One of the most underappreciated aspects of my childhood was the fact that I never had to move around much. And I don’t just mean the fact that I didn’t have to worry about getting lost in a new place often. I lived in the same neighborhood for over twenty years, and it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that I felt very much in my element while there. There’s something comforting about having a place imbibed with familiarity. It’s a place that, dare I say, I could genuinely call ‘home’.
Most of us have such a place where we feel completely at home. And there are several reasons why we consider that place ‘home’. It could be as simple as having your favorite restaurant or book store around the corner. Maybe you’re serenaded by happy memories when you stroll around the vicinity. Or the scent of freshly baked bread wafting in from the bakery nearby. It could be the familiarity of your surroundings that resonate with your very being. Hey, maybe your childhood crush lives right next door and you can’t help but hope to catch their eye and trade smiles (no judgement here). For me, home is defined by the relationships I hold with the people there.
Starting any kind of relationship is easy, but maintaining and building on them takes time and effort. Having not moved around much as a kid, I was fortunate to have maintained several relationships that were years in the making. Be it family or friends, it’s much easier to maintain those relationships when all it takes is a walk down the street or at most a short drive away to connect and interact with each other. It’s rather incredulous how much harder it gets once you put a little distance between people. Or rather with my case of moving to the US, make that a lot of distance.
Now I wasn’t suddenly in a world filled with strangers and no friends. Like I said, creating new relationships is easy, but maintaining old ones takes effort. And when life happens, it’s not always possible to put in that effort to maintain relationships when you’re not physically or emotionally interacting. The relationships with my friends and family back in India were being held together with a rope that was beginning to strain as the ground beneath our feet began drifting away from each other, completely out of our control. All of a sudden, home didn’t feel like home anymore.
It’s a feeling I’m sure pretty much everyone is aware of by now, considering we just went through 2020 together.
Call me crazy, but I think it’s a matter of fact rather than an opinion that the global pandemic sucks. It’s impacted every person at every facet of life in one way or the other, either physiologically, economically, mentally, or emotionally. But no impact has been as understated, or as widespread, as the pandemic’s effect on our relationships.
I probably would’ve been ecstatic to hear the term ‘Social Distancing’ while I was in school, mostly because I would’ve assumed it meant I had to stay away from Social Science classes. We all now know it to be a necessary evil to curb the spread of the pandemic. But the consequence of that on our relationships has been severe. Human beings are social creatures who crave company and connections with others to thrive and survive (yes, even for you introverts out there). It’s never been beneath me to skip a social event to stay at home and play video games or binge-watch netflix, but even I yearn for the chance to just be around people in times like these. There’s a reason Will Smith was so broken after his dog died and he was left all alone in ‘I AM LEGEND’. Loneliness is… painful. It leaves a void that we unsuccessfully attempt to fill with alternatives. There is solace in solitude, but only when it’s balanced with sufficient social interactions.
Through the past year, we’ve all made attempts to bridge the gap of physical separation from friends, families, and loved ones. We’ve resorted to scheduled video calls, instant messaging, and group chats to maintain some semblance of contact. Heck, we even have grandmas making TikTok videos to share on our WhatsApp groups and entertain the family. In a time where we cannot be physically connected, we’ve resorted to digital connections to fill the void in every conceivable way.
But… it’s just not the same.
Every time we have a catch up with friends on a Discord video chat, have awkward family get-togethers on Zoom, or floundering first dates over video call, it just doesn’t feel the same. There always seems to be something amiss, mixed with an ominous emptiness that never truly bridges the void of loneliness. Because these attempts to bridge the gap of separation have been a mere band-aid over a gaping wound. Just seeing someone’s face or hearing their voice is not enough to maintain a strong human connection. Our relationships are built on the experiences we share together that go further than shallow interactions over a screen. And when we are restricted to only digital interactions for over a year, those experiences are lacklustre at best. It’s why we always end these video calls and messages with “I miss you”.
It’s natural for any relationship to be strained in times like these. We all yearn for this pandemic to be behind us so that things could go back to normal. Except, these strains aren’t ones to be fixed with a snap of a finger when we finally get to see each other in person again. Relationships take time and effort to fix , and whenever I reflect on all the relationships of mine that have drifted apart over the past year, I know they need more than just a fix. They need a complete reboot.
If the very thought of that seems extremely daunting, hey, join the club. You’re not alone in feeling emotionally drained from the train-wreck that was 2020. It can feel suffocating, overwhelming even, to fathom all that needs to be done to reboot an entire relationship. You wouldn’t be wrong to feel like you need an escape. It’s moments like these that I instead choose to seek refuge in video games.
There’s a lot to love about video games. You get to explore wonderous new worlds, experience incredible stories that can move you to tears, forge your own destiny by becoming a hero (or villain, if that’s your thing), and have loads of fun while doing it. And if you mess up and make an unexpected oopsie, you can always restart the level and try again. You’ll never get me to admit the number of times I’ve restarted a match in FIFA when I concede a goal in the last minute or score a spectacular own goal. Everyone who’s played video games has restarted a game or a level when things don’t go the way they want. And if you haven’t done that, well, nobody likes a liar.
It's a matter of immense convenience to be able to restart whenever you mess up in a video game, to a point that you wouldn’t be alone in wishing that life was a video game. We could all do with a restart for 2020 I’m sure, and maybe reboot our drifting relationships in the process.
The fact is… we can. Because while life can’t be a video game, video games still have the capacity to reboot our relationships. In a time where we rely on technology and digital media to stay connected, video games find themselves in a unique position to enhance our experience with social connections in a virtual space.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking. A gamer and game designer raving about the importance of video games in modern society, how original. But before you roll your eyes at my audacity, just think about it. Games have been used as a social tool for millennia. Our parents and grandparents grew up with board games and card games that they experienced with their friends. The mere mention of a game from the past that they used to play will evoke an intense nostalgia in them fuelled by the sheer emotional impact they derived from the experience. These weren’t just fragments of fun that withered away in the past. They became memories as precious as Gollum’s affection to the One Ring. And when these memories are moments shared with friends, they become experiences that strengthen the bonds of their relationship; ie- their precious!
With the dawn of the digital age, video games have taken the place of traditional board games and card games for the current generation. But they also tend to go beyond. Video games are an interactive medium that allow players to be a part of a story and create their own experiences, bringing with it a level of immersion that no other virtual media can compare with. And when you take into consideration the recent rise of online multiplayer video games, these incredible, immersive experiences can be shared with others.
Online multiplayer games have been a revelation in an already booming video game industry that earns more than the movie and music industry combined. And at a time when everyone is stuck at home and seeking refuge online, these games have risen as a saving grace. Games like Fall Guys and Among Us gained so much traction and following during the pandemic that they became the Kardashians of the video game world; even those who knew nothing about video games would’ve at least heard about them and wondered how they got so famous.
It’s not just the money and fame that speaks for these video games though. Studies and research throughout the pandemic have shown that video games have been the one of the most effective sources of social connectivity to combat loneliness. Playing video games with friends, or even strangers for that matter, have shown to foster genuine psychological benefits and feelings of community. Being involved with a video game and playing these games with others have shown significant reduction in loneliness and depression. Researchers have even stated that the relationships formed within online gaming communities provide social capital (an all-encompassing term for social resources that make a friendship a friendship) akin to face-to-face relationships.
This is because online video games foster a sense of a common goal or communal competition that builds or reinforces relationships in a way that other types of online social interactions like video calls and group chats just can’t provide. It’s how playing a team sport with friends is different from having a coffee with a friend in a cafe. While the latter definitely allows you to have a bond, the former builds camaraderie and close ties.
And speaking from personal experience, it just… works. At the height of the COVID pandemic, I attempted to reboot a lost connection with my best friends back in India. We’ve been thick as thieves since kindergarten, but distance and the pandemic had fractured our otherwise indomitable relationships. And our means to reconnect? Playing an online version of the game ‘Codenames’, where we are split into teams that need to guess secret code words using clever hints. It was the perfect way to get up close and personal using hints that resonated with each other. For instance, to guess the words ‘Author’ and ‘Games’, my friend used my own name as a hint since everyone there knew I was a game designer and had written and published books. It was moments like these that rekindled remnants of our relationship that broke the ice that had formed over the years, causing nostalgia to resurface from the depths. We were laughing, conniving, insulting (because that’s what good friends do), and bonding over old memories while forging new ones.
A handful of us also jumped into ‘Overcooked 2’, a multiplayer game that required us to work together to run a kitchen and serve food on time. It is a game that forces players to communicate effectively with each other to successfully complete a level. The more we played, the more we seemed to be in sync with each other as we shared responsibilities, communicated our actions and made plans together on the best way to hit the target number of orders we needed to serve. During this one specific level that we had failed multiple times in, one of us took the reins and masterfully commanded the rest as we nailed one order after another. And when we hit the perfect score, our euphoria had no words. We ended that game feeling elated, ecstatic, and with another story about an incredible experience that we had shared together.
Because that’s the very fabric that binds relationships together; experiences. The more you experience and endeavor together, the stronger your relationships become. And with video games, you get to craft those experiences together despite being physically apart. Eventually, they become the spark you need to not just rebuild, but also reboot your relationships.
As much as I love and endorse video games, they aren’t meant to be permanent replacements for genuine physical connections and contact. As a society and as species, humans still yearn and need physical relationships. But our relationships have been through a lot this past year, and we need to ensure that these relationships are still intact when things return to normalcy. That takes time and effort. And sometimes, maybe even a complete reboot. But with using Online Video games as a social tool to reboot our relationships, even something this daunting can seem fun at worth every moment and experience.
Like I said, there’s a lot to love about video games. And with video games, you get to feel at home no matter where you may be.