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Dear Dr. Mark,

I’ve played a lot of online games and made plenty of friends doing so. My friends decided it would be fun to meet up in real life and spend a week hanging out. I had a great time, and it seemed the same for them. However when I returned home, all communication stopped. Aside from a call to say their flight landed safely, my friends never messaged me again, let alone returned any of my messages.

I don’t believe I act much differently in real life than I do in a game, same personality, same humor, etc. The situation during the visit never seemed awkward, and we all knew each other well before meeting up, so I’m not entirely sure why people have no interest in keeping in touch.

Why did this meet-up seem to cause a breakdown in our online friendships?

Could the friends I made online have had assumptions and expectations about me that were shattered when we met, causing the cease in communication?

How disappointing that you made promising connections with people online, traveled a significant distance to see them, thought you had a great time, and the result was being dumped! You crossed into a new social frontier where the standards and etiquette are only just being defined and you’re right to be puzzled by the outcome.

Not long ago, when I began educating parents about the internet, a huge fear was that kids would go off with strangers and get victimized in some terrible way. Tales of young teenagers being lured by pedophiles are a standard part of the parent education canon, used to encourage parental supervision of children’s internet use. While some of this is overblown, I generally don’t encourage minors to have in-person meetings with internet friends without parental oversight.

I’m going to assume you are a young adult of at least legal age, hopefully older, and that you made a reasonably mature decision about the risks and potential rewards of this adventure. I actually don’t think these social excursions are as unusual as many in my generation imagine. You might have more reason to trust someone you’ve spent hours hanging out with online than somebody you meet in a bar or on a blind date.

When you spend months and years playing with a group of people, which includes talking, laughing, working together intensely, and sometimes sharing feelings and personal information, its easy to really feel like you know them. For some of us, these relationships can seem more intimate and important than those we have in real life, even to the point where they become a priority over local family and friends.

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Unfortunately, online gaming relationships have certain idiosyncrasies that can complicate how they translate to real life. First, they are predicated on the shared enjoyment of an activity which you all value greatly and enjoy doing together. Your investment in each other may be a function of an investment in the game, and when you hang out together without it, you may have less in common than it seems while you play.

Even if you feel you are being yourself while you play, certain important aspects of what it feels like to be with you are missing. This means that what a person looks like, what they smell like, how they dress, and the many subtle non-verbal aspects of interaction that can play a big role in how we come to feel about someone else are usually absent. So, comfort level with someone online may not always translate to comfort level actually being in their presence, no matter how well you think you know them.

It may also be possible to withhold certain aspects of your personality online, even though you think you are acting exactly the same as you do in real life. Even if you spend many hours in online play, you may be able to disguise your moods, withhold anger, and show yourself to be even wittier and more appealing than you are in real life. I’m also hoping the reverse is true and some people aren’t quite as big idiots as they seem online.

People who make intense relationships via online gaming may well have social limitations that cause them to prefer this to real life relationships. So when you meet up, you may be struggling with issues (difficulties reading social cues, problems in tolerating intimacy, significant social anxiety) that created a preference for online relating in the first place.

In spite of all this, I’ve known people who developed meaningful, intimate, and important real life relationships with friends made through online gaming, and some of these relationships became significant and long-lasting. It isn’t unreasonable to look for friends in a group of people whom you already know you can work and laugh with.

In this particular case, we can only guess what went wrong, unless you’re able to actually connect with one of these folks and ask for some real feedback, which I think could be worthwhile, though potentially painful. Even though you enjoyed the time together, the breakdown afterward may indicate that they were not as pleased or comfortable as you were, for any variety of reasons. There might have been expectations for attraction or sexual intimacy that were unrealized. While you were fun online, they might have found you less fun in person. Spending a week with someone you haven’t hung out with in person before may have been too heavy a dose for some of those involved.

Whatever the cause, I think you were courageous to give this a try, and while the result has been disappointing, maybe there is something to be learned that will make future forays more likely to succeed.

I’ll bet Escapist readers have many stories of successes and failures in this kind of undertaking, and I’d be very interested in hearing what you think helped online relationships make the jump to real life, or what impeded this.

Dr.Mark Kline would keep his real life and online relationships sorted out with the help of his trusty iPhone, if his children hadn’t filled it with all sorts of games.

Have a question for Dr. Mark? Send it to [email protected]. Your identity will remain confidential.

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