Socializing Digitally in a Time of Isolation

Alejandro JSM Chavez

It’s been roughly one week since Americans were urged to self-quarantine and practice social distancing in an effort to combat the spread of coronavirus. “Lockdown” hit me in the middle of what I’m praying was merely a particularly bad flu that unfortunately spread between me and my roommates — we all still have a lingering cough.

So for the sake of ourselves and the community, we’ve had something of a jumpstart on self-quarantine.

In the middle of it all, our workplaces were caught up in the closing of nonessential businesses, leaving us with a sudden lack of immediate tasks or reasons to venture out. The three of us were a bit of homebodies in the first place, so in a way not much has changed compared to how we usually spend our time off. 

However, it’s harder to waste time when you suddenly have all the time in the world.

Still, the world keeps on spinning, and while we’ve been home recovering and scrambling to learn new hobbies, students still have classes and those who can work from home have had to make the online switch.

It’s been an adjustment for the less tech-savvy members of society. No small number of teachers and professors who previously struggled to operate a projector or open a PDF in class must now combat the daunting task of properly streaming classes to their entire student body.  And if you haven’t, you must see the video of the Italian priest having a series of ridiculous hats digitally imposed over him during a digital mass after he unwittingly activated his webcam filters.

Those of us who have grown up in the digital age, however, have been given the chance to really flex our digital interpersonal muscles. Many Gen Z’s and Millennials are used to keeping long-distance or even purely online friendships with the advent of instant messaging, even long before social media exploded into the forefront.

More people are holding Zoom video conferences to keep connected, which is especially important for people who may live alone. People have been connecting with family members more regularly online. Musicians are performing living room concerts through facebook streams. Some organizations are even holding virtual town hall meetings by using Zoom to engage in conversation to learn how to best cope with stress during this difficult time.

The gamers of the world haven’t had to make very many adjustments in their ways of communication. The online streaming service Twitch.tv, originally used for gaming, is experiencing a boom of streams for professional, educational, and even purely social interactions.

Another service, Discord, originally designed for voice and text chat in team-based games, has become something of a social hub for friends who want to keep up with communications online. The service has even gone as far as to up its screen share and streaming limit in order to facilitate business and classroom settings.

I myself have been finding time to play a few video games while in isolation. Last year’s release, Death Stranding, was one that I’ve been very interested in but unable to play until now. The game’s director, Hideo Kojima, has a reputation of being one of the foremost auteurs of the gaming world, whose stories are equal parts surreal, absurd, and poignantly political.

The game stars Norman Reedus as “Sam Bridges,” a porter delivering goods and packages on foot across a ruined America, ravaged by an inhospitable climate and an invisible lethal threat known as the “Death Stranding.” While I’ve yet to progress far in the game, and the storytelling is a bit opaque as I’ve grown to expect from this director, the major themes of the game feel especially relevant as Amazon employees and the independently contracted delivery workers for Postmates and UberEats are still working and expected to deliver food, medicine, or whatever else people in their homes desire, just as the protagonist must risk life and limb in delivering anything from medical supplies to old magazines to the people of the shielded cities in the game.

But, one must keep their spirits up, and another game has been there to provide some respite. Nintendo’s highly anticipated game “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” was released right when the move to self-quarantine started to rev up, and the timing couldn’t have been better.

In the game, players move to an island populated by friendly animal villagers, and set up a small town to live their day-to-day lives. The series has been going strong for nearly 20 years now, and was lauded for its real-time gameplay. Time moves in the game at the same speed as it does in real life, the seasons change, and the animals in game have their own daily schedules just like you do.

What’s more, the online functionality of the game allows you to travel to other player’s towns, meet their villagers, and see how they set up their islands. For myself and many of my friends, “Animal Crossing” has become somewhat of a surrogate for our social lives during quarantine, allowing us to meet up and hang out without the risk of spreading anything nasty around.

Ironically, in some ways my social circle has grown a bit, as I’ve been fishing, picking fruit, and trading furniture with newly met friends-of-friends and people around the country I haven’t been as connected to in quite some time while we chat away on Discord. It’s been a much-needed bit of brightness in what could easily become a rather lonely time.

Still, while we’ve had time for fun and games, it cannot be stressed enough how serious this epidemic is and it has the potential to get that much worse.

I consider myself to be very lucky to be able to comfortably bunker down, but all the workers and laborers that are keeping society going are on the frontlines in this pandemic and are largely unprotected by our systems should they fall ill. What is a minor inconvenience for me, at its worse causing me to pour over lists of symptoms online to fuel my need to needlessly worry, could seriously endanger the livelihood of some and  the lives of others.

Those of us who can keep ourselves indoors should, for the sake of everyone who can’t. While it may seem selfish to give yourself indefinite “Me Time,” it’s one of the best ways to support the community many of us can do.

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