“He just sits in his room and plays videogames all day long. He has absolutely no social life”.
We all know the stereotype: the lone gamer, locked away in front of a PC or console for hours at a stretch, emerging only for meals. Doesn’t go out, doesn’t talk to anyone, doesn’t have friends, doesn’t have a life. The kind that parents worry about, colleagues find strange, and most others simply ignore.
“Most people think I’m a loner. They don’t know that I’m always with my closest friends,” grins Dev B, a 19-year-old living in Bengaluru, India. A hardcore player of the hugely popular online shooter Destiny 2, Dev plays with a group of other people every single day—people he counts as his dearest friends. “I’m really close to Adria and Mac who’re from the United States. We first met online when playing Dark Souls 2 about three years ago. Mac was a really skilful player, and I enjoyed battling him. We played match after match on the trot, and added each other as friends on PlayStation Network. Adria goes to the same school as he does, so soon, she started playing with us and we kind of became a gang,” he says.
The trio are genuinely close to each other. They goof around on voice chat, play intense competitive game sessions, provide each other emotional support on tough days, and send presents to each other halfway across the globe. The fact that they’ve never met in person doesn’t take anything away from their friendship.
With an ever increasing number of people choosing to play online multiplayer games year after year, major platforms like XBOX, PlayStation Network and Steam are constantly adding features to make their social experience better for players. With voice chat, party and game sharing features, friends can all play the same game or split up and play completely different games, watch each other play, or even sit around doing nothing—all while remaining connected to voice chat. It’s like hanging out in a room together with multiple TVs and consoles, except with people from all over the world.
The rise of the incredibly popular communications app Discord, with its easy drop-in and drop-out voice chat rooms and game streaming features, has helped people stay in touch with their gamer friends even when they’re not in front of their consoles. Discord saw a 50 percent increase in voice usage by its 100 million monthly active users since the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020. It’s also constantly adding features to make sure people stay connected through their daily lives, its game platform integrations making it the communications app of choice for gamers.
While newer tech has made it easier, the passion with which gamers connected with each other all over the world has existed for a few decades now. “I’ve made most of my closest and most meaningful friendships online,” says Reetesh Yelamanchili, who works in Seattle on the XBOX manufacturing team. In the late 90s and 2000s, Yelamanchili was an active participant in online game communities, and once created a community of gamers from under-represented countries (other than the U.S., Europe and Japan) so that they could play online on low-ping and low-bandwidth servers. He organised tournaments for Worms 2, TrackMania Nations and Quake III, and ended up with lifelong friends from many countries—several of whom went on to become game developers (one of them founded Ogre Head Studios in Hyderabad, the makers of Asura). “We’re still in touch. We’ve attended each other’s weddings, and still visit each other sometimes for gaming sessions. The bond was cemented over gaming,” he reflects.
Today, Yelamanchili is working on creating the next generation of game consoles. “I hope I can provide venues for the future generations to not just be entertained, but to make meaningful connections that pave the way for a life supported by kind people who believe in things you like, and in you,” he tells VICE.
For many young people, it’s not easy making friends in school, college or work because of their inherently shy personalities.
“They say it’s better and easier to make friends offline. But that’s for extroverts. I’m an introvert and socially, a little awkward, and I only make friends online,” says Robbie G, a 22-year-old from London. Robbie met his best friends Mark and Rio on PlayStation Network when clan-hopping (something gamers do in multiplayer games to find a good clan to join) on Destiny 2. Robbie, Mark and Rio all live in England, and occasionally meet up in person, but say they much prefer online interactions to offline. Sometime last year, Mark went offline from playing Destiny for a year to deal with the death of his father. His friends Robbie and Rio were still there for him, staying connected offline and offering their support and love.
“I’m not the kind of person who makes friends easily or is comfortable making conversation,” says Robbie. “When you’re playing a game, there’s no awkward silences or the need for small talk. The conversation just flows along with whatever you’re doing.”
Dev concurs, adding that in his experience, people he meets online in games are truer to themselves. “When I meet new people in person, they’re putting on an act and I’m putting on an act. Because there’s pressure to impress,” he says. “Online, you can just engage with the people who interest you, and ignore the rest. This makes people drop the act and be themselves.”
Nihar Pachpande, a marketing strategist based in Mumbai, met a group of college seniors at IIM Bangalore on the college gaming servers, playing games like DOTA and Counter-Strike. While he developed quite a reputation thanks to his elite skills, he actually never revealed his identity (his online nickname, RuSTy, became a college legend) on campus, fearing the wrath of the seniors he used to regularly beat.
But eight years later, something cool happened at a popular e-sports event in Mumbai. “Fast forward to ESLOne 2019, I was in the stands watching my favourite caster SirActionSlacks at the podium commentating the games. Suddenly an old college batchmate pinged me on Instagram saying he was there and saw my check-in at the event. After nearly eight years, I finally met some of my fellow game buddies from college who were attending the same e-sports event in Mumbai”, grins Pachpande.
The dynamics of meeting people in online games are in some ways similar to social media and even dating sites, but with the always-present core activity of playing a game providing a context to all interactions, and an engaging safe space for those who don’t want to interact. “Unlike on social media, here you’re playing a game, so you don’t need to make small talk,” says Robbie. “Nobody minds if you didn’t engage at all, that’s normal. And cool things that happen while playing are great conversation starters.”
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