Like a lot of young introverts, as a kid I struggled making lasting friendships. I always felt like I was on the outside looking in. Through times of significant change in adolescence, I was still having a hard time finding “my place” in the world. I declined invitations to parties and events because they made me feel tired, but I still felt isolated.
I know a lot of other people who like video games have experienced something similar. We immerse ourselves in stories and find friends and heroes in the characters. We find characters we can relate to and say, “They went through this experience and came out of it okay; maybe I can, too.”
Sometimes we need to take an escape from everything—to put everything on pause and to just stop when it feels like everything’s coming down. The month following my mother’s death had been the most I’ve ever felt alone. I couldn’t stay at my dad’s house forever, and my boyfriend and friends had day jobs and lives to deal with, so sometimes I only had myself for company. I was not a good choice for myself.
I decided the time was right to finally play Journey, a game by thatgamecompany as a series of games for PlayStation. The game has a simple formula that it sticks to—the hero’s journey—but the two hours of game time was like a form of meditation for me. As a lone wanderer, in Journey you keep traveling toward a mountain in the distance. You start off alone, occasionally coming across other wanderers who share a similar goal, but you never exchange words. There’s a silent understanding of helping each other out, but also journeying on your own terms. As the game transitions from bright, sunny deserts with scenes of surfing down the sands to a darker underground, and then to a harsh, snowy climb up the mountain, my motivation for moving on was finding these other wanderers as well as coming across elder figures at the end of each section of the game. I wanted guidance. I wanted someone to show me what the point of everything was. By the end of the game, gliding at the top of the summit and walking toward a white light, I was sobbing. I finally let go of one long breath I had been holding in for months.
Games aren’t solitary experiences—even games designed for one person. Before online multiplayer existed, arcades were bustling with people slamming on buttons and sticks, people laughing at the wheel of a race car driving into walls. People lined up for Dance Dance Revolution. And even though many arcades have closed down, games are still social experiences. We form fictional rock bands with friends, dance together, and sing in living rooms and basements. In online spaces, we can join friends and strangers to fight zombies, fling paint at each other, and play as champions alongside teammates. In games made for one player, we turn the games into shared experiences by writing about them, talking about them.
Unfortunately, enjoying multiplayer games online is difficult as a woman or nonbinary person. Most of these games are aggressive and hostile spaces, focused on competition and guns. Furthermore, their theming props up hypermasculinity, and almost no women are present. The moment anyone with a voice that doesn’t fit the traditional masculine norm speaks, they’re designated an outsider.
This is why I rarely play games with men I don’t know. Even with men I’m acquaintances with, should I win in a Super Smash Bros. match, start making comments about women and video games when they think I won’t hear them. Because games have been marketed to men and played up as something they’re just inherently better at, when that space is threatened, they get angry. That sort of insecurity has led to things like GamerGate, but it’s not confined to that group. Men who make us feel alone in a gaming space despite being very literally not alone—they’re a part of games culture.
But we’re not alone. I’ve met so many women and nonbinary people who love games; I’ve played games with many who don’t consider themselves gamers. Games are one of our many ways of interacting.
Sometimes you need time to be alone, though. In the days leading up to and following my mother’s death, the house was busy. So many people were coming to say goodbye, to check up on us, to deliver food. You can’t mourn with other people around. You can cry in the church in front of everyone, but for me it wasn’t the long sob I had at the end of Journey to accept that life is hard, life isn’t fair, but we spend it with people we care about.
We aren’t alone in our struggles, and we don’t exist alone. It’s nice to have both fictional characters to relate with and friends to spend time with. When I scaled the mountain in Journey and walked into the unknown on the summit, my tears were not tears of heartbreak. In that moment I remembered how many other people had played this game in their own grief and found meaning in it. I was lonely no longer.