The Differences In Relationships Formed Online Versus In The Physical World

There are two venerable rules about how relationships form. We like people who are physically and psychologically similar to us (homophily or propinquity), and we like people who are close to us (proximity). While the presence of these two factors does not guarantee a close relationship, be it filial or romantic, the less similar and less close two people are, the less likely they are to get along.

As the second decade of the 21st century looms, the patterns by which many people form and maintain relationships have shifted. Proximity is far less of a barrier when we can log on from almost anywhere and interact with someone almost anywhere on the planet.

The physical and expressive aspects of ourselves, so difficult to control in face to face encounters, have been replaced with highly controllable text, images, or fully-fledged three-dimensional avatars. By being able to be what we want, are we in danger of losing the ability to be who we are? Might relationships formed in the nebulous, unreal online world be as fleeting as the digital ghosts we adopt when we migrate online?

We attempted to examine this question by surveying a sample of people who play Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs). MMOs are interesting because they offer many of the activities which we encounter in the “real’” (we prefer the term “physical”) world, such as meeting people, performing tasks, traveling, engaging in trade within a functioning economy, as well as less realistic ones such as killing dragons and flying spaceships. While there is generally some aim or element of progress in an MMO, there are usually no set ways to play the game, so players can focus on fighting, or on trade, or on relationships, or whatever takes their fancy. Indeed, MMOs which do not offer this freedom and variety of activity do not survive long.

It is worth pointing out that while MMO playing might be a minority activity (despite being something which millions of people engage in on a regular basis), MMO players are demographically and psychologically indistinguishable from the general population. So although our sample was limited and not representative of the general population in terms of its demographic characteristics, we believe our findings offer some insight into how online relationships might operate for most people.

In our survey, we asked people to tell us various things about themselves, about one or more significant relationships they had with people they had met in the physical world, and one or more people they had met in an online world. We then compared the characteristics of these relationships, principally looking for differences, and what might predict those differences.

To our partial surprise, we found the answer to be: very little indeed1. Our participants felt that friends they had met online were slightly less popular and friendly than ones they had met offline (even though they spent more time communicating with them), but there were no differences when we looked at romantic relationships. However, there was some evidence that romantic relationships formed online result in less relationship-related anxiety than offline romances. Unsurprisingly, patterns of communication were affected by where people met. Friends and romantic partners who had met online spent more time communicating online than friends and partners who had met offline.

There is much still to be understood and several important limitations of this research. Despite the fact that women constitute almost 50% of the MMO-playing population, our sample was 85% male. We also did not measure relationship duration and whether romantic partners lived together in the physical world. Finally, we did not ask players about how their relationships came about. Just as in the physical world, online relationships arise from many different kinds of encounter, activity, and motivation, and we are only beginning to scratch the surface of this rich topic. 

Despite these limitations, we believe these data contribute to the idea that relationships which form online are as robust and healthy as those which form in the physical world. And while we may be surprised to learn that around one-third of marriages in the US are now thought to begin online, we should not be unduly worried. Just as virtual worlds are terrific places to fight dragons and fly spaceships, so are they terrific places to make friends and to find love. 

These findings are discussed in the paper Attachment, attraction and communication in real and virtual worlds: A study of massively multiplayer online gamers, recently published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. The work was conducted by Mark Coulson, Andrea Oskis, and Jackie Meredith (Middlesex University, London UK), and Rebecca Gould (University College London, UK). 


  1. We should note that it is often difficult to conclude much from the failure to find a difference, as this might simply be because the experiment, or its measures, or its participants, were in some way unsuited to the question under investigation. However, the large number of people who completed our survey – over 1600 – meant that even tiny differences could be detected. In short, if there was no difference, we are confident that this means there really was no difference.