04 July 2018

Can Games Manufacture Community?

Humans are pack animals, and we’re trained from a biological perspective to crave a connection to a small group of people—something that we often refer to as a community. And it’s not just a pscyhological leftover from the early days of human evolution—loneliness is literally bad for your health, including impaired immune function and cardiovascular health. Simply put, we need community to live happy or fulfilled lives.

And yet, it’s becoming harder and harder to find a community.

It used to be easy—sometimes it was impossible to escape them. Churches and other religions provided an instant ‘group’ for people to join, and frankly in most cultures around the world it was deeply frowned on not to participate in one of these collectives. From a North American perspective, it’s easy to see how the drive for community has become harder to achieve as our ‘community’ expands to fill a global reach, and the numbers of practicing religion members steadily declines around the globe. If you live in a city like New York or Paris, where does a person go to feel connected and heard? If they aren’t attending a neighbourhood church are they looking for community in their coworkers? Their neighbours? A group of close knit friends? What happens if their job changes, or their neighbours move away? How do they build something that lasts?

It might sound silly, but Niantic thinks the solution is playing games.

Think about it. When you’re a devout gamer, you have a community of other nerds who you can immediately connect with. You have teams like Red and Blue that become instant allies. You have something in common that you can fall back on if politics or religion get in the way. And you have a planned activity to share, boosting that sense of connection and companionship.

But it’s unclear to what degree online relationships satisfy that need for connection that buoys lifespans and increases quality of life. So these communities are taking gaming community offline and bringing it to the real world.

It’s a fascinating experiment. Pokemon Go certainly brought people to the streets in a way that hadn’t been seen before. You would look up from your smartphone and make eye contact with someone else holding their phone in just such a way and you would both smile, knowing you had met a community member. The internet is full of stories of strangers meeting and bonding over the game. But it was a moment in time—a magical something that’s hard to recreate. And how many of those people remain friends today?

Time will tell, but it’s great to see companies and government working together on the problem of community. It affects us all, and if technology can help fight the problem it created, we’ll all be better off for it.