“I just didn’t feel like going,” I said, a little sheepishly to our pastor.
Our church had hosted a prayer and worship meeting a few weeks ago, collaborating with a sister church from a local university. At the time my wife kept asking me to make a decision—are we going to go or not?
When later I was asked by the pastor (who has been a friend and mentor to me for years) why my family and I did not attend, my answer was as simple as it was stupid: I did not want to go. As it turns out we were not the only ones to pass up the opportunity. Nearly every young family from our small local church was absent that night.
“Why do you think that is?” he asked me while we were having coffee. Pastor David is one of the most caring individuals I know; he doesn’t ask these kinds of questions to make you feel bad or guilt you into change. David asks questions like this because he wants to peel back the symptomatic layers and get to the underlying issues so that real change can occur.
A connection clicked when he asked me though. As much as I love our church— the leadership, the teaching, and the people— in almost seven years my wife and I have never established meaningful, committed friendships with any of the other couples our age. We like them. We often think “I wish I knew them better, I think we would really get along,” but it never goes further than casual acquaintance.
Smiles and nods on a Sunday morning.
While there are certainly other issues involved, it is this lack of relationship that I find to be the most compelling reason why so few young families attended the gathering. However if in seven years those bonds have not formed, what shift in our social climate could possibly cause such a change now?
Earlier that same week I had read on Massively about a panel at Pax South on the social aspects of MMOs. Since reading the article I have spent some time thinking about my own experience with MMOs and what, if anything, led me to be more social. That got me thinking about Dragon Soul and my first real guild, Escape From Reality.
I remember spamming trade chat for a pick-up group so that I could raid in World of Warcraft once I had gotten the hang of tanking in the LFR version of Dragon Soul. I was new to MMOs and prior to making the decision to attempt “serious” raiding I had not really felt the need to game with others outside of the randomized group finder or the wall flower guild chat participation I had experienced in previous social-but-not-social mega guilds.
But the game mechanics forced me to group, and so I went looking for other people. Raiding provided a challenge in the game with rewards appealing enough that I was willing to work through my social anxiety and the awkwardness of new relationships in order to achieve the desired outcome. Once I found a raiding guild and learned a little more about progression raiding I discovered even more reason to engage socially with others.
For one, raiding required a lot of resources— gems, enchants, flasks, and occasionally crafted epic quality gear. Unless you are an individual with enough time to gather all of the necessary materials and who has enough alts able to make all of the crafted items you are going to need other people. Overwhelming challenges as well as the scarcity of resources (either materials or time) force players to engage socially or abandon their goals.
While it is true that communities emerge when individuals share common needs, they do not persist for this reason alone; generally a player will stay with a guild or move on depending on whether or not any meaningful relationships have been cultivated with other members. I became a member of EFR because I needed a raid team but I stayed for the entire time I played WoW because they became my friends—quirks and all. If social aspects of gameplay are disappearing in MMOs it is because a growing obsession with convenience and comfort by both players and developers has removed the best incentive for human beings to come together in the first place—necessity.
Which brings me back to my conversation with David. Life in suburbia makes living independent of others fairly simple. The internet is always in my back pocket and Wal-Mart is just down the street. Much like the proverbial lobster in a pot brought slowly to a boil, I did not see the trend toward isolationism in my own life until it was already deeply rooted in my daily routine because it happened so gradually. Meaningful relationships—the kind that would get me excited about gathering with friends on a Wednesday night to pray and worship— are not going to form unless I and the other young families in my church have a sense of genuine need and can break ourselves from the habit of self-reliance.
If you think you are fine all alone, you will probably stay that way.
Churches, much like MMOs can easily turn into combat lobbies. Okay, maybe there is less combat in (most) churches but there can be a sense of “get in, get what I came for, and get out” just as there is in MMOs with group finders and garrisons (I’m looking at you, Warlords of Draenor). Communities arise when the rewards are substantial but the challenges and scarcities are daunting. Take those things away, and we might as well be playing a single player game.