Becoming too attached to the Virtual? Emotional investment in online games.

person and dog

Image courtesy of Vlado / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In June 2013, EA games made the decision to close down the Pet Society Facebook game. When playing Pet Society, players would create their own virtual pets and interact with their pets through washing, brushing, petting and feeding. Player’s pets could interact with other pets through the ‘friend network’ and could visit their owner’s friends – therefore providing a social element to the game. Players would earn ‘coins’ by interacting with others and these coins could be used to buy ‘add-ons’ in the game, e.g., a better house for their pet, a new virtual toy etc. Players could also buy these ‘add-ons’ using ‘real’ currency (which many players did).

Pet Society had a large number of players and its closure was not well received by many! Petitions and Facebook pages were set up by players to protest against EA’s decision. Whilst some users were mainly concerned with the loss of a general pastime or the loss of money that they invested into the game, others (such as those reported in this Mashable article) reported real distress at the loss of their virtual pets. One of the members of the “Please Save Pet Society” Facebook page is quoted as saying “A lot of people felt like EA was killing their pets. They gave us two months, to cope with the loss, I guess.”

Distress

Comments on the petition pages include:

“Pet Society is my ONLY joy in life. If you pull it you may as well get ready to be responsible for alot of suicides, I won’t be one but some alot of people LIVE for Pet society…”

“Shutting down Pet Society is like someone coming into our house and shooting one of our real cats. But wasn’t that the point of Pet Society, to get you emotionally invested?”

This mother plays Pet Society with her 3 children and she talks of her distress at losing her virtual pet panda:

“That was in December 2008, from then until now, I’ve only missed a couple of times the daily visit. I spent hours daily spoiling him and decorating his house. I’ve fed, cleaned and loved like if he was my fourth baby. How I can bring myself to see him leave? I can not visit him every 15 days as I do with my older son [who lives away at college], I can not chat with him in the morning, or send him photos every week. I feel so bad, it may seem stupid … but I’m crying.

“Pet society is the best game on facebook. And it’s the reason why I wake up early and sleep late since 2008”

“IT’S A PART OF MY LIFE!!! YOU CAN’T CLOSE IT!!! I LOVE MY PET!!! WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS? EA, YOU’RE BREAKING MY HEART!!!

“i’ve been playing this game for years that i’m in love deeply for this game. and this is also my childhood, so if you shut it down, you take away my childhood.”

Are we getting too attached to the virtual?

These comments can appear very extreme, and of course, these are some of the more extreme comments on the petitions. Some readers may find it worrying that people can be so attached to a virtual game and may struggle to understand why these players feel so strongly. Some of the other petition comments may help us to understand this.

I have identified a few key themes throughout the comments:

  • Friendship and social connection

Many of the comments focus on the social element of Pet Society, i.e., communicating with other players in the game. It appears that many players valued these friendships. Some users regarded Pet Society as a method to overcome social anxiety, or other issues which prevent them from socialising effectively in real life (refer to section on ‘relief from mental and physical conditions’).

“It may be just a game to “outstanders” – but to those playing it means a lot. We make wonderful friendships from all over the world, some of us have been (or are) struggling in RL [Real life] – and this silly little game relieves a lot of stress. The friendships will last, but having a game to “meet” over is nice. We have invested time, energy and RL [Real life] money in this game.”

“Our pets have become an extension of ourselves. Our friendships with other pets have developed into true friendships. On June 14th you will be KILLING countless pets, severing countless friendships, and losing almost all of your loyal fans who will vow to never play another one of your games to suffer the heartbreak you will have caused them by shutting down Pet Society.”

  • Escape from daily stress and access to an ‘ideal’ world

Comments often referred to Pet Society as an escape from the real world or a reprieve from daily stresses.

“Pet Society has been a distraction from my stressful life since the beginning. It helped me taking my mind off every days problems and I simply enjoyed playing it.

“Why is this important for me??? Because Pet Society is part of my life, I mean that REAL life, not just virtually… Cause I love my pets, and this game is my kind corner of happiness, It’s an ideal world I do not want to see it disintegrate into nothingness.”

“It´s helped me to sort out difficulties that I´ve had in my life because it´s helped me to keep my mind out of my issues when playing…”

  • Relief from mental or physical conditions

Many of the comments on the petition(s) referred to the use of Pet Society to overcome mental or physical conditions, e.g., to overcome anxiety or depression, or to provide a source of entertainment and enjoyment for those with a physical disability.

“Pet society is extremely important to me.. because, I live with a very bad anxiety condition, Pet Society helps me change my focus from my anxiety! I have had Pet Society since 2008 and my pet is a part of my everyday. I have met so many wonderful people through this game, but most of them I only talk with via the game. All of this will completely crumble down if the game gets closed. I’m literally sitting with tears in my eyes! Please dont close the game! Theres no other game like Pet Society! I have tried other facebook games, but, theres nothing like Pet Society! Dont update every week then for a while, it would be okay, just dont kill our pets!! It would truly break many peoples hearts!!”

“I have a mental illness and at the moment my little pet does the things i can only dream of :(“

“My Wife plays this game and is disabled and is stuck at home ! She has put alot of time and money in to this great little pet of hers please do not take it from her !!!!”

“I suffer hard from fibromyalgia and spend most of my time in bed, Pet Society helps me keeping my mind from all the pain […] We could find another game, but we spend years on this and no matter if we are sick or healthy, if we use it to escape from our sickness, for fun or for stressrelease, this has become a part of our social life. To us it’s not just a game <3”

  • Substitution for real life pets

One of the common themes emerging from the petition comments was the use of the virtual ‘pets’ as a substitute or replacement for real life pets. While some users played Pet Society instead of getting a real pet (whether through choice or life situation), many of the comments referred to players who had created a virtual representation of their deceased real life pets. While the thought of ‘reincarnating’ my deceased pets as a virtual pet does not sit well with me and is not something I would ever dream of doing, perhaps this is a way for some players to deal with their grief over losing their companion(s)? Whether this is a healthy method of dealing with grief, who knows, but it appears that this may be what has been occurring within Pet Society:

“This pet was just like my real life pet which i lost few years back. And have a huge attachment with this. Now i cant c this pet also die 😦 . i can do anything to save it”

“I regard this game to my important part of my life, my pet is just as same as the real one, I need to take care her all along my life!! I never wonder that one day I will lose her before I die. I really believe that I can keep playing this game all my life without any tedious feeling!!! Dont Kill my PET!! We dont just regard this as a game anymore!! Definitely not !!! Keep my pet ALIVE!!!”

“i love this game so much after naming my pets after my cats that passed away i feel sooooo sad i wont see them aagain its really heartbreaking :(“

“Draco DeFuret has been my pet for years. He’s all I’ve got left of his real world counterpart, whom I lost to cancer two years ago. Pet Society was also a vehicle for me to find new friends, I’ve even met some of them in person… In short, this ‘game’ has been a happy little place for me and many others.”

It is clear from many of the comments that some players regard their virtual pets as ‘real’ – this is evident in the language that they choose to use, e.g., they refer to the closure of the game as killing their pets, with many comments referencing death and some even mentioned murder.

Personally, I found this the most startling reason for players becoming so attached to Pet Society. It would be very interesting to know whether this is a healthy behaviour or whether an over attachment to the virtual, especially when it is tied to the loss of a real life loved one, is detrimental to the individual concerned. I can’t help but wonder if some people would create virtual reincarnations of their deceased friends and family, or do they draw the line at pets? Everyone copes with grief in their own way but I wonder if – as one player described it – games that encourage players to become emotionally invested could have a negative impact on some users.

Are some users at risk of becoming too attached to the virtual?

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4 responses to “Becoming too attached to the Virtual? Emotional investment in online games.

  1. Wow. I never play virtual games because I don’t want to get sucked into the time warp… however, when these games not only waste large amounts of time, but become the “real” world for users, that is scary… and sad. Another great article!

  2. I am not really into online games, or facebook games. Neither am I into pets, but from the looks of it, I can see that many people are hooked. Judging from the number of game request I get constantly.

  3. I never plan games online and this was an eye opening post for me.

    WOW! Incredible but I guess for some folks stuck at home or that cannot care for an animal but, but still we are human beings and as such we are SOCIAL peeps.

    Maybe find some outlets that let us be with others developing relationships that are real?

    Thanks for posting,
    Evey

  4. I used to play Facebook games all the time, but it was a real time waster. You can get sucked into the games because you try to compete with your friends, and then your friends send you requests. It’s hard not to get sucked in once you’ve started. I haven’t played any in almost 2 years, and I don’t miss a thing. And there are certain perks of the game that you can pay for, and I’m sure that people are mad that they invested money into the game. But it was a Facebook game, not a game thought you bought and installed on your computer. It’s intense how emotional these people are over the game.

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