Alexandra Lange, Bloomberg CityLab
November 24, 2020, 11:32 AM CST
Where the Teens Are Hanging Out in Quarantine
Teens were among the first to bolster the popularity of the online game Among Us during the pandemic. Photo Illustration: Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
If summer 2020 in Brooklyn had been anything like summer 2019, my 13-year-old son would have been at camp, sleeping in a tent, sending me monosyllabic postcards and, in moments of downtime, playing a game called Mafia. The role-playing game, created by Dimitry Davidoff in 1986, splits a cabin full of campers into two groups, the mafia and the villagers. During the “night” — eyes closed — the members of the mafia pick off one of the villagers. During the “day”— eyes open — the remaining players try to figure out where evil lurks among them.
Instead, this summer, my son was at home, sleeping in a bed, learning how to be a Dungeon Master, sending me monosyllabic texts from another room and playing an online game called Among Us. The online role-playing game created by developer InnerSloth in 2018, splits a spaceship full of astronauts into two groups, “impostors” and “crewmates.” Impostors pick off the crew and sabotage the ship’s systems. Crewmates try to do their jobs and figure out where evil lurks among them.
Among Us is one of a number of unexpected beneficiaries of the global pandemic. In 2018, as Quartz reported, only 30 users were playing the game at any given time. In September 2020, 3.8 million players were playing the game at once. Many of the first people to bolster that trend were teens, who spotted it on the streams of several Twitch celebrities.
Screen time, often demonized as destructive to interpersonal relationships, has come to resemble a life raft (or escape pod) for families that have found there is such a thing as too much togetherness. Platforms including Discord, Roblox and Minecraft have transformed in response to users’ needs — and adults are starting to take notice.
Teens, whose opportunities for adult-free socializing were already limited by school, parents and mall cops, have adapted better than most. Many of them already orchestrated their social lives online, making quarantine an easier transition. These platforms’ more visible role during the pandemic may change societal (and parental) perceptions about the positive attributes of digital gathering spaces, particularly for the young.
Discord, a gaming chat platform that bills itself as “your place to talk,” now boasts 100 million monthly users, almost a third of whom are there to talk about something other than gaming. When teens play Among Us, which has in-app text messaging, they keep Discord open for voice chat, the equivalent of sotto voce conversations during a real-life game of Mafia.
Roblox, an online gaming and game design platform with robust privacy controls for kids, added 35 million users from February to July, for a total of 150 million monthly active users. Teens who had abandoned Minecraft for newer, faster and more violent games came back; the game’s developer, Mojang Studios reported a 25% increase in new players in the spring, and a 40% increase in multiplayer use.
What all of these platforms have in common is the ability to organize online spaces into digital rooms, known as “servers,” where IRL and online friends can hang out — playing and talking as they would in their bedrooms, a basement or a food court.
For some teens, especially in urban areas or low-income families, private hangout spaces were hard to find even before the pandemic, and digital spaces were long considered a place of refuge. “Teens were under surveillance all the time and didn’t have options other than the digital and mobile space to have private communication in the home,” says Mimi Ito, director of the Connected Learning Lab at the University of California, Irvine, and co-founder of the nonprofit Connected Camps. For other teens, accessing these digital spaces or costly gaming devices is another obstacle.
Part of the change the pandemic ushered in was a recognition of the legitimacy of these digital spaces. “Even in the first few months [of quarantine] there was all this writing by reporters who had been anti-screen time: ‘We have given up, The kids have won’,” Ito says. But in fact, the pandemic “is finally giving adults a window into the fact that these are real relationships.”
Texting gave teens privacy, a room of their own decorated with words and symbols. Research at the Connected Learning Lab (CLL) on social media and youth wellbeing and raising good gamers, initiated pre-pandemic, has taken on an additional weight as digital hangouts have become the only hangouts for many. In a report published in June, Ito and her co-authors argue that current evidence does not support fears that online use increases teens’ mental health problems, and identify ways that young adults already support each other online. The question is a high-stakes one as the prevalence of suicidal thoughts among young adults in the U.S. has spiked during the pandemic, likely due to isolation and economic anxiety. Future efforts to reach vulnerable subgroups online should meet teens where they already are, the CLL study concludes, by focusing on making particular online spaces more hospitable to teens rather than generalizing about the potential adverse effects of broad categories like “social media” or “screen time.”
Ito and Katie Salen Tekinbaş, a games researcher and professor in the Department of Informatics at UCI, started Connected Camps in 2015 as a way to offer peer-moderated Minecraft servers as well as online programs to teach Minecraft, game design, esports and coding. Today the camp programs also use Roblox and Scratch, a block-based programming language developed by the MIT Media Lab. During the pandemic, the camps’ audience has grown fivefold, allowing the nonprofit to hire 100 college students, recruited heavily from historically Black colleges, as moderators and camp counselors.
“Think about kids 8 to 13,” Ito says. “You start letting kids go to some places without adult supervision. You go to the corner store, you walk to school, you go to the mall, these are rites of passage.” But online, “once you are 13 you check off a box, good luck with that,” and you are treated as an adult rather than a young person who might need help navigating the world. Connected Camps, which employs older teens to moderate like “a friendly park ranger,” are designed to teach the manners and mores that checking a box leaves out.
Phoebe Rettberg, a Los Angeles 16-year-old, has been keeping in touch with friends through iMessages, Instagram DMs and Discord throughout quarantine. “Discord is great for large groups because there are so many options for what you can do there,” she says. “You can type in chat, hang out in the voice call, turn on your camera and talk, watch your friends play games by sharing screens or listen to music together.” They play Among Us — “for some reason it’s fun to lie to your friends or accuse them of being a murderer” — and skribbl.io, a virtual Pictionary. Discord voice chat offers plenty of opportunity for the best part of any game of Pictionary, making “fun of each other’s bad drawings.”
When Roblox, an online platform beloved by the younger set, surveyed 3,000 teens on its platform in June, having conversations was the third most popular activity (62%) after playing favorite games and trying something new. Roblox has had robust privacy controls from the outset, with automatically applied chat filters for users under 13. Their Digital Civility curriculum is designed as a scavenger hunt, teaching kids fact-checking and critical thinking skills.
With all of those new users — the company says that two-thirds of American tweens age 9 to 12 over half of Americans under 16 are on the platform — Roblox had to respond rapidly. The platform, a rambling collection of user-generated games, immersive worlds, and other experiences, added Party Place in July to make it easier to set up a private server for a birthday or graduation celebration.
“Anything you can do in real life, scuba diving, fishing, skiing,” you can do on Roblox, says Laura Higgins, director of community safety and digital civility. “You can go to a waterpark, play mystery room games, or be a bird and just fly around and look at the lovely landscape.”
When I did a rough social media poll of where teens were hanging out online, Discord was the platform most frequently mentioned alongside mainstream social platforms like Instagram and Snapchat. Initially released in 2015, Discord began as a way for gamers to voice chat during play, wrapping around a collective activity and encouraging frequent (if sometimes distracted) communication. Today, Discord offers text, voice and video chat, as well as screen sharing, allowing users to consume and switch between different media without switching platforms. One of Discord’s primary assets in the pandemic has been users’ ability to easily create private online rooms and spaces, either around a specific game or as ongoing social lounges.
Stuck at home with limited personal space, Discord teens can be the architects of their own social lives, chilling with a shared soundtrack in one virtual room (basement, beanbags, low lighting), yelling at Minecraft teammates in another (the backlit glow of the arcade), whispering about suspicious villagers in a third (living room, lights up so that you can see each others’ faces).
Nick Gamolin, a high school senior in Pennsylvania, even describes his Discord server in architectural terms: “I’ve created my own server where my friends and I can gather in our ‘lounge’ and play games, watch movies, or simply talk together.”
As it turns out, that is by design. “We’ve become more intentional in thinking about how places — like a library, or a coffee shop, or, closest to our hearts, a living room to play games — provide essential places for people, and how each of these spaces are designed in a way that naturally creates certain behaviors when people enter them,” Stan Vishnevskiy, Discord co-founder and chief technology officer, said via email
Discord has not always been a safe online space, and has had to do a lot of work to repair its reputation since 2017. That year, Discord served as the organizational platform for the white nationalists who organized the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a two-day event that resulted in the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer. After Charlottesville, according to Forbes, the founders deleted 100 alt-right groups from Discord and created a trust and safety team.
Discord users are supposed to be 13 and older and, while the platform doesn’t collect personal information, Vishnevskiy says, anecdotally, their teen and early 20s audience has grown, pointing to campus groups like the UT Dallas Discord and server templates built for teachers.
Public libraries across the country have also moved once in-person programming online, using Discord as well as Zoom and Google Hangout for meetings. The Coeur d’Alene Public Library in Idaho set up private Discord servers for Dungeons and Dragons and video gaming; the Peters Township Public Library in Pennsylvania created a digital escape room with a Harry Potter theme with Google Forms, reported American Libraries. The New York Public Library has already held two youth town halls, one on the Black Lives Matter protests and one on voting, via Zoom, led by young people with public officials calling in. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has used Among Us as a get-out-the-vote tool.
Equity concerns about access and control of public space don’t disappear when teens are at home; for some they are exacerbated, due to limitations on their time online or access to costly games and devices. Quick-thinking organizations serving Black and Brown teens have already begun working online to address some of those issues.
DreamYard, a community arts organization in the Bronx, had just opened a second space last winter devoted to gaming and entrepreneurship. When shelter-in-place rules forced the space to close, the organization brainstormed with designers at Margaret Sullivan Studio “to create a Discord server that is similar to the space we use in real life,” says Rudy Blanco, DreamYard’s director of entrepreneurship and gaming programs.The team gained a better understanding of the problems of making quality online space for teens. “The welcome page, for example, the way those are done is very reading heavy,” says Blanco. “That’s not how we do it at DreamYard. When a space opens up and kids come in we don’t put up a poster with the rules.”
They also looked at young peoples’ reluctance to turn on their cameras. “There’s a sense of shame, you see other people’s backgrounds, you might live with six other people, how do you create a private safe space?”
The organization is also focused on the potential for these platforms to provide valuable social and technical skills. If our post-pandemic world has more respect for online friendships, it should also have more respect for those who can navigate the online social dance — and the game theory — embedded in a game like Among Us.
Discord’s value is partly based on the work of legions of volunteer moderators minding the servers, and Blanco believes that’s a skill that can and should translate into employment for teens, like those at DreamYard, who haven’t traditionally been offered tech jobs.
He says his heart doesn’t sit right with training moderators only for a tech company to swoop in and take what’s working. “How do we work with them, as opposed to having them colonize our stuff?” Blanco says.
“If we teach our kids how to create and moderate servers, we are training folks for a career, and also allowing them to maintain their power in their community.”