As Americans adjust to the loneliness of life during the pandemic, there is a preexisting community that can provide an unexpected source of wisdom: gamers.
Yes, gamers. Often dismissed as pajama-wearing basement dwellers, players of video games have spent years building and maintaining online communities. We developed and mastered the Internet’s strange social phenomena years before the rest of the world caught up, pioneering intimacy at a distance. And we have a lot of lessons to teach the rest of the country about how to survive the current pandemic, in particular about how to forge and sustain connections while maintaining physical distance.
First, never do alone what can be done in a team. In so-called massively multiplayer online games, players often get together virtually to form clans and guilds so they can help each other complete complicated missions and navigate the game’s obstacles. A new game, or the release of new content within a game, can serve as a kind of reunion for virtual families scattered across the globe. Clans maintain private spaces in social media for sharing and coordination, and players needn’t be active in any particular game to enjoy full membership.
The voice-chat tools built into games are especially valuable at promoting these ties. Our voices have an immediacy, outbursts and all, that text can never match. Video calling is more accessible than ever before, and even those of us who have increasingly defaulted to text messaging should consider the value of the human voice, whether through tools like Skype or regular old-fashioned phone calls.
And don’t just reach out to catch up: Ask for help when you need it, and offer help if you’re able to give it. A seasoned gamer never passes up so-called side quests, parts of a game that might not seem integral to the core mission on first glance, but that can bring their own unexpected rewards. Designers often tuck clever jokes and portentous scraps of narrative into these hidden corners, so we’ve learned to draw them out and treasure them. Like real life, most games aren’t a linear rush from start to finish; they’re meandering opportunities to learn from failure and grow from success. Everything matters and everything counts, especially on the margins.
Even if you and people in your circle of friends and family don’t have immediate needs, make sure to put virtual get-togethers on the calendar. People can make time for fun more easily when they know exactly when the fun is happening, which is why teams of gamers schedule their raids and missions together even when they’re far apart. That’s doubly true for online gatherings, where you can’t rely on everyone spontaneously logging on to a group video chat for a long-distance movie night.
And beyond those scheduled events, be a daily presence. Online relationships are as real as any bond between human beings, but they differ from real life and can be particularly prone to inertia. You can exchange a look, a smile, a nod with your co-workers and neighbors to connect with them nonverbally. Online, silence can’t be distinguished from absence. If people don’t hear from you, they assume you’re busy elsewhere, and eventually they’ll wonder if you’re coming back at all.
And above all, be chill. “Chill” is the most important personality trait for online gaming, a hobby often peppered with setbacks and defeat. You have to be willing to try and fail 50 times, or a hundred, to achieve your goals. Groups whose members turn on one another in those difficult moments don’t tend to stick together very long.
Millions of people are going to be feeling very frustrated and anxious in the coming months, so it’ll be vital that we keep ourselves level while helping others do the same. If someone needs to vent, let them vent. They’re probably not even looking for solutions, just acknowledgment. A group of people who genuinely like each other can overcome challenges that immediately thwart groups who don’t.
The commitment that comes with friendship is one of life’s most precious assets. That, more than digital trophies, is why so many people invest themselves in online worlds. They want to connect with people, have their value recognized and reciprocate that feeling back to others. The COVID-19 pandemic is no game. But the skills gamers have learned can help us survive, and even thrive, as we try to keep our communities safe.