Players often venture into the wilderness of online games alone and friendless, seeking out allies in the worlds they inhabit and making friends as they go along. Some games are better at encouraging players to work together than others, too. You're not going to last very long playing by yourself in games like EverQuest or EVE Online, so you have to go looking for people to play with. On the other hand, in games like World of Warcraft you can start at the first level and get to level 70 without ever talking to another human being (it's even easier if you're a Hunter). Regardless of whether your particular game of choice forces you to find friends, many people like to have friends to play with anyway. Even if you don't need them, it's kind of the point of online games to play with other people. Right?
That's why some people roll into these games with a ready-made posse. Maybe it's a group of real-life friends that want to play together online, or maybe it's a guild composed of players that you met in a previous game and you'd all like to try something different together. Either way, it's pretty nice to be able to work with a group of people you already know, trust, and like. You don't have to hope that the fickle hand of fate will deliver good PuGs to you (we all know how rare those are), and you don't have to worry about trying to find a new group of people who you can relate to in a sea of anonymous faces (many of whom will have value systems, expectations, and maturity levels that will be different than yours). Is it possible you're missing out on something by bringing your own people in, though? If so, do you care?
Maybe not. There's a lot to be said for coming into a game with a previously established circle of friends. One thing that's nice is avoiding the often uncomfortable process of friend selection in a new environment. It's like anything else in life -- you don't want to make fast friends with the first person to say hello to you. What do you really know about them, after all? Maybe everyone on the server hates them because they're a known ninja-looter (and you'll be branded by association). Maybe they're racist, or sexist, or even terrorists. Maybe they're just annoying and you don't actually want to associate with them after spending a few hours with them. Fortunately, we have the /ignore function in online games to take care of that. (Don't you wish you could do that in real life sometimes?) You'll still often have to go through a lot of potential friends before you find people with whom you resonate, though. It's a long and tiring process.
Another problem with finding new friends in online games is that many players do come to the game with a circle of friends, even if you don't. This means that you can sometimes feel like the odd man out when you're trying to integrate with a group of people who all already know each other. While it's a fast way to make friends, you're often left feeling out of the loop as they crack inside jokes and pick you last for groups (it's like going back to high school gym class, at times).
Women have their own unique set of challenges finding friends online, in addition to those already mentioned. Players can seem perfectly normal until they find out that you're one of the few blood elf females who's actually a real girl behind the keyboard. Many players won't care, but you'll find that some players will change their attitude towards you -- it could be dismissive, hostile, or downright creepy. It makes things extra hard for girl gamers who are just looking for someone to hang out and quest with, since you don't know if the person that you're talking to is like that until it's too late. That's one reason why many girls tend to avoid ventrilo and other voice chat options in games until they're comfortable with the people they're playing with. Logging into vent for the first time and being greeted with an incredulous "Oh my god -- you're a girl?" isn't exactly a great start for a long-term friendship.
Given that I haven't even gone into detail on things like the possibility of insanely bad PuGs, people who will mess with you just for fun, and the problems that arise from the few friends you do make rapidly out-leveling you (or never logging in again), you might be starting to wonder why anyone would ever want to play a game without a core group of friends going in. Well, despite Gabe's equation, there are actually a lot of really cool people who play these games. If you go into a game with your friends already established, you might never have the opportunity to meet those people. Who knows what interesting things you might learn if you spread your wings and venture outside of your safety zone?
One of the things I've always thought was neat about MMOGs is that they throw people from all walks of life together and force you to work with each other. High-school students and stay-at-home moms frequently work together with truckers and dentists on a weekly basis to overcome shared challenges, and they get to know each other really well in the process. Maybe you think that investment bankers are all soulless, greedy, corporate assholes, until you realize that the guy who's out donating his time to help you farm for a recipe and running your alts through instances just to be nice is an investment banker at his day job. Maybe you think that liberal arts college students are all pot-smoking, tree-hugging, elitist, lazy idiots -- until a 22-year old Philosophy major steps up and proves his character by leading a kick-ass raid with speed, fairness, and impressive organizational efficiency.
Online games are a great place for people with open minds to meet and learn about people they would probably never otherwise associate with. You might feel uncomfortable walking into a biker bar and trying to make some friends, but you'd feel just fine chatting with one of those bikers over vent while you slay a dragon together (which could possibly lead to you feeling a lot better about walking into that biker bar). It's not just limited to expanding your personal perceptions, either. You never know when a new friend you meet online might lead to a lasting real-world friendship, a job opportunity, or some free advice. (With ages mixing the way they do in virtual worlds, the older players you meet are often more than happy to share their hard-earned wisdom about life with you.) You'd never have the chance to find these opportunities if you stick to just the friends you bring into the game with you.
So what's the final verdict? Are the benefits you get from meeting new people worth all of the pain and effort involved with weeding out the idiots, jerks, and bigots? Or are you better off just sticking with who you know? That, like anything else, is going to depend heavily on what you want out of your game experience. If you enjoy learning new things, pushing your personal boundaries, and developing patience, go it alone and make some new friends. If you just want to kick back and goof off with your pals, stay in your comfort zone, and unwind in a familiar environment, bring your pals with you.As for me, I like to go with a healthy mix of gaming with my friends while meeting and grouping with new people. What about you?