My favorite memories from 2020 are technically pixels on a screen.
In the midst of what felt like the end of the world in 2020, I moved into my first solo apartment since college graduation four years prior. In the spring of 2020, I had just ended a relationship and was now living alone, thousands of miles away from relatives. I had only three true friends of my own to my name in this new environment, and with mandatory quarantining, I could barely see them.
I had never felt more alone in my entire life.
My desire for human connections is why I returned to an old hobby from college: PC gaming. But it took months before I had finally found a community I could truly rely on.
One night in September 2020, I logged into my Steam account and then waited in a competitive lobby for a game of Counter-Strike Global Offensive (CS GO). CS GO is a first-person shooter game where two teams of five players compete against each other. It’s expected that each person utilize their microphone to communicate effectively as a team, but some people prefer to type in the chat box.
I’d been playing CS GO (and other games) for months now, but this particular night was special. It was the night I met Henry.*
Usually when a “gamer girl” speaks during competitive CS GO games, she is met by trolling or unkind commentary. But Henry was nice to me. We played together maturely and even cracked a few jokes along the way. At the end, we won our match, and I bravely sent him a friend request. He accepted, and then invited me to his Discord server.
Over the next several weeks, I began gaming with Henry, his wife, his co-worker, and several other people from around the country that he’d met on various Steam games. Pretty soon we were all friends, playing CS GO, Among Us, virtual Cards Against Humanity, Jackbox, and many others, but our connection didn’t stop at gaming. Sometimes we joined each other in the Discord server to simply talk about life, and how we were each feeling during COVID. Sometimes we shared memes, inside jokes, and gifs throughout our days, just to lift each others’ spirits.
During late 2020, I found myself living not for the weekend, but instead for the evening. After remote work was over each afternoon, I rushed through dinner so that I could finally log into my gaming laptop. Chatting and gaming on Steam and Discord with this community was my personal version of the glass of wine after a long, hard day at the office.
We weren’t the only ones who had found a sense of virtual community on Discord with the lack of real-life opportunities in 2020. The platform’s revenue increased by 188% that year.
In 2021, the server changed, with less gaming and hangouts than before. And when I moved to New York City, I made the difficult yet imperative decision to sell my gaming PC.
This choice wasn’t because I’d decided to stop connecting in virtual communities altogether. It was because, at that time in my life, I told myself that I needed to stop living entirely in them. I was hopeful that the world would eventually become some sort of form of its old self, where people could embrace one another and spend time together in person again.
I wanted to force myself outside of my comfort zone. I wanted to return to outdoor activities. I wanted to meet people in real life. In the wake of 2020, I suddenly worried that I was wasting the best years of my twenties indoors.
Nobody is perfect, and I certainly made a mistake by pushing this particular community to the background of my life. But somehow, I did all those things I wanted to do in the city. I made new connections on other virtual communities that led to real-life friendships, which meant so much to me.
However, I did strive to maintain contact with my original Discord server of gaming friends – in fact, it became a running joke that I was the most active friend of all, always dropping a meme or statement that would cause everyone else to join in on conversations – but over time, the community grew quiet. The hopeful part of me thinks that maybe the others were also trying to make up for lost time in their real lives, too.
But I know I’m partly to blame for allowing this server to fade.
Truth be told, if I could go back in time, I’d keep my gaming PC after all. I’d schedule a monthly virtual hangout with that server of friends, and convince everyone to meet in person finally (like we used to joke we’d do once COVID was “over”).
But the game we’d play during the virtual hangout wouldn’t matter. Just hearing their familiar voices and laughter in my ears, and seeing those beloved pixels on my screen again would be enough.