What It’s Like to Meet a Friend You Know Only From Video Games

“When he walked in and sat next to me, it was really weird. Like, Can you talk in my ear very closely so I can make sure it’s you?

A man wearing a headset climbs out of a computer screen, to join a group of other men wearing headsets in the real world.
Wenjia Tang

Each installment of The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with a group of childhood friends who adopted a new member, Jordan, after meeting him over video-game voice chat. Several months into their friendship, Jordan moved to where the others lived, partially to be close to them. They discuss the unique ways that video games facilitate intimacy, and their transition from virtual to real-life friendship.

The Friends:

Jon Allison, 36, a marketing strategist who lives in Richmond, Virginia.
Peter Phillips, 33, a software developer who lives in Richmond.
Tim Phillips, 36, a mortgage loan officer who lives in Richmond.
Jordan Shear, 32, a software developer who lives in Richmond.
Trent Werwath, 36, a land surveyor who lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Julie Beck: A group of you were friends in person first, right, and then you met Jordan through video games?

Trent Werwath: Tim, Jon, myself, and Peter have all been friends since childhood. We grew up together in the Virginia Beach area. I moved out to Oregon for college. And I met Jordan in person out there.

Peter Phillips: There’s a game called Destiny, which some of us still play, [and] some of us do not. That’s how me, Tim, and Jon got to know Jordan.

Jon Allison: It is a shooter, like Call of Duty or Halo, but also layers in some role-playing elements. And, Julie, Destiny is not a game; it’s a lifestyle. Which is why some of us don’t play anymore.

But originally, we made a little clan, which we called “Han Shot First,” based on Star Wars lore. We started playing together weekly, and we got comfortable with each other.

Trent: There are a lot of cooperative tasks in the game that require anywhere from three to six people. Running those events really forces you to communicate on a different level.

Tim Phillips: These six-man activities take hours where you’re bumping your head against a puzzle. There’s a lot of time for people’s personalities to come out.

From left to right: Jon Allison, Trent Werwath, their friend Mark Herritt, and Tim Phillips (Courtesy of Peter Phillips)

Beck: For those who had never met before, what were your first impressions of one another over the headset?

Jordan Shear: Peter and Tim—they’re brothers—sound exactly the same, especially when you can’t see them. For a very long time, I had trouble telling the two of them apart.

Peter: I just remember Jordan being really fun to play a game with. He’s got this dry sense of humor. A cynical guy.

Jon: Jordan was fun to shoot the shit with. Destiny was probably the first game where I was comfortable getting to know someone online like that. Trent knew Jordan, but Jordan could be a weirdo. Do I want to make friends with him? I didn’t grow up building friendships on games. It was new to me.

Beck: How is developing a friendship over voice chat, focused around this shared activity, different from becoming friends in person?

Jordan: It’s a little different at the start, but once I got to know everybody, it really wasn’t as different as you might think. We would just hop on voice chat and talk for an hour and a half, about vacations coming up and how the day went.

Tim, Jordan, and Jon at Tim and Peter’s family’s vacation home. (Courtesy of Jon Allison)

Trent: When you’re not doing something in-game that requires a lot of coordination, you’re basically just on the phone with this person, so you can grow a friendship pretty quickly.

Tim: The transition for me was when I would hop online and Jordan was online, and even if we weren’t playing Destiny, we would still get on the voice chat and talk for hours and hours while playing separate games. That was when it shifted for me, like, Oh, this is just a friend now. It’s not just about this one shared video-game experience.

Beck: It’s interesting, because the stereotype about Millennials is that we hate the phone. It’s less common these days, I feel, to just call your friends to chat. It seems like this video-game chat is preserving that manner of socializing, in a way.

Peter: I totally hear that. I never talk on the phone, if I can avoid it. And yet I spend quite a bit of time talking with friends who I play games with over the headset.

Jon: Also, let’s be honest, this is some nerdy shit. If you meet someone in the wild, it could take you a while to admit that you’re this nerdy. So when you start out doing this nerdy thing with other nerdy people, you’re already pretty naked in front of each other. It’s disarming.

Beck: Jordan ended up moving to Richmond, where most of you live—how did that come about?

Jordan: Trent called me and told me about a job at his company. This was in 2016. It wasn’t going to pay very well, but I was feeling stuck, and needed a refresh. I had struggled in Seattle to really find connections. It felt like the best connections I had were actually with people that I was playing video games with.

Peter, Jon, and Tim were here, and Trent’s only an hour and a half away. Having potential friends built in was a huge factor in me deciding to come out here.

Peter: When we heard he was moving to our city, it’s like, Of course we’ve got to hang out with this guy. That started a whole new chapter. We brought him into our actual, IRL friend group.

Beck: What was it like when you guys finally met in person?

Jordan: We all went to watch Captain America: Civil War. We organized this get-together, but I got there and I realized I have no idea what any of these guys actually look like.

Beck: You didn’t Facebook stalk them in advance?

Jon: I don’t even know if any of us have Facebook.

Left to right: Tim, Jordan, Jordan’s girlfriend Sonya, and Trent at the movies. (Courtesy of Peter Phillips)

Jordan: I found you guys in the theater as the previews were going, because one of you texted your general location.

Jon: I’ve never seen him before, and in my mind over the headset, I imagined him as really tall and really skinny. And he’s not either one of those things. So when he walked in and sat next to me, it was really weird. Like, Can you talk in my ear very closely so I can make sure it’s you?

Peter: Jordan was the first person I met who I already knew through a game with voice chat, but it’s happened a couple of times since. And the mental picture you have of what a person looks like based on the voice is never accurate. It always throws you for a loop.

Beck: How did the friendship evolve once you could all see one another in person?

Jordan: I’m moving to a new city, I’ve never seen these guys before, I don’t know what they’re going to think. But it was so seamless. I didn’t feel like I had to work for it at all.

Jon: It helped that Jordan didn’t have anything else to do. We would send you invites to get a beer or watch a movie or something and you were basically [always] available because you’re in a new city.

The culmination was when Tim and I threw a party for him. It was his 11-month party of living in Richmond. I don’t know why we decided to commemorate 11 months. We’re idiots and it’s funny to us. But we planned a party that was like, “Jordan, this person on our headset who’s become a part of our lives, is a real friend. Let’s celebrate his existence in Richmond after 11 months.” So we rented this upstairs room of a bar, just hung out, got drunk, and celebrated Jordan.

Jordan: For me, a big moment was Peter’s bachelor party.

Jon: Jordan got very drunk. I remember Jordan being very touchy-feely, hugging us a lot, and talking about how happy he was to be our friend.

Jordan: They wouldn’t let me hug them for a little while, because I hugged them too hard one time.

Peter: He hugs very hard.

Tim: Very aggressive.

Jordan: I just think they’re brittle.

Peter, Sonya, Jordan, and Tim (Courtesy of Peter Phillips)

Peter: Jordan’s not the only friend we’ve made this way. Eventually we joined this larger Destiny clan and got to know a bunch of new guys. It turns out a bunch of them lived in Northern Virginia.

Trent: We found the clan through Reddit.

Peter: Yeah, these are true randos. One of these guys has also since moved to Richmond. It’s a similar story to Jordan. Unfortunately he moved right before the pandemic hit, so we’ve hung out with him in real life three times. But we’re bringing him into the crew, nonetheless. This is our friend Matt.

Jon: That relationship also culminated in a Peter-driven drinking party. We camped out at Tim’s house for Peter’s birthday, and Matt threw up.

Tim: Basically the themes here are video games and drinking.

Beck: I’m curious how you guys think about the lines between virtual and in-person friendships, or if you even draw those lines anymore.

Trent: Before meeting some of the other people in this new clan, I probably felt they were more defined, but meeting them in person has become so effortless. My dad and I went up to a music festival in Ohio, and one of the guys lived in Ohio and he was going to the same festival. He met my dad and I at our hotel and hung out with us for three days and it was never awkward or weird. It felt like the lines didn’t even exist.

Jordan: It’s a little different going from being virtual friends to hanging out in real life. I feel a little closer [to them] now that we’re all here together, but we were definitely friends when I was living 3,000 miles away.

Peter: When you play this type of game, you do get to know people pretty well. I wouldn’t necessarily say these friendships are equivalent to your IRL friendships, but it lays a really good foundation. It’s just so easy to build on that.

If you or someone you know should be featured on The Friendship Files, get in touch at friendshipfiles@theatlantic.com, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.