Leveling up friendships through online gaming

UBC Esports Association’s Discord server doubled its users during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Discord, a messaging platform popular with gamers, is organized into smaller, focused groups called servers and was used by many throughout the pandemic to foster community.

“[The rise in Discord members] came about, I think, because of people’s desire to be connected with others who they go to university with through games, when they can’t otherwise do it,” said Zach McKay, co-president of the UBC Esports Association.

McKay’s observation is not unique. Due to the virtual nature of gaming, it became a natural solution for many craving social connection during the pandemic. According to a 2021 Sage article, 71 per cent of respondents reported that their gaming habits increased early in the COVID-19 pandemic, and a majority of gamers reported that playing video games had a positive impact on their wellbeing.

Stock for a variety of games skyrocketed when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, with Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare dominating the top of Business Insider’s top 20 best-selling games during the first months of the pandemic. Among Us was the most Google-searched game of 2020 and spread across Twitch, YouTube and other platforms.

Research has also revealed the benefits of gaming as a means to create community. One Danish study demonstrated that playing video games helped teens foster a social life and provided a “legitimate social space for maintaining friendships and/or coping with boredom.”

Vent with (s)us

According to McKay, there is often a misconception that the Esports Association is mostly for competitive players. Among Us helped counter that misconception.

“We were able to really invite new people who are more casual with video games, or don’t have the same background, to build a community and make new friends,” said McKay.

Kyle van Winkoop, a third-year computer engineering student and president of the UBC Game Development Club, emphasized that “the more cooperative a game is, the better it is at creating communities, and the more competitive it is, the worse.” In the case of Among Us, players cooperate to find out who the impostor is.

In addition to Among Us, there are many cooperative games.

Grace Bu, a second-year integrated sciences student and external relations director for the UBC Esports Assocation, got into online gaming just as the pandemic started. Having previously only played co-op games like Mario Kart and MapleStory, Bu turned to gaming as a way to maintain contact with her friends. The club’s Discord server helped her create a “genuine, authentic connection” with other members.

“Gaming was so interactive, and there was so much teamwork involved ... it was definitely a way for me to feel that connection and make it stronger during a time when everything was so difficult to maintain,” said Bu.

Pals and poggers

After the pandemic hit, Twitch, a streaming platform for gaming and various types of content, saw an 83 per cent increase in viewership.

“It’s a way for you to have a shared experience …. I can just mention a funny moment that happened on a Twitch stream, and [regular club members] were also watching that too, so now you suddenly have a connection with that person,” said McKay.

Bu also started watching Twitch streamers during the pandemic. Watching the streamers’ group chemistry when they played with each other gave her a sense of comfort whenever she felt isolated.

“There’s a community of people out there with similar interests and they’re all having fun, and it definitely made me happier.”

Not only did gaming help Bu connect with new people, it also helped her maintain the friendships she made in her biology class once UBC returned to in-person classes for the fall semester in 2021.

“It was one of those groups where I was like, ‘Oh, they’re really fun to talk to, but I don’t really know how to become friends with them outside of this class’… but then one of them mentioned League [of Legends] and I was like, ‘Oh, no way, you play League?” said Bu.

All fun in games

Online gaming is a way to bring people together, both on- and offline. As large amounts of people began pouring into the online gaming scene during the pandemic, van Winkoop witnessed firsthand how some games were not prepared for this sudden influx.

“Servers started to slow down and glitch because there were way too many people all of a sudden; even with very big popular games like Apex Legends that seemed to happen,” said van Winkoop.

Despite server setbacks, gaming still provided a way for people to maintain and create connections during a period of isolation. This community meant a lot to Bu, especially during her first year online, and positively impacted the lives of many others amidst a pandemic.

“I was able to find friends during a time when friends were very, very hard to come by …. After going back online, I was able to hop back into that community and maintain relationships that I had made while we were offline,” said Bu.