A study recently published by Visser, Antheunis, and Schouten sort to look at how playing the online game, The World of Warcraft (WoW) affected players social competence and loneliness. Some of the major findings included that there were no direct effects between playing the game and a person's level of social competence or loneliness. That means that just because you play the online game, WoW, it doesn't automatically mean you tend to be more lonely or less socially competent (or vice-versa). The study also showed that the amount of time a person spends playing the game is also not related to loneliness or social competence. What they did find however, is that if you had a variety of communication partners in the game, a person is less likely to be lonely. In addition, if you tended to experiment with your identity more, you tended to be lonelier as well. The question becomes, why do less lonely players having more communication partners and experiment with their online identity less.
Some insight into this question comes from one of the members on the WOL support group. He thought that online games in which you get to shape your environment, so-called sandbox games, had a better chance of reducing loneliness than your basic run-of-the-mill action packed, violent games, such as WoW.
To me, there seems to be two distinct threads running through the findings of the study and the comments by the WOL member. One thread is the idea of authenticity. Online games give you the opportunity to pretend to be someone else, someone who is not you, to wear a mask, and hide your true self. Very much in real life, we do wear masks and hide our true selves from others for a variety of different reasons. One of the biggest ones is probably because we are afraid we will be rejected if we show our true selves to others. The problem with mask-wearing is that you can never truly connect with others, whether it be face-to-face, or online. You cannot share the deeper, more intimate aspects of your life with others and without that connection, the relationship will remain shallow and meaningless. This thread of authenticity is connected to the finding of identity experimentation, where the real self may be hidden behind a variety of experimental identities. Similarly sandbox games allows for a much more complex, rich, and revealing manifestation of one's self. It allows a person to really express who they are in a variety of ways beyond just the typical avatar in online gaming. Imagine creating a world that is a reflection of you and then having others interact with it. That is certainly a powerful tool of communication.
The second thread is the idea that online gaming does not magically make things different. If a person is lonely offline, when he/she goes online, the difficulty of connecting with others still remains. It's no surprise that less lonely folks have an easier time having a wider variety of communication partners online, because they already have the skill set to do so. They already know how to initiate conversations, how to build collaborations, how to resolve conflict, how to ask probing questions, etc. But for lonely folk lacking that skill set, getting immersed in an online world won't make a difference. I think this fact is reflective in other areas online as well. I've heard many lonely folk say that online dating sites simply do not work. Perhaps that is true, but if you had difficulty dating offline, you are going to have difficulty dating online as well. Nothing changes except the means of communication. If you are, for example, a jealous person, it will become manifest in either medium.
Online gaming can certainly be a powerful tool for helping people connect with one another. However, if you are a lonely person, being able to use that tool to connect with others may still prove to be difficult.