What You Learn Spending 3 Days Jumping Across the Milky Way With Internet Strangers

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24 hours after leaving a relatively new job, I found my desire to write lacking and my desire to be distracted, well, distracting. Growing bored of the various PC games that had consumed my free time before, I turned to my Xbox, albeit a PC game ported to console.

Elite Dangerous is a unique game. At its core, it’s not a game at all, but a space flight simulation in a Milky Way modeled after our own, albeit a cool 1300 years or so in the future.

The first few hours playing the game are hell, learning how to navigate the flight controls and ship commands. Most computer gamers play it with a HOTAS (combination joystick and throttle), but the Xbox controller is sufficient, albeit a bit heavy on button combination memorization.

Over a couple days, I upgraded my ships, joined a “club” on Xbox to meet other players, and quickly began forming a small circle of friends (basically strangers you can tolerate and make jokes with).

Then we decided to fly 18,000 light years outside of the “bubble,” a relatively small area of space surrounding Sol (where Earth is). It was here when I realized that Elite Dangerous was something else — a community engine.

It took me roughly 3 days (with an embarrassingly low amount of work/sleep) to make the 18,000 light year trip and back. I was flying a ship that wasn’t properly outfitted or engineered, and doing it on a whim alongside one of my new friends. It wasn’t a form of content that the game pushed upon us, but rather a self-selected goal. It was literally maddening (the dead of unpopulated deep space gets to you). It was also enlightening.

Around 3 hours in you stop worrying so much about how long it’s going to take. You settle in for the long flight and just try to enjoy it. In my case, this meant making jokes with a helicopter pilot from Texas, a barback from North Carolina, and an ornery Brit.

Around 6 hours in you lose a little bit of perspective. You ask yourself why you’re putting more effort into scooping fuel from stars and aligning for your next hyperspace jump than you’ve put into work for the day.

Around 12 hours in, you realize that you’re not going to make it today (or the next). You start spending more energy getting to know the folks you’ve chosen to play with, and far less time thinking about the task at hand.

This is where the majesty of online gaming sets in, even if some writers attach a stigma to the practice, as if channeling my obsessive compulsive nature into a game when work is slow somehow invalidates my maturity.

When you’re 9,000 light years into a trip that’s going to take you 3 days, and the voices in your headset are from other people making the same trek, despite being folks you would never cross paths with in the real world, everything becomes equal.

On Facebook, Twitter, and political blogs, everyone is either an ally or an adversary. Surprisingly, in games like Elite Dangerous, those competitive determinations take a backseat to companionship. A game literally designed around space combat and rivalry becomes more civil than an internet message board.

You start caring about how each others’ days are going, learning about their lives, and bucking them up when the events of real life take their toll.

At 18,000 light years, you turn around, and you feel a sense of relief for making it to your destination. You lose focus on the trip home, and start focusing on helping your stranger friend, who started a few hours behind you, make it to his port of call.

In massively multiplayer games like Elite Dangerous, things like a 3 day trip across the Milky Way are referred to as grinds. These are things you do to unlock something else (in this case credits for larger ships) but aren’t inherently all that fun. The funny thing is, when you let go for a bit, they become quite a bit of fun.

At 6,000 light years into the return journey, you realize that when life itself feels like the worst kind of grind, it’s the civility and humanity of the people you’re playing with that becomes the escape.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so hard on the gamers for finding their peace of mind?