image credits: Dream of Mirror Online
The Internet spans over most of the entire world and can be accessed in many nations, although there are many who still do not have access to it. It has the power to connect people who otherwise would not be connected. An identity can be created and maintained by anyone. What is masculine and feminine becomes blurred. Due to the anonymity of the users, it is also easier to open up to strangers, thus creating an opportunity for interpersonal relationships to develop, which may even evolve into romantic relationships. However, is it possible to transcend cultural and geographic differences? In a romantic relationship, the physical aspect becomes very important. For people who live across the world from each other, this is not something that can be easily overcome. In a multi-member online roleplaying game (MMORPG) however, it is possible to visually view two characters together, even if there is a vast geographic difference. It is possible for computer mediated relationships to work out in ways that can be comparable to working out a face-to-face relationship, especially in MMORPGs, thus revolutionizing the way romance can be seen on the Internet and in the general population and validating itself as real love, not simply something that can be shut out easily by leaving the computer.
In America, it is estimated that “61% of all American homes that contain a personal computer are currently connected to the Internet” (Merkle 188). It is an important part of our society and the culture is changing everyday. The era however, began only recently, as “commercial applications to the Internet came about in the 1980s as the first national Internet service providers (ISP) – Prodigy Genie, and CompuServe – began providing the home computer user connectivity to this worldwide matrix of computers” (Merkle 187). As the media technology improved and costs were reduced, this introduced the average user to an entirely new system that could be used to have computer mediated social interactions (Merkle 187-188). The possibilities are endless. Virtual online communities can be created, information can be reached with the touch of a key, and social networks can be expanded. With the “number of connected Internet users surpassing the entire population of Japan, some authors reason that this dramatic propagation of the Internet is prompting the creation of a new civilization” (Merkle 188), one that may be more connected than any other previous civilization and will exist virtually. More and more people may meet and interact with each other as a result of using the computer. The image of computer users is fast fading from the “schizoid, 'nerdy' neighbor, to the average person who wants to shop in virtual stores, exchange e-mail with acquaintances, read hypertext documents (web pages), download software, and even meet new people through Internet chat rooms and bulletin boards” (Merkle 188). Rather than the image of the solitary, secluded person using the Internet, it has become one of a person actively socializing. The social element of the Internet allows one to develop meaningful relationships with other users who are also connected. He is not shut off from the world, but rather open to it.
Because it is the Internet however, and there is a definite sense of anonymity, whether or not a person is really who they say they are is questionable. Gender is not physically apparent on the Internet. It is easy to find a picture of someone of the opposite gender and pose it as oneself. If a person chooses to portray himself as a female, then he will be in a way imitating what he believes a female should act like. If a person wishes to prove he is male, then he must act at least part of the time how culture dictates he should act. However, "sexuality is never fully 'expressed' in a performance or practice; there will be passive and butchy femmes, femmy and aggressive butches, and both of those, and more, will turn out to describe more or less anatomically stable 'males' and 'females'" (Butler 725). Thus, because one cannot see the physical body, it allows for a person to act however he or she chooses. A male can choose to say that he is the gender he says he is, but also has the freedom to act in feminine ways because he has the anonymity of the Internet behind him. For him, "part of what constitutes sexuality is precisely that which does not appear and that which, to some degree, can never appear" (Butler 725). In this way, “virtual space allows a range of identity performances that are not tied to material bodies” (Barker 360).
When people are face to face with each other, there is the opportunity for physical attraction, which may then progress to become something more. While it is not the deciding factor, it does spark the initial interest and thus the desire to proceed further (Merkle 189). People may also meet in a variety of places, such as bars, work, and school. As a result, the likelihood that the two may have similar interests is lower. There are many variables that “determine the likelihood that two people will discover an affinity sufficient enough to form a relationship” (Merkle 189). A relationship is formed when “through these continued interactions, partners engage in a process of social penetration in which they begin to establish a sense of rapport and look for similarities between themselves” (Merkle 189). The life story of each individual however is not given from the start. If the two continue to mesh well, “a process of revealing intimate details, or self-disclosure, must come about as it not only leads to a sense of closeness and connection to another person, but frequently sparks interest emotionally, romantically, and sexually” (Merkle 189). As a result, “the development of a face-to-face romantic relationship moves from initial encounter, based on spatial proximity and physical attractiveness, to discovery of similarities and to self-disclosure” (Merkle 189).
On the opposite end however, the only means to get to know a person online in a computer mediated social encounter is “candid self-disclosure” (Merkle 188), as spatial proximity may not be possible due to the geographic differences. The process to developing a relationship becomes inverted. The two may already share common interests because they are able to run into each other in the same virtual online community. The initial meeting and curiosity occurs at the beginning, and if the two find each other interesting, “the topics of discussion can turn toward personal and intimate matters, and a powerful rapport may be established between the users” (Merkle 189). There is less self-consciousness going on in computer mediated relationships because the Internet is anonymous, which provides psychological comfort in revealing intimate and personal matters (Merkle 189). Unlike in a face-to-face relationship, just how important physical attraction is instead is “minimized by the ability to know someone through intense mutual self-disclosure and the intimate sharing of private worldviews” (Merkle 189). One does not need to worry about “losing someone else's affection or approval as a result of knowing one more intimately” (Merkle 189) because the likelihood of even meeting at the beginning is very low. A person is able to present himself however he wishes. He then may or may not be attracted romantically to the self that another person has shown. However, there are still roots in the real world. “Actors remain tied to the everyday material world whose impact on the virtual universe persists” (Barker 360), thus lending a validity to their actions and just how truthful they are. The relationship is able to thrive purely on communication through the Internet. The exchange of numbers and the usage of webcams are possible, but they cannot make up for the lack of spatial proximity. The last step then, if the relationship continues to thrive, is the actual meeting. There are many online relationships that do not even get to the point, but for those that do, when it comes to getting past the geographic differences, “these individuals may arrange to meet one another occasionally with highly sexualized outcomes” (Merkle 189).
However, just as in a face-to-face relationship, issues can arise. Emotional distance can be a big problem, along with the inability to physically touch the person. This may cause a person to act differently than he normally would, because his desire to be with the person overpowers his ability to wait. If any negative judgments do occur and outweigh the positives of the person, it is possible to shut oneself out from the person and move on. The anonymity of the Internet allows users to act any way they want, “without risk, exposure, or being known” (Merkle 190). A person can act much more aggressively or outgoing than he normally would be because he has a mask in front of him. This comes in as an issue not just in behavior, but emotional attachments. An infinite amount of time is also given to those who wish to resolve conflicts peacefully. If the relationship does not work out, the couple does not need to worry about running into each other in real life, only online, which can be easily resolved by creating a completely persona (Merkle 190). In situations where there is discomfort or annoyance, a user can easily flee rather than solving the problems (Merkle 190). This may be troublesome in the future for that person however, as he may not develop the necessary skills needed to mediate conflicts (Merkle 190). Whether or not this will influence real life skills however is unknown. However, while contact can be prevented, the memories obtained during the relationship cannot be as easily blocked because the two have gotten to know each other so intimately. In addition, in a face-to-face relationship, sexual infidelity can sometimes cause a break-up. It is the “ultimate form of betrayal to the boundaries of that relationship” (Merkle 190). However, due to the geographic differences in a computer mediated relationship, “the bond of trust cannot as easily be violated by physical sexual acts” (Merkle 190) because both parties may realize that the physical need to be with someone may sometimes overpower the emotional. Because “self-disclosure is a central feature of computer mediated relationships that sparks powerful emotional bonds between two individuals, it seems plausible to suggest that infidelity within cyberspace is better accounted by emotional betrayal than sexual involvement” (Merkle 190).
The developmental environments of a face-to-face relationship and a computer-mediated relationship are quite different from each other, yet both can be equally rewarding or they would not be happening. If there is no face-to-face interaction and it is all computer mediated, then this supports the viewpoint that “interpersonal relationships [address] a simple social psychological principle: those relationships which reward us, or which we associate with rewards, we like” (Merkle 187). While the social exchanges to maintain and develop the relationships are similar for both types, this is also “where the commonalities among face-to-face and computer mediated relationships may end” (Merkle 188). In a face-to-face relationship, the importance of spatial proximity can be a deciding factor for two people considering getting together. However, it is very true that “because the Internet has a global presence, those who engage in CMR are likely to find themselves with considerable geographic separation between them” (Merkle 189). Because of the geographic differences, what would attract two people instead is an inversion of what would normally happen. Touch remains an essential part of developing a relationship, but when it is not possible, the emotional aspects become established first. It is the emotional need for the other person that becomes more important, and although one may long for the partner's touch, he may be willing to wait because he knows it is worth it, rather than perhaps finding another partner within a closer proximity that may not match as well, but at least is more physically accessible. Rather than the physical attraction that normally occurs first in a face-to-face relationship, it is the personality that attracts a person to someone else, perhaps an argument that this sort of relationship could even be stronger.
An example of how important relationships can be in the Internet world is the multi-member online role-playing game (MMORPG), Dream of Mirror Online (DOMO)*. The game advertises itself as a social rpg and is based on Chinese mythology, a society that was once more focused on the community than the individual. As a result, it is structured slightly differently than many other MMORPGs. The game requires a lot of teamwork, and the developers even use the red string of fate as a method for getting people to meet each other. Users are given the option of choosing the birthday and zodiac of the character, thus already forming a separate identity. The date chosen then will affect your in-game relationships. If someone passes by you who, based on the birthday, has the potential to be your character's true love, a red line will connect the two characters and the thump of a heart can be heard. Whether or not a user wishes to pursue this however is up to him. It is however the social aspect of the game that is what draws most players to it. In addition, one of the most important features of the game is the ability to establish relationships using a special item called a dreamstone, a drop commonly found after killing a monster. Relationship levels can be raised to the max of level five by using more dreamstones. There are three types of relationships that can be formed: lover, teacher/student, and friend. Special skills are also available to those who wish to form those relationships, along with a separate category in the buddy list for those who choose not to designate their own groups. Interestingly enough, a player can have as many from each category as he wishes. It is also possible to become lovers with someone of the same gender. The game does not resort to cultural norms, as it allows one to be polygamous and have as many lovers as a person wishes to have. There are even titles that can be received by players based on the number of lovers they have (Dream of Mirror Online). The easiness with which relationships can be formally developed can be comparable to that of friending someone on Facebook. Thus, one would think that the game does not take developing romantic relationships very seriously.
However, despite the various ways one can form relationships in the game, there is also a marriage system, which encourages following the social norm of monogamy. The rings must be purchased either from the item mall or bought from other players at a medium-high price. Thus, unlike dreamstones, which can be infinitely collected, the rings are much more difficult to obtain and any relationship forged using them is seen as more valuable and not taken as lightly. An understanding and investment in each other or at least a mutual friendship is almost always necessary for those who decide to take that step. The game is not about constant leveling, so it is very easy to make friends and perhaps watch relationships develop into something more. Shotgun weddings are rare simply because of the cost of the rings; it is not often that a player can get married to someone he is only on the surface attracted to. Just as in the real world, a marriage ceremony occurs, orchestrated by a non-player character (NPC) named St. Valentine. Although it is a based on a Chinese MMORPG, the ceremony is Western in itself, along with the accompanying “I do.” If the couple wishes, a wedding banquet and reception can also be held, where a private area will be open to the couple and their friends and guests. While there are many who choose to marry friends, not necessarily significant others, for some couples, in the world of DOMO at least, they are married and will not be separated until they divorce using the Divorce Register set up in one of the towns. The rings themselves provide some benefits, just as a married couple in real life would have by law. One ring, the Partner Pager, allows the holder to summon the other half where he is. The other ring, Ring of Devotion, allows that person to sacrifice health points (HP) and magic points (MP) in order to give it to the lover. This skill however only works if the two are on the same map. The game will also provide wedding costumes, although quests must be completed in order to obtain them (Dream of Mirror Online). The quests in turn each have some lesson about love, be it being faithful, devoted, or never giving up. Thus, there is some initiative for getting married in-game, along with the personal desire for some couples to use it as a promise to each other for the future. As in a face-to-face relationship, other players will see the two around and associate them as a couple. In addition, to help with the geographic distance, couples can sit next to each other, at least a temporary measure for the missing spatial proximity. This is actually an advantage that people who meet over chatrooms and forums may not have.
As DOMO is a game however, and a role-playing one ultimately, users are able to decide how they want their characters to look, along with picking the genders. One must note however that the basic attraction between two users is once again based on personality, not physical attraction, as users only view pixels. There is a good amount of customization that can be done, such as race (four total), gender, skin color, hair color, hair style, bra size (for females), height, width, and eye color. Designing the character is in a way creating an ideal image of oneself or how he wishes to portray himself to the world. It is a way of creatively expressing oneself. There are also options to change hair colors if a person is in the mood for something different. Those who do not create characters based on their own image may be taking part in and enjoying the “piquancy, the novelty, the erotics of putting on a different self” (Bordo 1102). Because it is an anime-style MMORPG, the hair colors range from red to blue to purple to brown. Skin colors are not as varied, but they do go from the standard pale to the ebony black. Whether or not it is intended, the skin color denotes the race of the character. Each race also has its own unique styling of the armor used for the levels (Dream of Mirror Online). There are also stereotypes that come with the races, especially with one specifically. Those who choose the female shura, a feline-like humanoid race, are often perceived to be perverted males because of how revealing the armor and costumes are for that race. Females will also sometimes play as males to avoid being hit on. The lines between femininity and masculinity are blurred by this because female characters may act masculine while male characters may act feminine. Thus, "in effect, one way that genders get naturalized is through being constructed as an inner psychic or physical necessity” (Butler 728).
A MMORPG is just one way to look at how a relationship can develop and how people may interact with each other. While some people may become addicted to the roleplaying and posing as a completely different person, for others, it is the social aspect that draws them and causes them to remain. To level all the time without socializing is something very few people do, due to how the game is set up and how difficult it may be for people to level up on their own. For those who level together often, it is very possible that the opportunity to discuss more personal intimate matters will pop up. Unlike what Berger states, the virtual network can be real and authentic, just like a real community (Barker 360). People interact together, must learn to work together, and the same kind of drama that may occur in face-to-face friendships happens in a MMORPG, too. Misunderstandings also often happen, due to the lack of tone in text and the sarcastic, light way many view the Internet. A difference in opinions can also lead to clashes. Because the community is so large, not everyone is able to get to know each other intimately. Just like in a real life situation, the degrees to which people know each other vary greatly. The only difference is that it is all online. Comparable to real life, users can also be judged by how they create their characters. In addition, if computer mediated relationships did not have some merit to them, companies would not be basing features off of romantic ideas, such as the red string, because they would not be able to draw as much as a crowd, thus making less of a profit. There has to be something appealing about an online relationship or people would not attempt it, as it is virtually the same as a long distance relationship. It takes a lot of emotional strength to be able to pull through.
Because more and more people are becoming connected to the Internet, it is important to understand the relationships that may develop as a result of social interaction online. They may in turn give more insight to understanding face-to-face relationships and what makes those click. Understanding a computer mediated relationship may lead to discoveries that show that instead of shutting oneself off from the rest of the world and becoming a hermit, a person is instead actively socializing with other users across the Internet. Since “self-disclosure on the Internet tends to become more private and less inhibited faster than in face-to-face relating, it is important to recognize that individuals often describe their [computer mediated relationship] as extremely intimate and as 'authentic' as any face-to-face relationship” (Merkle 191). One can imagine then that if the relationship is broken, it is not as easy to remove the person from one's memories as it is to remove them from a contact list. An impression has been formed due to the close, intimate relationship developed. This sort of relationship is radical because it is an inversion of the original, face-to-face relationship, yet it can be just as meaningful and true, or people would not be going for it and taking the time to wait to get to physically be with their partners.
1. Barker, Chris. Cultural Studies, 3rd Edition. SAGE Publications: Los Angeles, 2008. Print.
2. Bordo, Susan. "Material Girl: The Effacements of Postmodern Culture." Cultural Studies. Print.
3. Butler, Judith. "Imitation and Gender Subordination." Gender Studies, Gay/Lesbian Studies, Queer Theory. Online.
4. Dream of Mirror Online. Aeria Games. Online.
5. Merkle, Erich R. Richardson, Rhonda A. "Digital Dating and Virtual Relating: Conceptualizing Computer Mediated Romantic Relationships." Family Relations, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Apr., 2000), pp. 187-192. Online.
* Any observations about how the game, DOMO, is played, are ones that I have observed myself through actually playing the game. A brief description of some of the features mentioned can also be found on the website, http://domo.aeriagames.com.