by mnmsgin, HSM guest contributor
Do you consider the avatars you meet in Home to be real people with real feelings, or simply animated cartoons? Can you truly get close to anyone on Home? Would you trust them enough to invite them into your real life?
When I bought my PS3, I had no idea Home was out there. I got my console because Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock had my favorite song on it. At that time, my video game experience was limited to Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Add to that the fact that I live in a small town in Wisconsin — so small, that when I called the phone company to get an Internet connection for my PS3, they laughed and asked what I was using the Internet for. When I told them it was for gaming, they had no idea what I was talking about. The phone company came and hooked me up, but Home didn’t work. After a month of fixing this and changing that, they finally got it to work. Soon others in my small town started buying PS3 consoles, and they were calling me to get Internet connection advice.
When I first arrived in Home, I thought of the other people there as cartoons. We’re all on Home because we are gamers. And, because we play video games, we are used to seeing other people as NPC automatons with limited, pre-programmed interactions. I didn’t stop to think that the person behind the controller was sitting in their own home, doing exactly what I was doing.
Because I didn’t see other avatars as real people at first, I wasn’t very cautious with my friendships. I shared a lot of personal information, but I didn’t realize that the rules of friendship are different in Home, where relationships can develop faster, but with less depth. Many people in Home are “friend collectors”. I’m sure you’ve met them, and I did too. Perhaps I was a bit of one myself. During my first three months in Home, I made many friends I never saw again. They forgot me, and I quickly deleted them, and forgot them as well.
But let’s be honest: if you’re in Home for any length of time, you’re probably looking for some sort of emotional connection. Home was created as a social network for gamers, after all. And it functions as one, despite its clumsy and often limited interface. After a while, casual friendships get boring, and you start looking for something more serious. If you’re lucky, you’ll find your connection. And once you do, you will never view another Home avatar as an NPC cartoon again.
Before I found Home, a friend was someone I could call on the phone and make a date to get together for coffee or go shopping. Of course expectations are very different in virtual reality. Some people come on Home just to be an avatar with no connection to the people they meet, while others want to form a bond with other people. And then there are some who want to carry their friendship into the real world. This was an option I didn’t even consider. How could I trust someone who was only a cartoon? But all that quickly changed when I met the people who became my virtual, and then my real-life friends.
The connection I found was a group called the Black Hat Squad. Many of you have probably made similar intense connections with individuals or groups during your stay in Home. Joining a group and truly becoming social with other users in Home is a fascinating experience. When abused, it can lead to the worst sort of stereotyped “fam” behavior. However, you can also have a truly positive experience. And when that happens, it can be argued that you are using Home in the way it was originally designed.
In my own case, meeting the Black Hats, including my close friends coug and Dr_Do-Little, was a very positive experience. We’ve exchanged e-mail addresses, Facebook and Skype information. I have even met some of them in real life. This sort of exchange of information is not something to be done lightly, but it can be become necessary if you wish to continue your relationship — Home doesn’t offer the same communication tools as dedicated social networks. What it does offer, though, is a 3D environment in which virtual social interaction feels much deeper than it does through simple email or Facebook exchanges. And this is when you realize that although we live in a cartoonish world with our cartoonish avatars, everyone there is a real person.
(HSM does not condone any behavior which is against Sony’s terms of service. –Ed.)
I found myself turning to my online friends more often when I went through some rough times in my life. If I had a bad day, they were there to help me. And if they were having a bad day, I was there for them too. When we are on Home, we hang out and have fun. You can find us flying at Novus Prime most of the time. But when too much stuff is going on in our real lives, we leave and go to a personal space to talk.
When Home is down for maintenance, we meet in chat rooms. This is how we got to know the real people behind the avatars. While we are in the chat rooms, we show each other pictures of our real-life families and vacations, and pictures we took on Home. One night one of my friends was showing pictures of his recent vacation. He had pictures of the beaches, animals, and him driving his boat. But then in the middle of the pictures there was one that we all just stared at, at a loss for words. Why did he have this picture?
One of my Home friends came to my rescue in real life when I was stuck at a bus station. He picked me up and we went to have a bite to eat, and he let me crash at his house so I didn’t have to sit in the station for 24 hours. We talked about how nice it was to finally meet in real life. I showed him a few tricks on his PS3. Then he took me back to the bus station. Now when my real life family asks how can I trust anyone on the “game”, I remind them what that friend did for me. It’s true this required a tremendous amount of trust, but since the bus station in question is in Detroit, it seemed like a safer choice to trust a friend.
I know some people are not as lucky as I have been with finding these good friends. Trust me, I weeded out the bad ones. And I’m still finding that some that I thought were friends were just acting.
Most people try to stay away from Home drama. I wish I had — it would have saved me some bad scares. And I’ve learned that on Home, some avatars are mean and nasty because they’re not that special in the real world, and when they’re on Home they can be a new person. Most choose to be a better person, but some choose to be worse. Home feels like High School at times, with cliques and even bullies. On Home, the bullies are called “trolls”. One thing I have learned on Home is that grown men can act like kids here, and people don’t really think too much about it.
But let me ask you a question: do you have a Home friend who is closer to you — who knows more about you, and whom you are more emotionally engaged with — than someone in the real world? To someone unfamiliar with Home, this may sound ludicrous. Yet if you use Home on a consistent basis, you are probably nodding your head in agreement. We are the first generation of humans who can spend years communicating easily and deeply with people whom we will never meet. And certainly, the friends I’ve made amongst the Black Hats are very close to me — to the point where I’m planning my real-world marriage to one of them, with another giving me away at the ceremony, another serving as a maid of honor, and several members planning on attending the wedding. A wedding which, in keeping with our Home traditions, will be Novus Prime-themed, with wardrobe colors matching the blue-and-purple motif Hellfire Games ran with. Even the engagement ring is Nebulon purple. I am also going to make the Black Hat for all those “Hatters” that attend.
If anyone would have told me when I bought my PS3 that I’d end up with friends all over the world because of a meeting on a virtual beach inside a virtual reality program on the PlayStation Network pre-installed on a game console, I’d have laughed in their faces. I’m from a small town in Wisconsin, where people don’t play online console games — where the internet provider who installed my connection hadn’t even heard of someone gaming online as intensively as I do.
I recognize that what I’ve experienced in Home is unusual, and could be called a best-case scenario. That said, I’m hoping to remind you that everyone you meet in Home is a human being with a human story — and if you take the time to learn their stories, you might discover that there’s a lot more to this virtual world than just a collection of games.