Key Takeaway: Danish online games developer BetaDwarf believes that a new type of game encouraging teamwork will bring people closer together. So-called friendshipping games counter prevailing wisdom that online games isolate people and contribute to societal loneliness. 

The image of the online video gamer — disaffected young man alone for hours in a darkened room staring at a screen — hardly projects an image of good health. Critics of these games, in which more than a third of the world’s population participates, blame them for contributing to a worldwide epidemic of loneliness. 

Still, a Danish startup is looking at the problem as cure for the growing isolation that afflicts more than one in five people in some parts of the world. The problem is so acute in the U.K. that the government has named a Minister of Loneliness to explore ways to build meaningful relationships.

BetaDwarf and its CEO Steffen Kabbelgaard are among the drivers of the “friendshipping games” trend. Unlike other types of online games which focus on defeating an opponent, friendshipping aims to connect people by getting them to team up in a common mission against virtual rivals. 

He argues that these games can reduce feelings of loneliness and even lead to meaningful friendships. Last month, the company closed a $6.6 million investment round to continue developing games based on this concept.

“If you put people through a lot of struggle and potentially shared suffering, it’s the easiest way of creating shared memories, and shared memories are really efficient in creating friendships,” Kabbelgaard told Karma.

BetaDwarf used these principles in its first game, 2013’s Forced, a fantasy gladiator fighting game, in which players partner to defeat fierce-looking enemies in fortresslike settings fit for a Game of Thrones episode. 

The company, which operated for over a year in an abandoned school building near Copenhagen, used $65,000 from a Kickstarter campaign and a $200,000 bank loan to develop Forced, which sold more than 500,000 copies. In 2016, BetaDwarf followed with an update, Forced: Showdown. This year, it launched Minion Masters, which takes place in an arena and requires gamers to play cards with neon colored characters of differing values.

The company told Venture Beat in September that it was profitable

The Scourge of Loneliness

Loneliness has been rising worldwide and many people studying the trend place at least some of the blame on the central role that laptops and mobile devices play in people’s lives. According to the 2018 annual Internet Trends report by Kleiner Perkins’ partner Mary Meeker, the average adult spends almost six hours a day online, more than double the total of a decade ago. A separate study by the internet technology firm Limelight Networks found that gamers 18 and older in the U.S. and five other major industrialized countries spend over five hours a week on online gaming. 

“If you put people through a lot of struggle and potentially shared suffering, it’s the easiest way of creating shared memories, and shared memories are really efficient in creating friendships.”

All that time browsing and reading alone has reduced personal, daily contact, say experts. 

According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, an eight-year-old British initiative to address this problem, almost one in five U.K. adults — about nine million people — say they are often or always lonely. A 2018 survey by the insurer Cigna found that nearly half of Americans feel left out or alone. Other countries have reported similar trends.

This loneliness epidemic has not been without cost. A 2015 Brigham Young study released by the U.S. National Institutes of Health found a 26% to 32% higher likelihood of early mortality among people who felt isolated. 

The idea that gaming can build interpersonal relationships is catching on. A 2015 Pew Research study found that about eight in 10 teen gamers felt a deeper bond to people who share their gaming passion. The survey found that more than half of these gamers play with friends whom they know only online. 

Linda Kaye, a senior lecturer in Psychology at Edge Hill University in the U.K., told Karma that gaming’s effectiveness as a loneliness cure depends on a range of factors, including not only “the level of cooperation or competition” but “other ‘social’ aspects to gaming.” 

Kaye said that someone knowing they “are part of a community of people like” themselves “can be important for well-being.” 

“Having said that, some level of active social engagement is usually better for boosting aspects of well-being than being passively part of a social circle,” she said.

Kabbelgaard believes the key to encouraging active social engagement is building games that contain what he calls “reciprocation loops,” In which players must share responsibilities and trust each other.

“Like in real life, reciprocation is also really strong when you give another person a responsibility of taking care of you,” he explains.

For example, lending money is a high-trust activity in the real world that models situations that an online game can use to engage users and test their relationships. Similarly, a game can force people to trust each other in a virtual high stakes situation as they work together. A failed mission because someone didn’t meet their responsibilities can result in the loss of in-game currency, or a temporary sidelining from the action.

Putting in a high-risk scenario, and “confronting players with that once in a while — It’s really, theoretically healthy for friendships,” he said. 

BetaDwarf’s next project, iProject Haven, will continue to exploit the social aspects of massive multiplayer online games.
If you have a lonely friend, you try to find an activity and a community to be part of, Kabbelgaard said. 

“Games and virtual reality allow you to start this ‘intro flow’ through an avatar, which is way more comfortable,” he said. “Because you’re you’re hiding behind a mask, it is up to you when you want to start sharing more personal stuff.”