What a strange feeling to have, having been online for much of my childhood all the way up to present day.
How could it be possible to feel isolated, with a near-effortless capability to connect with anyone in the world who has an internet connection (4.5+ billion human beings)?
I was born in 1995, and I remember how different things were, before and after the internet became a part of daily life. Prior to the family getting the first desktop computer (it was a grey, chunky Dell machine), life as a kid was all about rampaging all over the neighbourhood, together with my older brother and a crew of guys from the other houses.
Before consoles came about, we had to invent games up in order to have any to play with. We kept busy by riding bicycles down hills, exploring back alleyways and then eventually by huddling in a dark room in fierce competition with each other via a Nintendo console.
I remember that the ‘first generation’ of games that I was exposed to were either local multiplayer (like the Nintendo console) or singleplayer only. At some point, reliable internet connectivity unlocked instant messaging (IMs) and then multiplayer capability within games. What this meant for me was that it became easier and easier to meet the very same neighbourhood buddies in the virtual world instead of the physical world, even though we lived next door to one another.
Conversations at the local playground and in-person gaming sessions transplanted themselves onto platforms like MSN Messenger and online multiplayer games.
The internet not only unlocked a lower barrier to entry in keeping ‘connected’ with the people you already knew, but it also opened up the possibility of meeting a bunch of other kids who were just like us. The tangible world had suddenly scaled from the local neighbourhood to something much, much greater — how exciting.
One interesting feature that came with the internet were the in-built pseudonymity functions like nicknames / aliases and profile photos. It was up to each person whether to publicly disclose their own personal information or not.
While it became easier and easier to bump into and start conversations with strangers on the internet, it was often very difficult to discern what people were actually like ‘IRL’ — in real life. There was a bit of magic that got lost when this happened. Friends became replaceable, as faces and full names disappeared behind the cover of aliases, as shared in-person experiences became substituted by fleeting, high adrenaline in-game moments.
It was through online multiplayer games where it became especially clear that unique identification had diminished in importance compared to the actions that people would take within the game — whether they were allies who were with you or rivals against you.
Take Battlefield 3 for instance, a first person shooter game I loved dearly and poured hours and hours of my life into. A typical round would be a ‘conquest’ objective of red team vs blue team. It felt like being airdropped into a modern warzone with a bunch of incentive-aligned strangers (arbitrarily identified as your ‘teammates’) — a pseudo-military experience of sorts.
It was the in-built rules within the game that engineered incentive-alignment, like the overarching conquest objective and a fixed time limit to reach it as well as other mechanisms like prohibiting friendly fire within the teams.
Getting to know the person next to you was not the goal, the primary objective was to be the victors of the conquest, and all you had to focus on was to be a good foot soldier, aiming for the highest possible ‘K/D’ (kill/death) ratio and the greatest number of conquered mini-objectives. Did it matter who was on the other side? The humans who were playing the virtual soldiers on the opposition? No, because the goal was not to get to know them either; it was to be the victors of the campaign.
I started to wean myself off gaming once I turned 15 or 16, with the main reasoning being that I was getting annoyed by the time warp that would happen once I was plugged in. Hours and hours would run past, and the next thing I know entire days would disappear.
Gradually, I started to get more and more involved in ‘IRL’ interactions and even developed a strong bias away from instant messaging or video calls. There was something about the virtual experience, of living my life on the internet, that started to repulse me.
It’s almost like: as the capacity to connect with anyone in the world grew, it became easier and easier to enlarge one’s social circle and to become distracted in the adrenaline rush of forging new connections. The cost to this was to pull energy away from the existing social circle, often the ones that actually had a ‘real world’ meaning to them.
What this leads to is a feeling of ‘connection’ in the infinite possibility of the virtual world, although misplaced because the virtual interactions were often fleeting and transactionary, and also a subtle encroaching sense of isolation in the real world.
It seems to me that virtual experiences, made possible through the incredible capabilities of the internet, can only ever serve as facilitators, enablers and accelerators but never as complete substitutes.
There seems to be some magic that happens, the relationships and dynamics that form, when all parties involved go through experiences together in-person, or at least, where everyone shows up with skin in the game as themselves. This is the stake, an act of commitment to the group.
I will close with the following as further food for thought:
“If a deed is good, the creator wants his name to be widely known. If a deed is bad, the creator wants his name to be pseudonymous.”