This year, I found myself diving back into games — partially out of boredom and finding more indoor activities to keep me occupied during a panorama, but partially out of the need for connection in a socially isolated world as well.

I’m not the only one — early on in the pandemic folks found themselves exploring and diving into games again. One popular game, Animal Crossing, which was released on the Nintendo Switch on March 20, 2020, became synonymous with the early days of the pandemic.

I myself spent hours on the game not only decorating virtual islands but visiting other friends’ islands remotely and trading items earned in-game and chatting with friends on the platform.

Are these platforms or games helping or hurting us? And as we exist in a new variant spike — what lessons have we learned about our online lives that can carry us through to the future?

As the line blurs between our online and offline worlds — I'm taking the stance that yes, these online interactions are important to fostering human connection, but shouldn't be the only way that we connect with others online. Games, gaming communities, and other social means of connecting through play help foster relationships with others — especially for those for whom connection doesn't always come easily.  

Development of social gaming technologies + impact on human connection

In recent years — we’ve seen an explosion of social technologies, like online gaming, that has provided us with new ways of connecting with one another.  But the question still remains, do these technologies actually help us with connection, or do they stifle us from the real world.

As a kid, I remember my parents limiting time on the computer or games until I had gone outside to play, homework was done or if I was getting ready for bed.  I was actually (believe it or not) a late bloomer when it came to social media platforms in my teenage and early adult years.

I downloaded them, but often missed the appeal of them all — preferring to connect with friends via texting or IRL.

Now, as an adult – I’ve found myself spending so much time on these apps and platforms. I love Twitter probably far too much and dump hours into forums, discord, and gaming websites.

I can only imagine what it feels like to be a parent these past few years — the internet has been widely accepted as a tool, as well as a means of communication and connection, but also screen time is a traditionally limited metric.

The role of gaming and connection in a pandemic

Taking it back to our example of Animal Crossing — did sinking hours into the game actually help us early on in the pandemic or did it hurt us? A group of researchers set out to answer this question by taking look at reflecting heavy Animal Crossing New Horizon players and monitoring their emotions around social isolation and anxiety in the early pandemic.

For those of you who haven’t played the Nintendo Switch game, one aspect of the game involves visiting friends’ virtual islands and the ability to have chat interactions with them.  While albeit a bit clunky (the Switch isn’t quite designed for a solid keyboard) basic chat and ability to converse was made available.

The researchers found on average that the average player actually experienced more anxiety than those who didn’t play the game — however, players that spent time using the online features and interacting with other players via visiting islands feature actually reported feeling lower feelings of loneliness and social isolation.

We can assume that while yes, March 2020 was a time of high anxieties and isolation – many of us experienced a rug pulled out from under our feet almost instantaneously. While, still difficult and by no means easy — the invention of social technologies like online gaming may have actually fostered ways to connect with other humans emotionally and socially without the physical connection in the offline world.

Many of these technologies are also enhanced by existing social platforms and forms of connection. At one point in the pandemic, additional Discord servers, subreddits, and forums popped up to supplement the rudimentary in-game chat. This may have in the end helped game players reduce feelings of social isolation and is in alignment with the recommendations the researchers provided for game players to reduce the feeling of social isolation.

Combating an existing social narrative

Gaming and online fandom has often been perceived as something that online loners or socially awkward weirdos do. I think it’s important (and long overdue) that we adjust this social narrative.

Even today — I saw a tweet about how games are the “soda pop and candy” of our time and we should seek more “quality interactions.”

Which honestly — I found myself pausing a bit by, merely hours after checking in with my brother via a video game.

It’s social troupe after social troupe, pizza boxes, stoners, teenage boys with heaps of dirty laundry and socially awkward adults. That’s what we expect gamers to be – we see this played out in social media and pop culture.

Lily Allen perpetuates the gamer awkward dude stereotype in her song "Alfie"

Interestingly enough — the historical context of gaming and connection goes hand in hand. In fact, it's actually one of the most inclusive forms of social interaction as well.

Studies have also shown that those who have emotional sensitivities who may struggle in our IRL worlds, actually have been shown to increase social competence among other individuals through providing additional ease of connection through visual anonymity as well as the asynchronous nature.

In one article written by Andrew M. Phelps for the Conversation — games have been social from the start.

“This stereotype was never true. Games have always been social, from the first multiplayer board game in ancient Egypt to the installation of Pong! in a bar in Sunnyvale, California, to the arcades and neighbourhood gatherings of the 1980s."

While it might not be healthy if this is our only interaction with one another – there’s no denying the benefit that comes with connection through online play.

A virtual world beyond us

While many are hyped for the existence of the metaverse and the increased attention and play that is happening because of it, I’m not convinced it will be much different than what we already have.

The metaverse in terms of online worlds has existed for a while and scholars, academics, and online game developers have seen (or crafted) firsthand the impacts that these inventions have had.

In one study — researchers interviewed players of the popular virtual world “Second Life” on their motivations for spending time in the online virtual world.

The researchers found four key motivations for players in the online game:

  1. Desire to build personal relationships
  2. The wish to earn money
  3. The search for diversion
  4. The need to learn

This study was back in 2009, and I’d argue that these motivations haven’t really changed over the years, and the way that we interact on these platforms haven’t changed either.

Online worlds and games are not an alternate universe — but rather an extension of our existing one.  Even in advance of the existing conversations today — we understood the importance of taking these spaces seriously.

As one study claimed:

Last but not least, firms need to understand that for its residents Second Life is more than a mere computer game–—it is an extension of their real life. Our research clearly shows that with increasing usage frequency and consumption intensity, Second Life avatars show behavior similar to that shown by people in real-life situations. Therefore, companies need to take the virtual world, and their activities within it, seriously in order to be taken seriously themselves. There are many companies that have failed in Second Life because they did not respect this simple rule. Firms such as AOL, Mercedes-Benz, American Apparel, and Sears, all of which are known for their marketing success in real life and were among the first to enter Second Life, have since left the virtual social world. Most likely they did not succeed because they were unable to manage and update their virtual presences at regular intervals. If you consider Second Life merely as a new temporal advertising outlet rather than as an integrated communication channel, avatars will soon realize and punish you accordingly.

Our biggest tragic flaw in approaching social interaction in online worlds is by condemning or underestimating the power of online interaction and play. Time and time again, we have come to understand our online selves are, in fact, an extension of IRL selves.

As we build towards increasingly virtual worlds — let’s not underestimate the power that blended online and offline habits can have on our social lives, mental health and perception of loneliness in the world.

Unlocking the possibilities of a truly blended world — with social technology enhancing our relationships rather than replacing them will lend itself to a greater depth of connection than ever before.