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Social Distancing Diaries: Easing the Isolation Through Online Gaming

Rediscovering video games has been a way to reconnect with friends, former colleagues, and even strangers during quarantine

Getty Images/EA Sports/Ringer illustration

The sports and pop culture calendars have paused. The safest thing that you can do right now is stay inside. And millions of people are looking for creative ways to pass the time. The Ringer is here to help. We’re starting a series called the Social Distancing Diaries, with our staff’s ideas for finding comfort, joy, community, or distraction while doing your part to flatten the curve. In the coming weeks, we’ll be diving into what we’re passionate about and want others to discover—from bidets to buried treasure and everything in between.

The moment I knew it was getting to me was when I started watching professional bowling. For fun.

It felt aimless. But there I was: sinking into the black plush of my sofa, communicating with friends in a group chat, talking about the advanced analytics of the pins as if we were discussing our favorite teams in the Super Bowl. To say I was bored was an understatement. I was famished for fun, separated from my community, those who once lived with me, and whom I had taken for granted.

Panic over the COVID-19 pandemic had only just begun to engulf New York City, where I live, and my roommates had fled across state lines, returning to their hometowns. I was left by myself. The endless scrolling online would not help me. Unceasing anxiety crept through my body as minutes rolled into hours of silence. I needed to feel something to revive my spirit—I felt stale, like an old loaf sitting on a counter.

I rediscovered the PlayStation I’d been ignoring for months, save for streaming a few episodes of the British reality show Love Island. When I turned it on and called up some of my favorite video games, the friends I was restricted from seeing were all there, shimmering icons and emoji flickering against a blue backdrop on my television.

Online gaming provides an odd comfort in the social distancing age. Usually, my apartment is a hub of activity: friendly gatherings before stretching our legs across Brooklyn, social drinking during sporting events, a haven for out-of-town friends and family. The social distancing measures implemented by city officials made my home a quiet and lonely place, but suddenly I felt reconnected, as though I’d been given a brief respite from the anxiety and fear that was consuming New Yorkers. It was a joy. It was an oasis. It was a virtual Valhalla on a 50-inch screen.

The people I needed most at the time were right in front of me. Over a microphone, a longtime friend told me he got engaged while on a walk with his fiancé as I was whipping his ass in a game of FIFA. Another buddy updated me on how he’s handling work with the world in disarray as I ran up the score on him as Lamar Jackson during a Madden NFL session. Another friend and I talked about our sneaker collections as our guards crossed each other silly in NBA 2K. My need for communication and companionship had been boiled down to missions and simulations; clarity came through voice calls over Call of Duty. A stranger I played in the game’s plunder party mode discussed the nation’s policy options at a time of crisis.

This isn’t to say I won every round—an old friend bragged online about beating me in FIFA. Once. The audacity. A former colleague smacked me up and down the hardwood with James Harden and Ja Morant in 2K and then talked a heap of shit via Instagram. I lost a few games to a friend in Madden, and he made sure to let me know about it. It was a whirlwind of angst and affirmation—I craved the competition with and the connection to the people who I needed most. It was a metronome of various emotions I had forgotten how to enjoy.

During our period of quarantine, I’ve been thinking about what this isolation does to the human condition. The author Henry Cloud believed that “there is a difference between solitude and isolation.” “One,” he said, “is connected and one isn’t. Solitude replenishes, isolation diminishes.” The South African cleric and activist Desmond Tutu once said that a person is a person only through the bridge of one’s soul to others, that we “can’t be human in isolation; you are human only in relationships.” The author Orson Welles said that we are born alone, and often live alone, and die alone but, “only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.”

The walls of isolation, both mental and physical, that are imposed on us are not as solid as they seem. I’ve found that isolation can be a shared experience: the anxiety flares; the panic attacks; the self-doubt. We’re all looking for ways to approximate the human connections that have been compromised during the quarantine. We cannot replicate physical touch, but we can re-create the quality time that can sustain us. It just so happens that I found my community in a black box, humming from the caramel desk in my bedroom, while I hold a joystick in my hands. The thrill returned to my body like a sensation, like I was a boy discovering happiness all over again.

Isolation is self-defeating—it’s our connection to others that can make our souls sing, our lives flourish, our hearts beat a bit faster. Other people complicate our lives but also better our days, and life feels desolate without them—even if our current reality necessitates that we stay away from them.

Truly, none of us can be human in isolation—it eats away at what makes us who we are. The results are unbearably desolate. It’s why I sought that touch, that feel, that humanity, through gaming with friends and strangers, even it happened virtually, through a screen.

On one of my first nights of gaming, I connected with someone I’d never met before, a journalism student at the University of Nebraska named Drake Keeler. He was stranded on campus for a few days before it was time for him to venture back home to Denver. We played each other with our favorite teams on FIFA—my guys from Manchester City and his from PSG. He wasn’t much of a soccer fan. I wasn’t much of a fan of losing. I whupped him good, except for the last bout, when he took a much-deserved victory lap.

He said he was at a DaBaby concert in Lincoln when news started to churn out about the virus sweeping the nation. He didn’t really know what to do except bunker down in his dorm. We stopped playing and just talked for a while. For a few moments, I was there for him, and he for me. It was comforting. It was safe. It was without panic for the first time in what had been, for me, days. It was the feeling I had been searching for while cooped up in my home.

When it was time to depart, I told him I’d be here if he ever needed anything. He seemed to appreciate that. And I ended our time together the same way I have every conversation for what seemed like a month.

“Take care, man.”

“Be safe.”