication (as occurs</p><p>in Facebook use) and engaging in shared activity within</p><p>virtual worlds.</p><p>The possibility of friendship formation within immer-</p><p>sive virtual worlds is important as it enables the benefits</p><p>of friendship to be shared more broadly. In particular, it is</p><p>commonly held that special obligations arise between</p><p>friends (Scheffler 1997; Mason 1997; Leib 2007) and the</p><p>ability to form relationships incurring these obligations</p><p>remotely has the potential to raise important issues of</p><p>responsibility and expectation arising from virtual rela-</p><p>tionships. Friendships elicit responsibility, such that when</p><p>faced with a choice between acting so as to benefit a</p><p>friend or to benefit a stranger, the fact that one possible</p><p>beneficiary is a friend gives a reason to act in their</p><p>favour. If online relationships can generate friendships,</p><p>then they similarly generate these kinds of obligations,</p><p>held by us to those we have never physically met. It is</p><p>this feature of online friendships that is controversial, as it</p><p>implies duties to act in particular ways to preserve the</p><p>online friendship, including acting to the detriment of</p><p>non-friends with whom one does have physical contact,</p><p>when so acting is necessary to avoid similar detriment</p><p>accruing to the online friend. If friendships can be formed</p><p>online, then all the special obligations triggered by</p><p>friendship generally are triggered by these friendships,</p><p>and our accounts of special responsibility must be able to</p><p>take this into account. A second important consequence of</p><p>the possibility of online friendship development arises</p><p>from the ability of friendships to enhance our knowledge,</p><p>particularly in this case our knowledge of the world and</p><p>those within it. Elizabeth Telfer argues that friendship</p><p>itself is knowledge enhancing (1971), and as such the</p><p>possibility of developing true friendships online opens the</p><p>opportunity for friendship with a wider range of persons</p><p>than are generally available through physical world social</p><p>networks. People from divergent backgrounds, societies</p><p>and status are available as potential friends who would</p><p>not be available without the medium of the immersive</p><p>virtual world. This second argument is probabilistic.</p><p>Online friendships are distinctly valuable because they</p><p>provide the opportunity for those that have them to</p><p>interact with and gain knowledge of people in social</p><p>settings distinct from their own, more easily than is the</p><p>case without online friendship. This knowledge could be</p><p>gained in other ways (as for example when you befriend</p><p>new arrivals from abroad), but the possibility of real</p><p>friendship formation online makes such friendships more</p><p>feasible for more people, more often.</p><p>The structure of the article is as follows. Firstly, I make</p><p>the case for the centrality of shared activity in the forma-</p><p>tion of friendships. Secondly, I apply the shared activity</p><p>criterion to the four kinds of activity identified above: older</p><p>generation online communications; social media; immer-</p><p>sive virtual worlds; and the physical world. Thirdly, I argue</p><p>that neither older generation online communications nor</p><p>social media have the capacity to develop close friend-</p><p>ships, while both immersive virtual worlds and the physical</p><p>world share this capacity. Fourthly and finally, I argue that</p><p>all four kinds of activity share an ability to maintain</p><p>existing friendships.</p><p>The characteristics of friendship</p><p>Aristotle identifies three kinds of friendship, the imperfect</p><p>friendships of utility and of pleasure, and the perfect</p><p>friendship of virtue, in which each participant wishes well</p><p>for the other for their own sake, rather than as a means to</p><p>either the utility or pleasure of the lesser friendships. (1998,</p><p>NE 8.34) It is this last, perfect friendship with which I am</p><p>concerned in this article, as imperfect friendships do not</p><p>have the same strong positive outcomes as perfect friend-</p><p>ships, and also are taken by many commentators to be more</p><p>feasibly established online. Cocking and Matthews, for</p><p>example, confine their criticism of net friends to close</p><p>friendships, acknowledging that some of the characteristics</p><p>of friendships can and do develop through online interac-</p><p>tion (2000).</p><p>Certain characteristics of friendships are accepted by all</p><p>who work in the area. Dean Cocking and Jeanette Kennett</p><p>identify affection and well-wishing as components accep-</p><p>ted by all accounts of friendship (1998), while Bennett</p><p>Helm argues that the concepts of mutual caring, intimacy</p><p>and shared activity are shared by the majority of philo-</p><p>sophical accounts of friendship (2010). Mutual caring is the</p><p>idea that each friend cares for the other and does so for the</p><p>sake of the other, not themselves; intimacy is the notion of</p><p>a deeper relationship than mere collegiality or acquain-</p><p>tance, and shared activity is the idea that friends will do</p><p>things together, as they each enjoy the thing in question,</p><p>and, further, they enjoy doing this thing in the company of</p><p>friends.1 In this article I focus predominantly on the shared</p><p>activity criterion of friendship, which originated with</p><p>Aristotle who claimed that friends will share their activities</p><p>and in doing so improve themselves and their friendship.</p><p>(1998, NE 9.12) I do so as I consider this criterion to be</p><p>1 Discussion of these three criteria is, as Helm suggests, widespread</p><p>in the literature on friendship. In addition to Helm (2010), discussion</p><p>can be found in Cooper (1977a, b), Sherman (1987), Telfer (1971),</p><p>Thomas (1987). Helm (2009) provides many further discussions for</p><p>those interested.</p><p>2 N. J. Munn</p><p>123</p></li><li><p>foundational. It is (usually, if not always) through shared</p><p>activity that intimacy and mutual caring develop.2 Nancy</p><p>Sherman for example claims that it is the capacity to</p><p>share and co-ordinate activities over an extended period of</p><p>time that is constitutive of friendship (1987). A possible</p><p>exception arises in familial relationships, in which inti-</p><p>macy and mutual caring between parents and child exist</p><p>prior to any engagement in shared activity. However, it is</p><p>standard to draw a distinction between friendships in</p><p>general and familial relationships such that familial rela-</p><p>tionships are not friendships. (Helm 2010) Such a distinc-</p><p>tion begins with Aristotle, who distinguishes both the</p><p>friendship of kindred and that of comrades from his</p><p>general description of friendships. (1998, NE 8.12) I follow</p><p>that convention here.3 I take it that outside of the familial</p><p>environment, shared activity is the best available contender</p><p>for providing the kind of contact which is required for the</p><p>development of mutual caring and affection. If a particular</p><p>mode of interaction does not provide meaningful oppor-</p><p>tunities for shared activity, then this mode will also not be</p><p>able to cause a relationship of intimacy and mutual caring</p><p>to develop. As Aristotle says, friendship requires time and</p><p>familiarity and men cannot admit each other to friend-</p><p>ship or be friends till each has been found lovable and been</p><p>trusted by each. (1998, NE 8.3) To illustrate this point,</p><p>consider the development of a friendship between Jesse</p><p>and Kelly. They meet during a multi-day bike ride, in line</p><p>for the evening meal. Sitting together over dinner, they</p><p>already know they share an enthusiasm for bicycling.</p><p>Conversation reveals that they each work at a university,</p><p>one as a librarian, the other an academic. This provides a</p><p>further background of shared experience. Over the course</p><p>of the bike ride, they have more opportunities to converse.</p><p>It may transpire that they enjoy each others company, and</p><p>have further interests in common. From here, intimacy and</p><p>mutual caring can develop. While a chance encounter with</p><p>a stranger may in principle lead to the same kind of out-</p><p>come, it is at the least more likely that a foundation of</p><p>shared activity will provide a platform for the development</p><p>of a friendship than do situations which lack this</p><p>foundation.</p><p>Simply engaging in a mutually liked activity cannot</p><p>however suffice for that activity to be relevantly shared.</p><p>Two people may each enjoy bicycling, whilst having no</p><p>preference to bicycling with others. They may each enjoy</p><p>bicycling with others, without wishing to bicycle with a</p><p>particular other person. For the shared activity to be a</p><p>foundational component of friendship, it is also necessary</p><p>that each friend enjoys engaging in the activity with the</p><p>other. In this way, the pleasure of the activity is increased</p><p>by the company in which the activity is enjoyed. This</p><p>conception of mutual activity is articulated by Nancy</p><p>Sherman who follows Aristotle in claiming that the best</p><p>sort of friendship provides us with companions with whom</p><p>we can share goods and interests in a jointly pursued life</p><p>(1987). Not every person is a candidate for friendship. I will</p><p>argue in the following section that there is an important</p><p>difference between, on the one hand, earlier forms of online</p><p>interaction and the current generation social media para-</p><p>digm of online interaction, and on the other hand, interac-</p><p>tion in immersive virtual worlds and the physical world, in</p><p>the way that these realms facilitate shared activity.</p><p>Shared activity</p><p>In the four subsections below I address distinct kinds of</p><p>interaction. I argue that the early forms of online interac-</p><p>tion discussed in Early forms of online interaction and</p><p>the social media paradigm of interaction discussed in The</p><p>social media paradigm share a characteristic of not pro-</p><p>viding an independent means of engaging in shared activ-</p><p>ity, while immersive virtual worlds (Immersive virtual</p><p>worlds) and the physical world (The physical world)</p><p>both do provide such a forum. Before beginning this dis-</p><p>cussion, I must briefly describe the content of the shared</p><p>activity under consideration. I take it that the shared</p><p>activity component of friendship requires friends to coop-</p><p>eratively engage in activity, whether in pursuit of the</p><p>experience of doing so or of some greater goal, and to do so</p><p>not only for the sake of the activity, but in order to engage</p><p>in the activity with their friends. This means that, as dis-</p><p>cussed in Sect. The characteristics of friendship, one is</p><p>not engaged in shared activity just because they like</p><p>bicycling with others, and have found someone to bicycle</p><p>with. That other person must also wish to bicycle with</p><p>others, and each must want, specifically, to bicycle with the</p><p>other person, rather than simply to enjoy bicycling with</p><p>some unspecified other.</p><p>This concept of shared activity is demanding. It can be</p><p>contrasted with the accounts of social action theorists who</p><p>are concerned with examining what it means for groups of</p><p>agents to behave in a way that is coordinated through</p><p>planning and deliberation (Helm 2008). These accounts</p><p>are less demanding. A representative example is Michael</p><p>Bratmans account of shared cooperative activity which</p><p>does not require participants to have an interest in engaging</p><p>in the activity with specified others (1992).4 It is enough for</p><p>2 For examination of Intimacy and Mutual Caring, see Cocking and</p><p>Kennett (1998), White (2001). I do not address these criteria in depth</p><p>in this article.3 While some commentators, such as Rorty (1993) explicitly include</p><p>familial relationshi...</p></li></ul>

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