Video games are becoming more prevalent in daily life due to being one of few available sources of entertainment and regular social interaction in Pandemicland. A more diverse audience is tapping into the community than ever before. As gaming has become, dare I say, “mainstream,” many are realizing the inherent social benefits of logging in.

[Monica Miller has come online].

We all get hype asf when we see our pals log on after a long day of work or school. It’s familiar. It’s fun. It’s thrilling. Despite interacting only virtually, stomping noobs with your bestie will be remembered as a genuine and tangible social experience for years to come. 

Zoom. Google Meet. FaceTime. These interactions are also remembered as genuine and tangible social experiences (or else we wouldn’t complain about Zoom fatigue as much). We are now living in a completely digital world—a digital world that I and millions of others have called “home” for decades. 

With social restrictions changing regularly, in-person interactions remain infrequent and, quite frankly, awkward. The social experience I am having now in my mid-twenties (due to the restrictions imposed as a reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic) reminds a lot of the isolation I experienced as a teen.

We travel the same path.

After being socially rejected for my weight as a pre-teen/teen, I naturally became reclusive and quite socially anxious as a result. It was intimidating trying to make friends in a body that was “different” from everyone else’s.

To satisfy my human need for belonging, I started gaming more frequently and soon built an incredible network of friends—but 80% of them were virtual. These virtual friends became my go-to support system.

We would talk via text and video, we would roleplay as different characters and create elaborate storylines together (like DND), and defeat enemies with combined strategic plans. It was normal, everyday human interaction and teamplay, but online.

However, my teenage social life was considered abnormal by family and the remaining 20% of IRL friends. I was living a different lifestyle in the early 2010’s in comparison to my peers who were unplugged, playing sports, and going to parties. 

As a result of these strictly virtual connections, I had always found myself glued to a screen. Whether it was my cell phone or computer, I always wanted to be close to a screen and keyboard to ensure I could communicate with my friends who I loved dearly.

Sound familiar?

People fear what they cannot understand. 

Having a channel of communication with my social group online meant that I was constantly connected. At any time, I could satisfy my social needs without having scary face-to-face conversation. 

It was convenient, and the adventures we were experiencing online were far more interesting than the pythagorean theorem. In fact, I learned more important life skills through video games than I did in the classroom, but that’s for another article. 

However, as I reflect on this period of my life in my second (but forced) long term isolation, I’m realizing there were some significant social setbacks I endured due to the extreme nature of my isolation during crucial formative years (12-17).

  • Online is safe. Real life is unsafe. This was a belief system I inherited from having a mostly internet-based social circle. My tribe protected me. My tribe loved me. When I would stray from the tribe (my screens), I became anxious, thus resulting in in-person connections becoming mentally and emotionally stressful. With the added fear and confusion surrounding mask-wearing today, our anxiety is only heightened when it comes to in-person interactions. If you’re noticing your social skills becoming rusty or you’re experiencing more anxiety, you’re not alone. Long-term social isolation leads to these effects.

 

  • Screen anxiety. I thought my screen anxiety was bad a decade ago. Now, it’s even worse. My heart drops into the pit of my stomach if I pat my pocket and don’t feel my cell phone. It’s my lifeline—quite literally. This has resulted in me finding refuge and feeling the “safest” in front of a screen. 

 

  • Touch starvation. When I was isolated as a teen, I had cut the cord for physical touch. Anyone in real life was “unsafe” in the depths of my brain, so I avoided physical touch with other humans. That meant no hugs… something I have grown fond of in the last decade. Lack of in-person interaction due to virus anxiety is resurfacing these feelings. Handshakes, fist-bumps, and hugs alike feel weird again. Unfortunately, this can lead to some long-term effects, as physical touch is integral to the human experience. Touch starvation is a real thing!

With the on-again off-again nature of the lockdowns across the globe, many are experiencing a version of this. It’s hard to find a solution that works for the collective, so all I can share is what worked for me to help accept and work through these uncomfortable isolation side-effects.

RELATED: Running to Gaming Music Has Kept Me Sane in Lockdown

The mind is the weapon. 

In times when we feel defeated, whether in-game or IRL, it’s difficult to see a pathway to success. The next victory seems less possible to achieve, sometimes despite having a good attitude about it. It’s important to recognize those feelings, but equally as important not to dwell on them.

Sometimes, access to a mental health professional is challenging to navigate or there are financial barriers in the way and we have to take our mental health into our own hands. 

For me, transferring those negative thoughts to paper (or a running Google Doc) helped me cope when lockdown isolation hit this time last year and I was without access to professional help. 

  • Mood tracking. Tracking my mood daily, even if it was as simple as drawing a happy face or a sad face on my calendar, helped me better understand some of my anxiety. On what days do I feel sad-face and why? Is there a pattern? Sometimes, I went the extra mile and kept notes on what specific events or feelings led me to feeling happy-face or sad-face or—new addition—meh-face, that day. 

 

  • Journaling. Keeping a regular journal of discoveries, strong feelings, or confusing decisions really helped keep me sane. I was undergoing several years’ worth of life changes over the course of just a few months. Sometimes, journal entries were only a sentence or two long, but to have these thoughts out of my head and on the computer/in a notebook meant I could sleep at night. 

 

  • Practicing gratitude. It is really easy to get stuck thinking everything sucks. The world around us is not easy to cope with right now. However, I was fed up with sacrificing my emotional health for things out of my control, so I started practicing gratitude in my daily life. Instead of focusing on what I didn’t have or what was going awry with the world that day, I focused on feeling gratitude for what I did have and what was going well in my life. Mentally or physically on paper, I would note the different things I was grateful for. Sometimes, it was as simple as, “I’m grateful for my cat,” that got me through the day.

Maybe one (or none) of these will help you, but either way, I got you thinking about it!

Your time has come.

It wasn’t until the forced isolation occurred was I able to reflect on how the chosen isolation in my youth may have affected me in the long term. In-person interactions became lackluster as a result of digitizing my social circle. It became difficult to interact with others due to layers of anxiety. Despite having experienced a completely digital lifestyle before, I still found myself overwhelmingly underprepared for the lockdown isolation. 

This has been a challenging time, but it doesn’t mean we cannot emerge victorious.