Tag Archives: social anxiety

Virtual social anxiety

I’ve been playing video games since Asteroids/Pac Man/Space Invaders. Gaming has evolved dramatically since then, not only graphics, but how many people can play together at the same time. I’m not playing alone with a couple other people standing around watching me. I’m playing with 40 some people from around the world and thousands more in various parts of the server.

As an introvert (Specifically, introversion, intuition, feeling, perception or INFP for the psych students) with a little social anxiety, I was not thrilled with this evolution of gaming. On the one hand, games are now vast and there’s no end to the game itself, there’s still all the total strangers I’ll have to deal with.

It all started for me with Everquest, probably the most well known massively multiplayer role playing game, MMORPG for short. Role playing games were traditionally single player video games or a bunch of us nerds sitting around a table in someone’s basement eating Cheetos and drinking Mountain Dew. Don’t laugh. It was an escape from normal day-to-day boredom. When I played pretend I chose to take on the role of a warrior instead of Joe Montana. More to the point, I was having fun with a small group of friends.

In MMORPGs a person chooses a role they want to play in the game, picks what side they want to fight for, and then decides what they want their character to look like. I picked a male warrior and set off for adventure with several thousand other people. To put it mildly, it was nothing short of a terrible disaster for me.

Online anonymity creates an environment that condones behavior that wouldn’t be acceptable in normal “polite” society. There were many new rules that only apply to the virtual world that were not followed by everyone. It was very sink or swim with no guidance on how one should swim or even where to find the water. If you asked even the general direction to start looking for the water, you were instead told something about your mother.

It was then that I realized my slight social anxiety was seeping in to the virtual world. My brain and fight or flight reactions were responding the exact same way to virtual stimulation as it would real stimulation. While I was having fun with the game, I was not having fun with the complete strangers I was playing with. I was so weirded out by this new situation, I deleted my character and switched servers so no one would find me.

I had a lot more luck with my second character because, well, I made a female character. I reasoned guys would be nicer to a woman and I was proved correct. It wasn’t difficult to pretend to be a female. I had three things going for me: 1.) The character looked female; 2.) I was nice to people; and 3.) I type complete sentences using proper grammar. Sad, but true. Within five minutes of playing the game someone made be a suit of armor for free and someone else insisted on following me around to protect me. He laughed when I told him I was a guy. I had him fooled because I “spoke English good.”

World of Warcraft, the current MMORPG champ with 12 million subscribers, was next. WoW started about five years ago. Guys became hip to the ruse and some actually were even nastier to people they suspect of playing a different gender. Again, anonymity. It’s even worse when they have an audience.

With new MMORPGs, I play four or five characters for a few levels before I decide on a finale avatar. The anxiety makes me want to have the exactly perfect character visually and be able to play flawlessly when first playing a game. By making practice characters I can ensure all mistakes will be assigned to them and not the character I truly want to play. What people think of my imaginary character is more important than the actual game. Rather than pretend to be a female, I now pretend I don’t speak English until at least level 10.

Inevitably, my main character will make a mistake or a perceived mistake and I’ll have to stop playing him. I hate to see him go, but the next run through the game is even faster and I’m less likely to make mistakes.

Recently, I started a new game. I played six characters on both factions and decided on a character I wanted to play. I made him look similar to me, gave him my standard name for my main character and sailed by the first few levels as I was quite familiar with the basics of the game. I was about 45 minutes into the character when I was accused of theft.

Now, I behave online the way I would in real life. I don’t kill people unless they are trying to kill me first. I don’t steal.

In MMORPGs, one of the rules that not everyone follows is “First one there wins.” The quest was to run and collect ten items. The items to gather glow or sparkle so gamers can find them easily.

I saw a glowing shrub and started to run toward it. I saw another character in the game run toward the same glowing shrub and he was well ahead of me. He ran past, so I thought he wasn’t going for the item. When I got there, I clicked it as I was the first one there and only one person can click at a time. The other person realized his mistake and backed up, not knowing I clicked on the item two seconds before and clicked as well.

I received the item, put it in my bag and started to run off. The other character said that was “low. real low man.” Now, I can see where he might think that, but I was in the right. Not only that, it was a very low level quest and really didn’t deserve accusations of underhanded behavior, in my opinion. Besides, there are tons of glowing bushes and they start glowing again in a minute or two.

Let me put it into a real world situation. Imagine going to the store and on your list is milk. You are walking behind someone in the dairy section and you think they might take the last container of milk, but they keep walking. You grab the milk and put it in your cart and head to the register. The person turns around and claims that was their milk because they meant to stop and pick it up, but didn’t, then talks down to you as the stock boy is putting more milk on the shelf. Kinda asinine.

I should’ve dismissed it and forgotten what happened, but there was now a person in the game that thought my character was of poor character and that was a reflection of me. This ate at me for a good hour and started affecting my ability to play the game.

At one point, I was fighting a creature more difficult than I could handle on my own and someone jumped in to help. Together we beat the creature, I took my loot, turned my back and saw the person that had accused me of theft running by. While I thinking of a way to avoid him, the person that helped me beat a creature was stomped into a bloody pulp behind me by the creature I had had trouble with. A perceived violation of my ethics caused an actual violation of my ethics. Not only did I not return the favor, I ignored a person that was weaker than me when they clearly needed help. I stopped playing the game at that point.

The worst part of it was the next day when I realized that situation had affected my mood outside the game. A day later I felt like crap for letting down a complete stranger and someone else thought I stole from them. Telling myself it was just a game really didn’t help as what I was feeling was real. At least with a game, if you leave the game for an hour, the person you don’t like will be somewhere else entirely.

Aside from a few isolated incidents, I think I manage it pretty well. It affects me more in a virtual environment. The real world matters and people are physically there so I’m more likely to push through the anxiety. In fact I find all the symptoms fascinating. I’ll focus on a symptom like shaky knees and think of why they are shaking and the chemical responses that are happening. That always takes my mind off the situation that’s giving me anxiety and I can refocus on the task at hand.


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