Games

The Games That Let Me Have an Imaginary Social Life

Isolated due to coronavirus or overwork, some games let you feel like you're still part of a community.

by Sarah Hagi
Apr 15 2020, 11:35am

'Horizon Zero Dawn' screenshot courtesy of Sony

Like most people in their 20s, I’ve had a string of jobs I hated so much I can only look back on them and wonder how I lasted so long. My worst job was doing internet tech support over the phone, an experience so awful I find myself still talking about it several years later.

For eight hours a day, I sat in a tiny cubicle solving problems for people who had no idea how to restart a modem, or where their modem even was, but whose helpless ignorance didn’t discourage them from treating me with utter contempt. Being treated like shit by both bosses and customers, it’s only now that I realize the worst part of the job was actually the hours.

The entire two and a half years I spent working at this telecom company, my shifts were 3-11pm, with two random days off that counted as weekends. At first, that didn’t sound unappealing because it was at that point the highest paying job I’d ever had, but over time the hours and my schedule took a mental toll.

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'Skyrim' screenshot courtesy of Bethesda

I quickly learned the hours before 3:00pm and after 11:00pm aren’t really conducive to hanging out.So it was easy to fall into an unhealthy routine: I’d get home from work around midnight, and being so wired from not being in my tiny cubicle anymore, I’d stay awake until just before dawn. I wouldn’t wake up until the afternoon, leaving me with just enough time to get back to work, restarting the cycle once more. I became both desperate and isolated.

the second Skyrim came out in the fall of 2011, I purchased it immediately. I had no real plans for my life, and couldn’t think of my future beyond my next shift. Naturally, I craved escapism, something to work towards and at the very least to feel a little less lonely and Skyrim did exactly that for me. At work, I’d find myself looking at forums to read more about quests and the world itself — I was fully consumed, so much so I almost started feeling better. I’d get home from work, play for hours, and then go to bed deeply satisfied. I got married, helped so many people, and had dozens of hours more until I did all the things I wanted to do — and I truly felt like I was doing something.

I grew up around video games, but I never considered them my hobby. Being the youngest sibling, I fell into the role of a spectator, watching my older relatives play because having them watch me play was excruciating, given how bad a player I was. I would spend summers watching cousins play the Grand Theft Auto series, never really getting a chance to develop any skill because I never had. I would always immediately die, frustrated I couldn’t control the game properly and immediately lose my turn. For most of my life, I chalked my disinterest down to being a better spectator than player.

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My loneliness and isolation meant I was able to approach gaming without fear of any type of judgement. I wasn’t self conscious about being bad at them, because I was playing alone. All that mattered was that I was completing various tasks and having fun. I wasn’t competing with anyone or even myself. My approach was, and still is fully about the solitary gaming experience. Simple things about the game like watching my map populate was a type of satisfaction I could find nowhere else in my life. The NPCs were my friends now.

As sad as it sounds — I felt like I was socializing. In games with quests, I was walking through new townships speaking with people who had heard about me or were expecting me. They would tell me their problems, I'd do whatever it would take to help them and be rewarded for it. I had no desire to find a multiplayer game, but the world I found in these games meant I found a different way to cope with the loneliness I felt.

That loneliness has been a regular feature of my professional life, and maybe the strangest part of living through this COVID-19 pandemic is that suddenly my lonesome normal is everybody’s “new normal”. It’s made me realize how different my day-to-day work and life is from many of my peers, and how important games have been to keeping me feeling connected.

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A couple of years ago, I moved out for the first time and experienced the same time of loneliness and frustration as when I had that awful job. As a writer who works from home, I often have stretches of days where I see nobody but a barista. But also being a writer who lives alone, buying a gaming system felt like a bit too needless of an expense, and for years I found myself not gaming at all. This past fall, my friends were kind enough to surprise me with a PlayStation 4 for no reason, other than that winter meant I’d be more indoors. And while my life is in a place where the loneliness I feel is easily mitigated, I found myself right back into the ease and comfort of the escape gaming provided me. Being alone and the simple pleasure of not having to talk to anyone but still engage with NPCs is a feeling I can’t compare to much else.

On the outside, or to someone who doesn’t love video games, the idea of playing to fill the space of real social interaction could seem like an unhealthy coping mechanism. Of course, I still go out and am social, but my friends who don’t game would laugh or shake their heads when they asked what I did on a weekend and I told them I played hours of Horizon: Zero Dawn. But as we find ourselves literally forced into isolation because of a global pandemic, I think it now can be easier than ever for anyone to understand why I spend so much time being a part of make-believe communities where there’s always someone who wants to talk, and always something I can do to help.

Tagged:
Skyrim
rpgs
Horizon Zero Down
social distancing