• Menu

In Socially Distanced Times, Connected Games Emerge as Key Social Spaces

Dec 9 2020

Lewis Packwood

A round of drinks, positioned around beer coasters that resemble the buttons of a PlayStation controller.

Cheers to the gamers.

Gaming is often characterised as a solitary, even alienating pursuit, but a 2014 study found that more than 70 percent of gamers play with a friend.

In "Video Games Are Not Socially Isolating," psychologist Linda Kaye argues that, far from being “anti-social spaces,” modern video games provide a “wealth of social opportunities and functions.” Kaye, who researches cyber-psychology at Edge Hill University in the UK, told L'Atelier that “games actually bring people together, even if it's not physically.”

“The fact that you're all gamers brings you together psychologically," she said. Moreover, gaming provides a “sense of identity and community.”

If home is a person's "first place" and work our "second place," online games can be considered a third place, “where people can meet up, hang out, and play together much like people do in local bars and pubs,” Kaye observes in her paper. “Online games may be superior to more traditional ‘third places’ (such as local clubs), as they can connect people regardless of their geographical location.” Games function so well as a sociable third place that some people log in primarily to meet others and chat; the game itself becomes almost a secondary concern.

And with the global coronavirus lockdowns of 2020, the value of video games as a social meeting place has only grown.

From World of Warcraft: The Battle for Azeroth, courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.


The release of World of Warcraft (WoW) by Blizzard Entertainment in 2004 was a landmark in social gaming. It wasn't even the first massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG); there had been online multiplayer games before this, even as far back as 1980, with MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) the first that people could play together over the internet (or ARPANET, as it was back then). 

WoW was also preceded by games like Ultima Online and EverQuest. But it changed the gaming landscape with unprecedented success: by 2010, it had an astonishing 12 million subscribers. And although many of its players were laser-focused on levelling up their characters and participating in raids against rival guilds, there was also a sense that WoW was a social hub, a place to catch up with friends as much as smite enemies. 

Ben Werbner is the author of I Am Orazachi, a book detailing his experiences working as a Game Master at Blizzard, sorting the many disputes that erupted between players. When not settling arguments in WoW, he obsessively played it on his spare time, logging thousands of hours and fighting his way into top-ranked guilds. But sometimes he would forgo his high-level main character and instead log on with a low-level "alt," or alternative character, just to hang out with friends. 

“I would log on to an alt character in just a casual friendship guild where most of my friends were,” says Werbner in an interview, explaining this was by necessity: “Unfortunately, I was split off from them because they weren't able to get into the guild I was in.” Thus he divided his time between his high-ranking guild and the more casual guild, just to hang out.


Werbner says socialising would usually begin outside the game, on messaging services or via voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) apps like Ventrilo or, more recently, Discord. Friends would then agree to meet in-game, with WoW functioning almost like a rendezvous point. Werbner says while it's possible (if improbable) to just bump into people while playing WoW, socialising is more like a party you're invited to beforehand, rather than a bar you might duck into to see who’s around. 

This is reflected by most players choosing Discord for voice chat rather than WoW’s built-in voice chat function, introduced in 2016. Discord lets you choose which friends are part of the conversation, whereas Blizzard’s in-game voice chat was initially designed to let anyone near your character join in. As the player Atroxx noted on the Blizzard forums in 2018, “It doesn’t matter how well this feature works and it doesn’t matter how crystal clear the audio is, I will never, ever willingly join a voice chat service with a bunch of strangers.”

No one wants gatecrashers at their party.


A hierarchy of communication reveals itself here, beginning with text messages or chat apps, and ending with prearranged in-game meetups involving conversations over voice chat. It reflects how communication has changed over the past two decades, with younger generations less likely to "cold call" friends and more likely to arrange a time to chat first, via text message. Indeed, there’s a good chance that a spontaneous phone call won’t even be answered. 

"Off-game" planning and socialising can be just as time-consuming and involved as the game itself. In No Man’s Sky from Hello Games, players created elaborate galactic civilisations that thrive as much on community forums like Reddit and Amino as in the No Man’s Sky universe itself. The Galactic Hub was planned and coordinated on Reddit, with members guiding newcomers to the nascent civilisation by arranging in-game meetups, then giving new players a "taxi ride" to the Hub system. 

More recently, in 2020, the UNity1 project was coordinated on Amino, with players aiming to create an idyllic system where people could meet and construct replicas of familiar buildings and places. The warmth and openness of this community has been especially important in the context of the isolating lockdowns brought on by Covid-19. 

"Right now, with all this going on we need an outlet for continuing to talk with people,” UNity1 resident AMandy226 told Eurogamer. “A lot of the time, it's not even about No Man's Sky. We talk about our families or what's going on in our neighbourhood."