It seems as though we’re finally coming out of a very dark period of time in the United States. For over a year, COVID-19 has ravaged across the country, keeping many of us holed up in our houses and rooms in respect of various lockdown measures. Within the span of a few weeks, we went from normal life to not being able to see our friends, family, classmates, and coworkers on a daily basis, which left many feeling lonely and isolated. During this time of grim news, many turned to video games and virtual activities to keep in touch with friends in a safe way. Many people who had never once thought about picking up a controller decided to give gaming a chance to stave off boredom and reconnect with loved ones, resulting in console shortages across the US (and this ad that unintentionally showcases the Nintendo Switch’s issues with voice chat).
Now that lockdown restrictions are easing and vaccines are much more readily available in the US, it seems as though the country is coming out of this dark period. People have been able to meet up with friends and family that they haven’t seen in over a year; on Sunday, I had my first in-person board game night with friends since February 2020, an activity that we used to do several times a month. Just because restrictions are easing doesn’t mean that the sting of a year’s worth of quarantine will go away immediately, though. As I reflect on it as a gamer, it’s clear that the communication facilitated by gaming and similar virtual activities was an essential activity for me during lockdown. Based on the stories I’ve heard about from others, I think I’m correct in assuming that many others feel the same way. So why was communication through gaming such an essential part of gamers’ lifestyles during the worst of the pandemic?
When most people think of communication in video games, they probably think of multiplayer games. It’s an extremely important part of these titles: if you want your team or squad to win, you have to be able to effectively communicate enemy placement, availability of resources, and more. It’s so important that many established teams have a “shot caller”, or one person who provides callouts and directs the team’s activity during games. Even if you don’t want to use voice chat (for a variety of reasons), most modern multiplayer games provide ping options, text chat, and other ways to coordinate your efforts and hopefully climb the skill ladder. These features are indicative of the importance of communication in these types of games.
Multiplayer games give us a place to explore a shared, frequently competitive activity, one that many players were probably missing in the real world. The effects of lockdown meant that many real-life sports were cancelled or played in limited capacities; smaller-scale competitive activities like couch gaming sessions with friends were also impossible. Many of these competitive events are also social ones – is it more fun to watch football or basketball by yourself on your sofa, or with a group of friends and a bounty of snacks? Multiplayer gaming provides many of the comforts and social benefits of the activities that were lost during lockdown, including cooperation, competition, friendly banter, and more.
Sure, we have all sorts of text chat options on our phones and through the internet, but being able to hear your friends’ voices while you play makes a world of difference. Playing multiplayer games with a group of friends requires group skill, coordination, and communication, which just happen to be some of the aspects of everyday life that gamers were missing during lockdown. Jumping into a round of League of Legends or Warzone helps keep those skills sharp while we were unable to exercise them in real life. Multiplayer games are one of the only ways that distanced groups of people can enjoy a fun activity, as people who tried gaming for the first time during lockdown found out. (Does anyone really enjoy Zoom happy hours? Be honest.) Beyond the game itself, playing one or more of these titles is a way to pass the time and meet new people during quarantine. It may not be the same as hanging out in person, but it’s a good substitute.
Online Tabletop Games
Some of you might be scratching your head at this one. “Online tabletop games? Why would I play Monopoly or Sorry virtually?” Tabletop games encompass more than just the board games you enjoyed as a kid, as anyone who’s ever listened to Critical Role knows; in fact, I would even argue that games like Among Us are closer to board games than video games in spirit. (Do me a favor: grab 5 friends who like to argue and play the board game Avalon. Thank me later.) In recent years, a wealth of platforms have allowed players to play tabletop games virtually, including Tabletop Simulator and D&D Beyond. These digital settings allow players to continue hosting Dungeons and Dragons settings, try new tabletop games, and meet up with friends virtually, just like multiplayer games.
It may not be the same as hosting an in-person D&D session or board game night, but playing these games virtually gives players a chance to stay in touch with friends and flex their creative muscles. It’s an opportunity to try something new or continue a pre-lockdown activity, which could give players a stronger sense of normalcy. Furthermore, most tabletop games are based in some sort of communication, be it cooperative (helping the good guys win in the aforementioned game Avalon) or competitive (muscling your friends out of good real estate in Monopoly). Playing these games encourages you to talk with people, which in turn strengthens social bonds and reminds you of your friendships. Continuing me and my friends’ board game nights by playing tabletop games virtually kept us close and gave me a more personal outlet when I needed to talk about quarantine frustrations. These sessions made me look forward to our next in-person meetup even more, which created a light at the end of the tunnel during the darkness of lockdown.
Twitch and Social Media
Social media has (rightfully) gained a lot of negative attention for impeding communication rather than assisting it, but what if it’s one of the only options you have for staying in touch during a global pandemic? COVID forced me to look at social media in a new light and learn how to use it to stay in touch with others without bogging myself down in its quagmires. One platform I used more often in particular was Twitch. After a short-lived attempt at streaming, I settled for watching others’ streams. I preferred to watch smaller streamers and became friends with a few of them, meeting other chat regulars and relaxing after a long day of bad news with some lighthearted gameplay.
During the earlier days of the pandemic, when we were unceremoniously cut off from our friends and we didn’t know how long the whole thing was going to last, Twitch was a place of solace for me. Watching a streamer play a game and chat with their community made me feel as though I had a new virtual group of friends to hang out with (though that can be dangerous in and of itself) – it was nice to have a relaxed, low-key place to hang out where I didn’t have to make small talk. Surprisingly, I found that the webcam component of many Twitch streams does wonders for making you feel closer to streamers, to the point where it was closer to in-person communication than anything else I’d tried. When I missed my friends but they weren’t around to hang out virtually, I spent my time watching streams and making new friends.
Other social media platforms also provided great communication opportunities for gamers. The obvious choice for getting started with a community around your favorite game is Discord, which has recently rebranded to include activities outside of gaming. For those who became familiar with it as a gaming platform, this is a great opportunity to branch out into other activities and meet new people while keeping that familiar chat feeling. Other sites have unofficial communities for gamers to find people to play with and keep in touch, like Facebook’s user-made groups and Twitter’s “game dev Twitter” section. When I was feeling lonely during lockdown, I’d search for new groups on these sites based on my interests and favorite games, which gave me entirely new groups of people to connect and kill time with during quarantine. For all the flak they get, social media sites have made it easier than ever to at least form superficial connections with others, which is still more than the nonexistent opportunities that the pandemic offered us.
As much as the major news media and folks of a certain generation still like to stereotype gaming as a solidary activity for nerds with no friends, gaming and communication are actually intimately connected. This connection was brought to light in a major way during the pandemic – when in-person communication is forced to a halt, how can we maintain the social ties we’ve worked so hard to build? By playing games, of course! I’m sure it’s no exaggeration that the communication potential of games and the communities surrounding them kept many gamers sane and (at least reasonably) happy during lockdown. Some of the friendships and connections fostered during this period will continue into the future, even as we begin to see our IRL friends again. More than anything, gaming in quarantine taught me about human resilience, the value of laughter in positivity, and the lengths people will go to make things a little brighter for someone else – even in the very darkest times.