“That was supposed to be funny.”
A moment passed. I sank back into my seat, praying that the ground would open up and swallow me whole.
I had just told a joke to my fifth-grade class and was met with complete, utter silence.
Horrified and embarrassed, I wanted desperately to say something — anything really — but I was stunned. My mind was blank. So I stood, silent.
Totally awkward and silent.
Alas, the ground remained still and I survived. And despite standing out in my mind as a specific instance, this was far from the last time I found myself stuck in awkward silence.
I was that kid.
Homeschooled until the fifth grade, I was — admittedly — a bit odd.
I believe being raised this way had its own set of advantages. But it also had one glaring disadvantage: I didn’t have much social experience, outside of family and Sunday school. And this made me a little awkward, which, coupled with an innate desire to be liked and a somewhat self-aware personality, left me with a heaping lump of social anxiety. I wanted to be liked but just felt weird.
What can I say? I was socially awkward. I probably still am socially awkward.
Everyone is weird.
Let’s be honest. In fifth grade, we were all little weirdos. There’s no real way to get around that. It’s a simple fact. Think back to your time as a 10-year-old; you were probably weird too. Some of us were just better at hiding it than others — those were the cool kids. I wasn’t good at hiding my weirdness.
But eventually, I made some friends and felt a little less awkward.
One of them introduced me to an online game called RuneScape. It featured a vast fantasy world to explore, dozens of skill classes to train and level up, and different combat styles — from swords to archery and magic. All in a massive, multiplayer online platform.
My mom, always looking out for my best interests and wellbeing, told me that I couldn’t play it because it had dragons and magic and violence. So I did what any self-respecting 10-year-old would and, instead of playing at home, I played at my friend’s house.
Fast forward about a year, and several of us were playing — leveling up, and doing quests together. We would coordinate after-school and weekends to hang out and game together. And I realized one day: this was it.
This was my social catalyst.
The Social Catalyst Theory
I think we all have them — social catalysts. Something that makes social interaction easier, more fluid, less stressful. These catalysts often take the form of topics. For some people, it’s music or baseball or football. For me, it’s gaming.
Looking back, I realize now that I have always been a textbook nerd. And most of my social interactions revolved around video games, whether actually playing or simply discussing them.
I may not have conventional charisma or charm, but at least I had games. It gave me a topic that I could always talk about. Within this realm, I never had to search for something to say; I could always default to RuneScape or MapleStory, World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, League of Legends — whatever game we were playing at the time.
I just wanted a sense of community, and gaming gave it to me when I needed it most.
But isn’t gaming bad for social skills?
The biggest problem with gaming is the negative outlook society has on it. Despite the large (and growing) body of research that indicates how it can encourage positive social experiences, most of society has a negative view of gaming as a pastime.
But I believe we are in the middle of a culture shift, as esports is growing in popularity and becoming more mainstream. And I think that, among the reasons for this advancement, there has been considerable research in this realm, examining the social outcomes of engaging in online gaming.
Breaking the Stereotype
A study published in 2003 states that the social idea of a typical gamer (and gaming as a pastime) is someone, usually a teen or child, who is socially withdrawn and uses gaming as an escape from society and responsibility.
The goal of this study was to explore whether or not that widespread belief was true.
They found that the majority of online gamers were actually turning to the medium as a means for social interaction. Based on the stats, roughly 89% of respondents were actively seeking social interaction through online gaming.
Social and Civic Impacts
Another study set out to explore the social and civic impacts of online games after noticing its increase as a leisure activity and potential social outlet.
The results? Mixed reviews. Their research showed that there were, in fact, both negative and positive effects as a direct result of regularly playing online games; so yes, some areas declined, but there were also measurable improvements across several social markers.
And finally, in an article published by the American Psychological Association, a group of researchers collected the results from numerous studies over the past decade to identify the effects of gaming. They sought to balance the public view of gaming by examining the benefits alongside the potential negatives.
These psychologists found that players acquired what they called “important pro-social skills” when playing games that rewarded such behavior.
But even more interestingly, not during just those games, but in violent games as well. Here’s what they had to say about it:
“It may be tempting to conclude from this work that games with exclusively nonviolent, prosocial content lead to prosocial behavior.
But compelling work is just emerging that seems to refute this simple interpretation, suggesting that violent games are just as likely to promote prosocial behavior.”
Turns out, while gaming, in general, can have negative effects, it also has profound potential for improving social skills. And the vast majority of online gamers are actually seeking social interaction through online gaming, rather than using it as an escape from their social responsibilities.
When you put it all together, the research suggests different outcomes for different people. Which makes sense, since, while we all share traits, we are each unique.
And I’m not trying to say that gaming isn’t addictive. Far from it. There’s plenty of research to show that it’s problematic for some people and I agree with the research that points out potential negatives. So I think it’s wise for everyone to practice moderation.
But for me, video games — and more specifically online games — have been essential for developing social skills. As someone who has struggled with social awkwardness and anxiety for most of my life, I am beyond grateful to have had gaming as an outlet. Today, I don’t think most people who know me would guess that I do or ever have experienced social anxiety.
And having experienced the positive impact of gaming in my own life, I am confident that others can and have as well.
That said, what would happen if we started having larger, more open discussions about the positive impacts of gaming? Doing so just might help out someone who’s struggling to find where they fit in the world — even if it’s with a group of weird kids who play video games together.
I believe that we can build and encourage our global community of gamers — through social media, through research, and by continuing to build esports as a legitimate career and pastime, just like any other socially-accepted sport.
Just because someone spends their free time playing video games, that doesn’t mean they’re “frying their brain” or wasting their life. There’s a good chance they’re actually engaging with other human beings in a way that is different than previous generations. Maybe gaming is their social catalyst.