Meet Your Online Friends: A Reflection on Internet and Gaming Friendships

Nearly a decade ago, I found myself at a bowling alley in downtown San Francisco to meet friends. I was so excited; we were planning to bowl for a couple of hours, grab some drinks, then go to this small hole-in-the-wall restaurant that was apparently renowned for their macaroni and cheese.

We had a lot to celebrate; we had finally beaten Crota’s End, the newest and most difficult raid in Destiny at the time, after a nearly three-week constant slog of trying to master the mechanics for multiple hours a day. We had earned ourselves a few drinks, and I couldn’t wait to toast to our success together. 

It just so happened that this was also the first time any of us were meeting in person. 

Since the dawn of the internet in private homes, there has been debate about the ethics, safety, and even validity of meeting people and developing friendships online. Even now, despite the large number of people who have found their significant others through online dating apps, there is still some stigma that exists. Along with a little poking of fun.

But the truth is, meeting people online is just as likely to lead to genuine friendships and relationships as those one meets in person. Along with any other encounter, the important thing is maintaining boundaries and utilizing practices to keep yourself and others safe. In doing so, those friendships are just as valid and enriching. 

Online Dating
Meeting people via online dating apps has become increasingly more common in the last decade alone.

I grew up in the ‘90s and recall with crystal clarity the age of America Online and the early days of Instant Messenger. It was such a novel concept; talking to anyone, anywhere in the world, instantly, via typing! I was fascinated by usernames and profiles and chat rooms. I would often enter these public chat rooms, not speaking, and just watch the conversations flurry by.

It was like being able to eavesdrop on a conversation happening thousands of miles away from me. Of course, there were plenty of shady types in these chat rooms that would peruse the list of users in the chat room and start messaging them privately, and I was no exception. When my parents saw that I was getting creepy messages from strangers, they, like most parents of the ‘90s, came down hard with their rule: Don’t talk to strangers on the Internet. A declaration that, even some 30 years later, my parents still hold to. 

While I understand the very real concerns and dangers that exist with talking to strangers online, it’s unfair to bucket all online interactions into this “Do Not Touch” category. Sensible precautions when talking to strangers is just as important online as it is in real life, or IRL, situations. You wouldn’t share your personal information with a random person you bumped into on the street anymore than you would online. Essentially, the same practices you would use to protect yourself in real world situations applies online. The key difference being that there is, to be sure, more responsibility in managing the online places you go and choose to interact with people. 

Online gaming became the next big shaker when it came to the evolution of online friendships. Suddenly there were game lobbies filled with players from all over the world, chirping into their microphones and communicating game strategy (and trash talk) in real time. If you enjoyed playing with a teammate that was randomly assigned to your team, you could link up with them postgame and start teaming up together for as long as you wanted.

During my Halo 3 and Halo: Reach days, I made more than a few friends from just random matchups in online lobbies. And even though they never evolved into anything more than just casual teammate friendships, I look back on those years with a lot of fondness. My gaming experience and my ultimate professional trajectory was born out of those early friendships, and the possibilities that existed when you met the right people. 

Destiny PVP
I met several of my best friends through random matchmaking in Destiny in 2014, a game we played together through the sequel and well into the pandemic.

There was a clear shift towards the validity and importance of online relationships when the pandemic hit in 2020. Suddenly, none of us could leave our homes and the only access we had to the outside world (and our roommates) was the internet. The pandemic for me, as with others, was a time of extreme stress, anxiety, and uncertainty. The only solace I had was my escape into my games, especially Destiny 2 raids, strikes, and firefights with my friends.

And as the entire world was shutting down around us, we had a shared experience; a scary new disease, an uncertain world, and the strange feeling of being a prisoner in our own homes, for the greater good. I think a lot of people came to understand and value their online connections during this time, because the truth is, it was all any of us had. 

It was during the pandemic that I decided to take up streaming. I felt bored and restless at home, and there was only so much Destiny I could play with the same fireteam before I lost interest. After a little bit of research and watching a few streams on Twitch, I bought a cheap mic and webcam and hit “Go Live” for the very first time. Those early streams were really just a combination of supportive friends and coworkers that had no idea what was going on but didn’t want my viewer count to be stuck at 0.

Over time though, as I built a consistent schedule, expanded the types of games I played, and started interacting with other streamers, I managed to create a bustling online community of gamers, artists, writers, and genuine friends. My Discord server has over 100 people hanging out and chatting at any given time.

Though I am still very much considered a “small streamer” by most standards, I have an average of around 20 viewers per stream and nearly 1000 followers on Twitch. That’s almost 1000 people who, at some point, stumbled across my little corner of Twitch, liked what they saw, and decided they wanted to see more of it.

And though 20 viewers may not seem like a lot, if you picture yourself sitting in a room playing a game, and suddenly 20 physical humans walk in and sit down behind you to watch, that number feels much more impressive. 20 people, from places like Chicago, New York, the UK, Norway, and even New Zealand. Something unheard of even 20 years ago is now just a daily part of my life. And not a day goes by that I am not unendingly grateful for every last one of them.

Streaming to online platforms like Twitch, YouTube, and TikTok is another great way to meet people online and build friendships with people you may not otherwise find organically.

In 2023, I met many of my streamer friends for the very first time, and each meeting was so exciting, wholesome, and fulfilling. It felt natural; not like a first meeting, but like seeing an old friend you haven’t seen in years. From brunches at local eateries talking for hours, to late night musings beneath a massive telescope at a university observatory, to drunken singing of “Wonderwall” at whiskey bars choked with cigar smoke, every meeting brought a sense of fulfillment, and a certain smugness towards my parents; Take THAT, Mom and Dad.

Those online friends I met playing Destiny in 2014? We go to local comic cons now multiple times a year; I was just over at their house the other day for a Christmas party. Those online friends of mine that I met through Twitch? We do crossword puzzles together nearly every day to start off the workday, and send each other birthday and holiday cards every year. I’ve met some of them multiple times “IRL,” and we do the same thing in person as we do online; lounge around playing video games and eating take out.

And back in October, when a bunch of us met in person–a professor, a writer, an astrophysicist, an engineer, and a cybersecurity specialist, just to name a few–we took a trip to a remote area outside of Las Vegas, where the light pollution was less obvious, looked up at the stars, laughed, and enjoyed each other’s company. In the end, we are all looking for the same thing; genuine human connection, companionship, and simply feeling like we aren’t alone in this world. 

So, meet your online friends. Go to a coffee shop and trade stories about your gaming adventures. Come up with some projects to do together. Enjoy each other’s company. We really aren’t here all that long, there’s a lot to do, see, and experience, and there’s plenty of people out there ready to do it with you.

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