As technology advances and trends come and go, so does the way we communicate and connect with each other.
By Nico Beck
Leah MacLaughlin, a 19 year old Brampton student sits down at her PC and puts her headset on gently over her ears. As she boots up Discord, she sends her friend, “Shadowfox,” a message asking if they want to play. Shadowfox responds quickly, and the two of them join a call and hop onto their favourite game, Overwatch. When the two of them play, it’s like they’ve been friends for years. It’s hard to imagine the two of them have never met in person.
MacLaughlin’s situation actually tends to be the reality for a lot of gamers nowadays. In recent years, online gaming has become an excellent platform for developing friendships and connecting with already existing friends and family. Despite online voice communication typically being used exclusively for teammates to communicate and coordinate mid match, it has since evolved into a chatroom-like feature which allows players to talk during a game. For MacLaughlin, in-game voice communication is how she and Shadowfox met.
There seems to be a huge misconception that gamers are isolated, lonely people who prefer to shut themselves indoors all day and play games. However, this tends to not be true. In fact, gamers tend to be very social individuals. They are able to connect with total strangers online and form very true friendships. Gamers are able to take advantage of online gaming as a tool to strengthen already existing relationships. It’s not an activity that encourages isolation, it’s an activity that utilizes social skills.
In recent years, platforms such as Discord have been created in order for other gamers to communicate and stay in touch with each other. Discord, founded by Jason Citron and Stan Vishnevskiy and released in 2015, has proven to be a smashing success, with around 150 million users worldwide.
On Discord, members can join “servers”, which are similar to group chats on iMessage or over on WhatsApp. You can video call or voice chat with multiple people, or choose to talk one-on-one. It can also be used to livestream content to your friends, or even just to simply text your buddies. With the use of servers, Discord effectively manages to create a sense of community for members.
For MacLaughlin, this has certainly been the case. She is part of a server, simply titled “The GameHERS.” Targeted towards women and non-binary individuals, this server creates a safe-space and sense of community for queer folk and women, who are typically targets of verbal harassment in the online gaming community.
“It’s a really tight knit community of a bunch of women, non-binary people, and even guys who game. It’s just targeted at women and non binary people, but everyone is allowed and as long as you are willing to create a positive gaming environment,” MacLaughlin said in a Zoom Interview.
“Discord definitely creates a good community. You just have to find the right people.”
Online gaming and Discord have shown to be great ways to communicate with friends from afar, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when people can chat with each other remotely while being able to have fun and game on the side. So much so that even the World Health Organization has endorsed online gaming to be a safe, fun, and effective way of communication during the pandemic.
Some may say that talking and gaming online with friends is just like hanging out with them in person. Oliver O’Connell, 20, and Ella O’Connell, 22 tend to agree.
The O’Connells are brother and sister. Oliver lives in Toronto, in their family home, finishing his high school degree while Ella has moved away for university. While the two of them no longer live under the same roof, they manage to frequently voice chat with each other over Discord while playing games like Minecraft together.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, traveling and visiting each other has been difficult for the two, especially since Ella lives three hours away from Toronto, currently residing in Kingston. However, consistently chatting and gaming together has helped the two of them stay in touch and become closer than ever. While playing, the two of them like to catch up and share a laugh together. The O’Connells grew up playing video games together as children. Playing video games with each other online helps the two of them connect in a way that is familiar and nostalgic to them, just in a different manner.
“Playing games together online is like a bonding activity for us. It’s something we can do even though we don’t live near each other.”
How can we understand the influx of the use of online gaming as a mode of communication though? Richard Lachman, Associate Professor and Director of Zone Learning at Ryerson University, has an idea.
“These efforts have been happening for decades – but we’re starting to see more institutions accept the research into how important games are as a form of expression, and more understanding of the scale of the industry,” Lachman said in an interview.
Lachman thinks that as technology and society begins to evolve and grow, so does the way we communicate.
“I think there are definitely ways in which people who grow up with access meet fundamental human needs for connection using whatever tools are around — in previous days, that might be the letter, or the telephone, and now it’s whatever platforms and online environments are current,” he said.
However, Lachman also believes that although friendships developed through online gaming are important, there is still a strong expressed desire to have in-person relationships, especially after the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“While there are often stories about the increased isolation of younger generations, and moral-panic news articles projecting forward a future where no one wants to be in-person, I think the pandemic shows we as a society still hunger for contact,” he said.
“I think our massive global experiment in online relationships is interesting, and has given more people skills in the tools of online communication (and friendships, and family relationships), but our expressed desire to get back to one another seems strong.”