Polish-British sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman once said that ‘Community is like a big family,’ a statement which hits incredibly close to home for me in one of the most difficult years of my life. Fortunately, a small Twitch community composed of streamers, gamers and mostly Scottish people has provided a sense of community I’ve sorely missed in 2020.
This time last year, we knew 2020 was going to be a challenging year for us. My partner was six months pregnant with twins, and we were expecting their delivery in the early part of this year. Adapting to being a new parent is difficult, so we were both mentally preparing for the challenges of raising twins. What we didn’t expect though was COVID-19, a virus that spread across the world causing a global pandemic and a record-breaking recession.
In what should have been our first year of being parents, we were thrust into lockdown. I soon found myself furloughed. Instead of being able to focus on fatherhood, I felt consumed with anxiety. How am I going to support our family? What happens at the other side of this pandemic? Will I have a career to come back to? While I know my story is far from one of the worst, it’s been a difficult year.
Around the start of lockdown, a friend of mine started streaming the Dark Souls series. Each day at 2pm, he would start streaming to what was initially a group of up to 20 people, but this grew in time. During furlough, this streaming schedule gave me the kind of structure that I missed while being out of work and it also provided a social element to my day, something I had missed after working in an office for four years.
There’s something special about the Dark Souls series that draws people in. This is a game in which every playthrough feels personal and special, and watching someone else experience it is genuinely a delight. It might be the shared pain of failing a boss for the 30th time, or the sense of community elation upon the boss’s death on the 31st, but I think Dark Souls is easy for people to gravitate towards because people are instantly invested based on how arduous a journey it is. It was enough for me, a person who doesn’t typically watch Twitch streams, to invest the following months watching on a daily basis.
It would appear I wasn’t alone in venturing towards Twitch for some semblance of a social life and structure. From the start of lockdown in April, Twitch and many other online platforms experienced an unprecedented amount of growth. Livestream viewership across Twitch Facebook YouTube rose by a huge 45% year-on-year between last April and March 2020 with a 99% increase compared to the previous before that. With much of the world going into lockdown at the beginning of spring, it’s clear that people were flocking to online streams to find a brief escape from reality.
As the community grew around my Souls streaming friend, he decided it was time to create a Discord channel. His Discord community features everything from music to art, through to a channel specifically dedicated to Paradise Killer – which is a great game. More than that though, it provided an opportunity for the community to communicate outside of streaming hours. Rather than having brief chats during a stream, we were now sharing our favourite music, films and food with one another. This is a distinct group of people who have all come together over our friendship/ fandom of a particular individual, but I think it stretches further than that. This is a group of people who have seen a drastic change in the way they live, and this community provides a home away from home and some kind of escape from the dredges of coronavirus life.
Sometime through July, I was told that my position was at risk of redundancy. This was a business I’d spent four years of my life working at, and it devastated me. It wasn’t a decision I wanted to make, but it was one I felt was best for my mental health. Throughout that time, I went to the Discord channel for their support and guidance. This is primarily a group of people around the same age as me, all skilled and developing in their careers and people I felt could provide the safe space I needed to vent. Their support and words of kindness at that time kept me focused and stopped me falling into an episode of anxiety, something that would have likely happened had I not started watching those streams in April.
I think my journey with Twitch and the vast growth of online streaming perhaps hints to a future where many more of our social interactions are based online rather than in a physical space. Not only is it safer in a world gripped by COVID, but it’s also much more affordable. Visiting a pub with your friends is great, but you can get the same interaction spending time on Twitch together watching a movie or playing Twitch Sings.
Twitch and gaming in particular are not the only digital industries to see an increase in engagement this year. When Formula 1 moved from physical to digital competitions in the light of delaying the season, its YouTube channel saw a staggering increase of 2.16 million subscribers and an increase of 1,551,059,508 video views (based on Social Blade data) compared to the previous year. There’s been a clear shift throughout COVID, with more people turning to different platforms for entertainment and socialisation.
Social media and the act of communicating online are often painted as a harbinger of negative mental health, and while some aspects of that are certainly true, I think we need to understand the positive effects it had and has continued to have throughout lockdown. Friends and families are spending time together online across the country, we’re collectively finding new ways to stay entertained and more than ever before, we need to appreciate the arts and creative individuals who provide this entertainment and interaction we’ve so sorely needed during one of the most isolating years of our lives.
This is not how I had intended to end this, but Rishi Sunak’s recent comments calling for ‘creative industries’ to adapt to new jobs made me think about how important creators have been in this lockdown. While my friend may not work as a Twitch streamer full-time, it’s him and other online creators who provided the community and family that so many people needed.
So to you @FizzyJoose and the entire Discord community, thank you for making this terrible year ever so slightly more bearable.