After a couple months of him putting out Facebook posts asking people to play Call of Duty Warzone, I finally decided to take my friend Chris up on his offer. I didn’t really like Call of Duty games, or multiplayer shooters for that matter, but the pandemic was stretching on and making socializing difficult and anxiety-inducing. At that point, there were no vaccines and gathering limits came and went as cases rose and fell.
Having been stuck inside for nearly eight months by the time I joined Chris, I had become accustomed to not socializing. I was comfortable to watch YouTube and eat junk food in isolation. Eventually, a couple of Chris’ friends joined and I became friends with them entirely over the internet and gaming. These relationships I formed have proven to be beneficial.
The year 2020 was a record year for video game sales, as well as a record amount of users joining Twitter when Facebook experienced an outage. Coinciding with a rise in online gaming was a rise in twitch streamers.
Twitch is a gaming and social media platform that allows content creators to stream video games with commentary from the streamers themselves, people can donate money or subscribe to the streamer to provide support. Streamers and their fans have a type of relationship that is often referred to colloquially as para-social.
Para-social means that the relationship is mostly one way, in terms of power dynamics, and that is because it is nearly impossible to know what a streamer is like in real life. These relationships are seen as unhealthy when fans become too invested in the lives of streamers, such when a streamer says something that may be controversial. Some streamers encounter more extreme behaviors such as ‘hate watchers’, people who watch them simply to become angry over what they say or do. Some excessively comment on twitter or YouTube videos. LGBTQ+ creators experience hate raids, where hundreds of viewers will join the stream simply to say slurs until they get banned.
The worst of para-social behavior can be as extreme such as stalking, making death threats, doxxing (revealing personal information) or, in some cases swatting, where a person makes a false police report resulting in a SWAT team showing up to the intended targets house, resulting in injuries or accidental fatalities.
Para-social relationships can be beneficial to the people in them, as they allow someone to socialize in ways that are low cost or have barriers to access normally. Social media is typically a pathway to more these kinds of relationships, like between fans and creators. It can allow someone access to other cultures that may require travel to experience, or help those who struggle to socialize in the real world an avenue to build socialization skills without the difficulty of in person meetups.
It is generally accepted that humans are social in nature and require companionship, when traditional relationships are difficult to engage with for whatever reason, online para-social relationships can benefit people who may otherwise be very lonely and experience harm from said loneliness. During the pandemic my mental health has been poor for many reasons, but being able to form online para-social relationships with Chris and his friends has helped me cope with being unable to engage in traditional socialization.
Ideally, a person will have a healthy balance of real life, and para-social relationships to make their lives more diverse. Online interactions can help people develop more diverse opinions and ideas, and expose them to other cultures and religions. While not every interaction will lead to positive outcomes, it became incredibly important during the pandemic to maintain and build relationships online. People need to socialize to stay stable and content, a process that was heavily facilitated by the internet and video games. So important has my online gaming group become to me that we still play for a couple hours every night, and probably still will for some time, at least until we can get together for a barbeque safely.