For most of my life, gaming has been a solitary experience. Though I spent my formative years sitting on the living room rug, peering up at the TV as my father journeyed through Hyrule, mostly it was just me and a beaten-up Amstrad. A battered Game Boy. A used and abused Xbox 360. It never occurred to kid-sized me that games would eventually offer vast, communal spaces in which players from all over the world could meet, play and mess about.
There were a lot of special titles when I was growing up, games that forged a formidable foundation and a life-long passion for video games, but I didn’t talk about them with my friends. With gigantic NHS glasses, buck teeth and an outrageously unfashionable taste in music, I was already an outlier. I didn’t need to give the popular kids any more ammunition to single me out, thanks. The last thing I needed was for them to discover that I played video games, especially as I wasn’t supposed to play them; ’90s video game marketing had made that very, very clear.
There’s a pervasive myth that some women only play games for the attention of others (read: men). While I can, admittedly, only speak from a personal perspective, this is bullshit. For me, gaming was a closely guarded secret I didn’t dare share with even my closest pals. This particular “gamer girl” hid her PlayStation 1 beneath her TV cabinet for the duration of her university years in case her housemates accidentally stumbled upon her secret shame.
This self-imposed secrecy meant that I entirely missed the formative years of online gaming. Multiplayer modes sounded like a worrying way for people to discover that I had the reaction speed of a wet napkin, and using a microphone would jeopardize the veracity of my anonymous, male-presenting Xbox 360 avatar. I convinced myself pretty early on that FPSs “weren’t my kind of thing”, sinking, instead, into survival horror and adventure games, games I could explore on my own with no-one else there to witness firsthand how shit I was.
The first time I peeked my head into a virtual communal space was, of all things, PlayStation Home. It gave me a glossy, glamorous avatar, a house I could decorate and places to hang out, like a kind of virtual social network (albeit one where the social aspects were a little janky and the network connection not super reliable). I would arrange to meet my friend, Sarah, and we’d catch up, typing laboriously over text-chat and instructing the anonymous strangers around us that no, we didn’t have a mic, sorry. It was an odd place, in truth, but one where I and countless others could offer the world better, more polished versions of ourselves.
I found Halo: Reach shortly after this. Its expansive world, stunning set-pieces and stirring score sparked an enduring love for all things Halo, and a particular passion for sci-fi shooters. I forged real and meaningful relationships with the Spartans I played alongside, friends I count as some of my closest pals, as important to me now as any of the connections I’ve made “in real life”.
But while it was Halo that brought us together, it was Destiny that cemented us. And while there are many aspects of Guardian life that bonded us, I don’t think any part of that game was as critical to those budding friendships as Destiny’s Tower.
Like many gaming hubs, though, The Tower was – is – a public area in which Guardians would converge to talk to NPCs, pick up missions, buy supplies or collect rewards. It seemed utterly absurd at first – absurd, and kind of redundant, too. I couldn’t understand why I was forced to cohabit in this space with strangers every time I needed to grab something out of my vault or do a little Destiny housekeeping.
It became something of a ritual to close out the night, though, an area to unwind after failed raid attempts (and believe me, there were plenty of failed raid attempts). A place where my fireteam and I could chat about our days as we sorted through engrams and visited NPCs. There was a glowing purple ball we could punt about as we talked. Sometimes, a soccer ball spawned. I remember several nights where we spent an ungodly amount of time trying to climb the tree near the Cryptarch, as well as numerous late nights lost to (also failed) attempts to scale the banner poles of the Plaza.
Occasionally, we’d chuckle at the usernames of the players we shared the space with (My Ex Is A T-Rex, I doth my cap at you). Sometimes, if one of us was idling on an inventory screen, we’d surreptitiously nudge them across the map until they plummeted to unexpected – if transitory – deaths. It was a place where paradoxically both nothing happened but everything happened, a weird no-man’s-land that didn’t ever feel important, not really, but somehow became the best part of the evening for me.
But the greatest nights were when the entire Tower was dosed in communal good cheer, the nights where 16 strangers united for conga lines and synchronised dance parties and no-one ever seemed in a rush to leave. Bungie knows this, of course – that’s why Destiny 2 introduced Tower mini-games like The Floor Is Lava and Tower Ball – but it’s the unscripted moments of companionship that I cherish most, the times where entire conversations took place via emotes and Guardians congregated in the Hangar’s weird nightclub to bop to Macca’s very unboppable ‘Hope For The Future’.
For those shared experiences, regardless of who we were or where we came from, we were all part of each other’s story, connected by camaraderie and curiosity. How extraordinary it is that such memorable moments came not when we were united in combat, but an impromptu game of keepy-uppy.
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