Building Digital Communities
by Morgan LaMere | published Sep. 12th, 2020
The coronavirus pandemic is a unique tragedy that has affected everyone. One of the most common ways people have been impacted has been through social distancing policies, which prevent most forms of social interaction.
Over time, these orders have left many feeling isolated without access to their friends or support systems. College students in particular were affected as campuses closed and classes moved online. During social isolation, many have had to find creative ways to reach out to old friends and find new ones.
Social Distancing Crosses the Internet
Duncan Okes is a Human-Centered Computing graduate who was working through his last year when the pandemic hit.
“Just keeping up some sort of social normalcy is important, especially when I don’t really see that many people outside of my girlfriend,” Okes explained. “Having time communicating online helps to have social diversity which is really hard to have otherwise.”
One of the ways Okes has spent this time is through games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which he started playing the night it came out and has not stopped since.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out on March 20, 2020, just at the right time to engross thousands entering quarantine. The game has since gained a massive following, serving as an outlet for many.
Despite the harm that the pandemic has caused, it has also given people a lot of free time that they don’t know what to do with. For some, this has led to finding new hobbies or pursuing old ones, while to Okes that also meant reliving old connections.
“I didn’t really play too much online at first ... as [the pandemic] went on I started finding other people,” Okes said. “My brother is really into it, and I’m talking to him way more than I normally do.”
Animal Crossing was something the two shared as kids. Okes and his brother, alongside other groups, now run something of a stock market. They all get together to compare prices and information in an attempt to game the system.
While Animal Crossing: New Horizons has been the new game to bring in many fans, a much older game has provided a source of enjoyment for many at RIT.
Victor Anderson was an Electrical Engineering Technology student who graduated in the Spring 2020. He has sought to keep in contact with many of his friends through online communities.
“It allows us to keep in touch with each other even with this social distancing going on and helps alleviate the social itch,” Anderson said.
“It allows us to keep in touch with each other even with this social distancing going on and helps alleviate the social itch."
Alongside running a Discord with friends to keep in contact, Anderson plays Minecraft, a game he has been involved with since middle school. Anderson was working with Tech Crew on campus when they heard about a project to recreate RIT’s campus utilizing Minecraft.
“When a bunch of us heard about this and that they were starting with the SAU, where we work out of, a bunch of us ended up hopping on the first day,” Anderson said.
The project, sponsored by the Electronic Gaming Society, involves more than 300 RIT student. Their goal is to recreate RIT's campus, block by block, using existing maps and floorplans. While it is primarily meant as an outlet for students during the pandemic, there have been suggestions to host a virtual graduation ceremony using the student-built campus.
Since joining, Anderson has done work whenever he gets the time, building parts from Ingle Auditorium to the Gordon Field House and Activities Center (GOR) and Monroe Hall. As of May 2020, the project had completed everything between the GOR and the Liberal Arts Hall with a new structure being completed each week.
“The big thing is helping to give people a chance to still visit RIT in a way and still join the campus,” Anderson explained. “The goal is to bring people together, to give them a common task outside of classes.”
While this is one big project undertaken by students, many others utilize the game to spend time with friends or just to stay focused and have an outlet for their creativity.
Many students turned to online communities when physical gatherings weren't possible anymore. This interaction helped many to stay social and escape reminders of COVID-19.
“Escape is the biggest thing — [Animal Crossing] is immersive and easy to get lost in,” Okes explained. “Even on Reddit, everyone is always talking about COVID, sometimes it’s nice to get away from that.”
To that end, Okes still tries to maintain contact with his campus club, User Experience, which transitioned to Discord following the early closure of campus in Spring 2020. The platform provided a safe place where they could discuss club activities and their experiences in Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
Online communities also serve to connect you with others. For those in isolated regions or with niche interests, you're certain to find your interests reciprocated in one of these spaces.
While many have temporarily flocked to online spaces due to the pandemic, the shift might be longer term, as RIT began operating in a hybrid manner.
Physical spaces may be temporary, but the online friends and communities we build now are always accessible. While online platforms often garner a bad reputation, they have recently become widely normalized and accepted out of necessity.
“Online interaction tends to get a bad look,” Anderson explained. “Now, we’re able to use this online gaming and this connection to still interact with each other, and it’s getting a lot more of a positive twist.”
While by no means a replacement for physical socialization, online communities have provided us with different ways to stay engaged while remaining safe.