Bringing The World Home To You

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Anita Rao
Do nanopets count as video games? If your answer is no ... then well, I'm about as far from a gamer as can be. That's not really fair though, because i loved my nanopet dearly, like a true child of the '90s. And keeping it alive meant I had to devote focus and attention to cracking some codes so our adventure together could continue, as long as there was battery life.

Yeah, I've played videogames — computer- based ones like Sims where you build worlds, care for creatures and hack the system for virtual currency and other rewards. World building in today's games has evolved into something so elegant, so engaging, I've honestly considered taking it up again. I miss activating the part of my brain that was fully about play — especially now that most of my real world life revolves around work. And when I do get online, I often find myself doom scrolling through isolated spaces.

I'm intrigued by what it means to be a gamer now — the opportunity to not only create virtual worlds but create community at the same time. Most of all, I'm ready to play again.

This is Embodied. I'm Anita Rao.

Hadley Causey
Gaming kind of connects my generation, the younger generation, you know, everyone in my generation plays games. I know. I think of all the people I know one person doesn't play video games

Anita Rao
Meet Hadley Causey. They're the founder and owner of the Spectrum server on Discord. If you hear me say that and think: Wait what? I've got you. Discord is kind of like a social network for gaming communities. And it's divided into servers that have their own members, topics and rules.

Hadley Causey
It's kind of that universal connector, and everyone has strong opinions on it. And it's just a good bonding tool to find friends and to just escape from whatever may be troubling you and just get lost in a video game.

Anita Rao
Hadley created the Spectrum server in 2017 to be a supportive digital space for queer folks. The idea came to them after meeting their boyfriend's college roommate.

Hadley Causey
At the time, he was living with a another non-binary person who ended up being the first non-binary person I'd ever met. And when I was visiting him, there turned out to be this kind of dramatic situation that i won't go into super explicit details on, but that roommate ended up being shot and killed by the police. And at the time, I was still new to Atlanta. I didn't really know anyone in the queer community, and the only non-binary person I've ever met had just died.

So being this kind of introverted, weird, queer kid doing what I did best, I turned to the internet and decided to create a community and try to create my own safe space and find people who also needed that type of retreat from some of the harsh realities of real life. And it kind of blossomed from there, and now we have over 5,000 members.

Anita Rao
Hadley used the Spectrum server to create a community they didn't have in real life. While gaming is the foundation, when people log into Spectrum, they talk about all kinds of stuff: from how their day is going to questions they're exploring about their identity.

Hadley Causey
I use they/them pronouns. It's not common in real life. You just don't come across non-binary people that often. And so a lot of times I get misgendered in public, and Spectrum is a space where that doesn't happen, because everyone is accepting and everyone is welcome and open to the idea of non-binary people existing, and there's, you know, sometimes in IRL there are, you know, hateful people and people who say really hurtful things and go out of their way to cause harm to towards the queer community. And in a queer, exclusive space like Spectrum, that really doesn't exist. Yeah, we have trolls who try to come in and harm us, but we've got a pretty good security system of keeping them out. So it's just a place where you can really focus on whatever it is you want to do or want to be or be perceived as and not have to please everyone around you and fit into a mold that society has created

Anita Rao
A platform like Discord provides a powerful space for people to just be themselves, whatever that means to them. Discord lets people connect to one another while they're playing games. But how about connection within games themselves? Tess Tanenbaum has spent a lot of time thinking about game design. She's an assistant professor in the department of informatics at University of California, Irvine, and also the co-editor of the book "Nonverbal Communication in Virtual Worlds."

Tess Tanenbaum
When you design a game, you're designing an experience, right. And a game design is fundamentally about creating incentive structures that lead people to enact certain behaviors and not do other things. And so as a game designer, you're trying to craft a set of underlying mechanics that are going to give your player a chance to then do things, which will then lead them to have some sort of emotional experience or outcome.

Anita Rao
Tess says this idea comes from an influential game designer named Robin Hunicke. She's one of the producers of the computer game "Journey" that was released in 2012. While Robin was developing the game, she told Tess that she wanted to give people a sense of being connected to a stranger somewhere else in the world. When Tess first played "Journey," she was in love.

Tess Tanenbaum
It does this really beautiful thing where you start the game alone, and you're in this kind of red cloaked figure. And as you traverse this desert landscape, another cloaked figure appears next to you. And that cloaked figure is a stranger connected to you over the network. And you can't speak to each other. You can only interact through these series of — we call them chirps. You push a button on your controller, and this aurora of sound expands around your character. And if the other character happens to be inside of it, it it gives them the ability to jump and fly. And so you have the ability to positively influence each other's experience. And that's, that's the limit of your connection. But it's really powerful, because you have this really narrow communication channel. And so it's a design that leads to this connection with a stranger that can't be abused. It can't be toxic.

I was actually really fortunate to get to play this game with my thesis advisor, my PhD advisor in 2012. Jim was an older gentleman. He doesn't have much controller literacy. He hasn't played a lot of games. And so he tended to be somewhat hesitant in this game, and he got partnered up with a much more senior player — a player who was marked as having completed the game very thoroughly. And this older player —this more senior player — was so patient with him. They stayed with him throughout the game. They guided him through every challenge that they encountered. And Jim would respond by tapping the chirp button rapidly to show his appreciation, to show that he was grateful for the help that he was receiving.

Anita Rao
Different kinds of games create these relationships, where you have to have a mentor who kind of guides you as you start the game. Or you can have a friend who kind of get some benefits from helping you orient yourself to the world. So game designers are actually able to kind of create incentives for relationship building within games.

Tess Tanenbaum
Absolutely. And there's actually, there's a technique similar to this used in interactive theater where if you're an actor in an interactive play, and you pull an audience member up out of the audience to join in the fun, you need to make them feel good. You need to make them feel comfortable. You need to reassure them that it's going to be okay. And so there's a technique called back leading, which involves giving them goals, giving them emotional support, using the narrative experience to guide them to a set of behaviors that is going to make them comfortable and lead to a good performance for the audience.

Anita Rao
Reminder, I'm no gamer, but I've witnessed firsthand the powerful relationships that gaming can cultivate through my younger brother.

Nikilesh Rao
These people are people who I've probably spent more time talking to than mom or dad or you or Priyanka or Halle in this last 10 years by far.

Anita Rao
My brother Nikilesh is seven years younger than I am and the youngest of the Rao siblings, which meant that he spent a lot of his formative teenage years just with my parents. The year I jetted off to college was the same year my parents moved from our hometown in Iowa City to Augusta, Georgia. It's right on the South Carolina border. And that big move halfway through high school rocked my brother's social world.

Nikilesh Rao
When I moved from Iowa to Georgia, I didn't have a lot of friends. And the friends I did have and stay in touch with from Iowa, we played games together. So that was what really I held on to a lot, specifically, playing League of Legends. It was harder to get away with playing Xbox, because mom and dad were very strict but playing League of Legends — it's a computer game. I could be in my room and pretend like I was studying or doing homework, but really I was just playing League.

Anita Rao
I guess thinking about high school, what was it that — because I feel like mom and dad were worried that the amount of time that you spent gaming was like preventing you from forming relationships in real life — and I would just love to hear your your take on that. Was it just that there weren't people that you wanted to connect with, or you just felt much more comfortable with these other folks, or just that you had a lot more fun playing video games then you would have like, I don't know, doing some extracurricular at school? Like how do you make sense of that?

Nikilesh Rao
I think there's a balance that mom and dad never really understood with me. And until this day, they still don't quite understand. And that's fine. I think that's a generational difference. I think when I moved to Augusta, I tried to put myself out there and meet people and make friends. But you know, Friday night, Saturday nights would come around, and I wasn't getting asked to come to someone's house to do stuff, or I wasn't going out in the town with them to go get food or go to a movie. So I think I learned my lesson early in life where you can't force yourself to become friends with people because they're not interested. So I had these friends, and they enjoyed spending time with me, and I wanted to nurture that relationship. So I think you have to find a balance and everything — and sometimes that balance wasn't there — but at the end of the day, you know, I graduated high school. I went to a great school, I have a good job. I'm very happy with where I am in life, and I don't think video games has been a detriment to that. It's an outlet I very much enjoy, and I found a great way to balance that. So, for me, I don't believe it's an issue. But you know, that's just me.

Anita Rao
No, I mean, at the end of the day, you're kicking ass, and you developed into like an amazing human being. But I'm curious ... I mean I'm curious like what those relationships let you explore more freely about yourself? At that time when — as you were saying —like the social environment at school and just that moving to the South was such a different kind of culture, like, what do you feel about that?

Nikilesh Rao
They showed me that there are people who are willing to accept you for who you are. And that if where you are currently, or the people you're currently with, aren't willing to do that — that's fine. And you just need to be in the right environment to allow that to thrive. You know, going to high school in the South with a graduating class of 44 people, there's a one in 44 chance that you'll find someone who is like you. And that's not a great sample size when you have a group of 13 of them who have been going to school each other since kindergarten. I learned that being myself online was the way to find friends in college. And I don't think that would have been possible — because if I hadn't played those games, I would have literally just had mom and dad in high school. And that would have been rough. So....

Anita Rao
[Laughs] Yeah. That would have been really rough!
A core group of six friends from all around North America helped my brother get through high school, college and more. They've been in almost daily contact with each other for the past decade, and they even broke the digital divide a few years ago and met up in person.

Nikilesh Rao
Three of us are American, and three of us are Canadian. And we'd never met each other in person — the Americans and the Canadians. The respective country men knew each other, but not all together. So we did that in 2019. And it was surprisingly a really fun time. We went to Canada. We got a cabin in the middle of nowhere in Ontario. And then we went and explored Toronto.

Anita Rao
Was there anything that surprised you when you met those people in real life who you'd known for years just virtually?

Nikilesh Rao
[Laughs] Yeah, I think it surprised me how similar everyone's online persona is to their in real life persona. And it was a little funny that we all felt a little awkward at first just because we're so used to being in front of a computer talking to each other. So when we were finally in person, we were like: What do we do now? I guess we could go play some games. So we ended up playing a lot of a lot of Super Smash Brothers that week we were in Canada. But you know, it was interesting seeing everyone outside the computer environment and seeing how we interacted on the daily, because a lot of the like troll personalities or joking translated to the real life scenarios just in ways I wouldn't have expected. You know, I've now known this group of guys almost 10 years. and I would say for a solid eight or nine of those years, we were talking almost every single day. We still talk every day for the most part.

Anita Rao
Really?

Nikilesh Rao
Yeah our server chat is at a minimum used probably 50-60 times a day.

Anita Rao
Wow. Well, I'm gonna need a photo of you and your crew for sharing with this episode, because I love the image of all of you meeting in person. That's very sweet.

Nikilesh Rao
I will. I'm going to send it to you right now. So I want to hear your reaction, because you probably wouldn't think that we're the funniest group. We've got one really tall Indian kid, who's not me, a slightly shorter Indian kid, two really pasty white boys, a Vietnamese guy. And we're just, you know ... We look like the misfits.

Anita Rao
Oh, my gosh, this is really a motley crew. I love it. I love it. This is an adorable image. Oh my god, so good.

You can find that adorable picture on our Instagram @EmbodiedWUNC. I am so glad my brother found that community of people and felt less alone during a really shitty time. While my parents still have a lot of judgments about the gaming world, other families have become better connected to each other through gaming. Adriana de Souza e Silva is a professor in the department of communication at North Carolina State University. She studies location-based games and mobile technologies. But playing Pokémon GO also helped her bond more with her son.

Adriana de Souza e Silva
I've been looking into location-based games for almost like 20 years now. And when Pokémon GO started, it was 2016. My son was four, and I had just had the baby — his sister. And so I was kind of home bound. I wouldn't go out and play a lot. So he started playing with my phone. And after some time, I mean, he got hooked into game. And he loved catching Pokémon. And I kind of realized that Pokémon GO is a game that really attracts children because they like Pokémon. But children don't have a lot of mobility, right? So adults actually play a lot of Pokémon GO. And there are a lot of parents who play Pokémon GO with their children, because parents can drive them around and take them to places to play. So in our case, I mean, I ended up actually buying a phone for my son, and among other reasons, so that we could play the game together. So I created another account for him. And he still says today that I'm level 40 just because he played for me.

Anita Rao
Well, I mean, as a parent, is it hard for you to create boundaries or navigate kind of how much time he spends playing games versus doing other things? I know it's a question, you know, people think about when when they hear, you know, the WHO declares gaming addiction as, you know, an official diagnosis. There is that concern. How do you respond to it?

Adriana de Souza e Silva
Well, I think that was very interesting for me, because I have — there's the Adriana the scholar who always studied technologies and, you know, always advocated how beneficial playing games or technologies might be. But then when you go to the other side to be a parent, I mean, there is a real issue that, you know, obviously I don't want him to play games on his phone the whole day. So I think there has to be some boundaries. We do play Pokémon GO together. And with normally, sometimes, you know, we kind of carve spaces in our daily routines to play the game before I go drop him off at school, we kind of do a detour and go to a park to fight in a gym, and then I drop him off at school. But you know, I put some time limits on his game too. Because I think he needs to read. He needs to play with other objects and play with other kids and go outside. So it's a wide range of activities that kids need to be doing. Anything, if you just do that specific thing would not be good for him, right?

Anita Rao
Adriana says games like Pokémon GO can help us integrate more fun and play into our lives.

Adriana de Souza e Silva
Well, I think we are playful animals to start with. I think sometimes we kind of lose that connection to play as we grow up. And people kind of get too much hooked into their serious lives and start creating boundaries between play time and serious lives. I think particularly in the case of location-based games, they have the ability to kind of merge serious life with the playful activities. So you kind of embed gameplay into your daily life, daily routines. And it kind of makes you look with different ways to familiar spaces, or look at the spaces where you are or people that you know in different with different ways. And sometimes we need that kind of sense of renewal and playfulness in our daily lies.

Anita Rao
Honestly, we could all use a little more fun in our lives, especially in times when we feel isolated. Tess Tanenbaum, the game designer, says some logging onto a virtual world can be big for our overall well being.

Tess Tanenbaum
Gaming gives us a chance to to transcend a lot of the limitations that that we often live under. I mean, we live in a difficult world right now. We live in a world where there's a lot of struggle and unhappiness. And gaming can create opportunities for us to connect in more positive ways. To experience the kinds of pleasures that we don't often get in our day-to-day lives. I think we need that. I think we need art and expression and play, because I think that feeds a human need that is increasingly being made secondary by the structure of our society.

Anita Rao
Game on.

Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio WUNC, a listener supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on demand, make a contribution at wunc.org. Incredible storytelling on WUNC's podcasts is only possible because of listeners like you. My thanks to Grant Holub-Moormon, Amanda Magnus and Charlie Shelton-Ormond for producing this episode. Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer, and Lindsey Foster Thomas is WUNC's Director of Content. Our theme music is by Quilla.

Thanks also to Weaver Street Market — a worker and consumer-owned cooperative selling organic and local food at four Triangle locations in North Carolina. Now featuring online shopping with next day pickup: weaverstreetmarket.coop.

I'm Anita Rao, on an exploration of our brains, our bodies and taking on the taboo with you.

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