Any time a friend of Eddie Gill’s calls him on the phone, his first thought is: “Why the fuck are you calling me?”
Gill, a physician from Hingham, MA, is 30 years old—around the age when, according to an oft-cited study by Royal Society Open Science, the number of friendships the average man maintains dramatically declines. He is not a phone guy. He’ll talk to his mom, or his grandparents. Other than that, he finds keeping in touch with friends and family to be as difficult as chasing around his seven-month-old, or working with his patients. Like others his age, Gill says that his close friendships from high school and college have atrophied, not only because of the distance but because of their mutual aversion to talking on the phone.
“The absolute exception,” said Gill, “are the friends I regularly play games with.”
Put Eddie Gill and one of his friends on the phone, and it would be painful for both parties—stilted conversation, awkward silences, brusque goodbyes. But drop them into a game of Apex Legends and the conversation flows freely.
Over Xbox voice chat, Gill gabs with his buddies about the latest Game of Thrones episode, their favorite NFL teams and, sometimes, their personal lives. When his wife was pregnant, he told his friends over a game of Destiny 2. Like over two dozen other people Kotaku spoke to—the vast majority of whom were men—Gill says online gaming has replaced phone calls, and even real-life meetups. It’s cemented male relationships that might otherwise have evaporated.
“I don’t think I would be as close with these guys if we didn’t hang out online the way we do,” Gill says of his childhood friends with whom he plays Apex Legends. “It would be impossible.”
Nobody wants to be alone, without anyone to confide in or commiserate with. Another truth is that a lot of people are unlikely to immediately speed-dial their college roommate to ask for relationship advice or talk through their workplace troubles when life gets thorny—especially men, as researchers interviewed by Kotaku attested. It’s a little heartwarming, then, that the men we spoke to said they rely on online games and voice chat to achieve the interpersonal closeness that can feel contrived or heavy-handed in a prearranged phone call. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to the apparent paradox—phone, bad; game, good—but the men who took a stab at answering it had some interesting explanations.
To find people to speak with for this story, I put out a call on my Twitter feed, saying I wanted to talk to people who prefer in-game voice chat to phone calls. (Twitter analytics indicate that 75 percent of my 13,000 followers are male.) Of the dozens of people who responded, the vast majority were men. Of the four women who reached out, two of them contacted me to say that my description of the type of person I wanted to talk to perfectly described a close male friend or relative.
“Discord has proven to be really effective glue,” said Joshua Trevett of the popular gaming chat app. “It lets you see in real time whether people are hanging out, and decide whether you want to join them.” Trevett, 29, grew up in Northern California and is now living the fast-paced New York life as a culture magazine editor. His Discord server has become a grab bag of childhood friends, friendly acquaintances, and friends-of-friends, all of whom he now describes as “semi-permanent fixtures in our gaming hours.”
Most gaming platforms let users know when their friends are online or what game they’re playing, also offering a method for getting in touch. Discord, for example, displays a green light next to a friend’s name, plus details on what game they’re playing. On the PlayStation 4, PC, and Xbox One, players can request to join friends’ groups in online multiplayer games if they’re visibly online, like dropping down a coaster and a pint of beer at your friends’ bar table.
Most of the men I talked to said they play Overwatch, League of Legends, Apex Legends, or The Division 2—all multiplayer games that benefit from coordination and strategizing over a microphone. “Most of the games I end up playing are games that my friends also have an interest in,” says Peter Zhang, 31, an esports stream producer based in Maryland. “If I’m interested in a single player game, I’ll stream it so my friends can watch and either voice or text chat with me in Discord/Twitch.” Six people said they only play games their friends enjoy, since spending time with them is their primary objective. Eddie Gill said he would not play Apex Legends alone.
That “time spent” isn’t the sort of focused, vigilant communication of two people out to dinner. Playing an online game, nobody has to pay full attention to another person. When you’re clicking heads and strategizing raids, it’s easy to forget there’s another human on the line with a full and complex offline life. It seems counter-intuitive, but these moments of deep concentration and long periods of silence are what make games’ voice chat more comfortable than phone calls, where participants often expect complete immersion in the conversation. It’s non-committal.
“I can see two friends are in a lobby, pop in, say hi, and then leave without worrying that they will feel abandoned by me,” says Ehren Wessel, a 29-year-old software developer from Minnesota. “I usually only use the phone when calling to schedule some kind of appointment.”
For Zhang, phones are a more structured way to “exchange pleasantries, catch up, ask for stuff we might need, and then hang up.”
“It’s different than sitting in game with a friend for a few hours with the option of talking about anything or nothing,” he said. “Even if you don’t end up doing much together—if my friend needs a warm body (and not much else) to help him complete a quest or something, I’ll push buttons every now and then to help and then continue doing what I’m doing on my second monitor while we just shoot the shit.”
Mike Mahardy, an editor at GameSpot, has a brother who has been in the military for two decades, since Mike was in grammar school. Still, chatting over the phone always felt “stilted,” he said. “We would catch up, go through the motions, and plan for the next phone call.” Their regular check-ins began to feel less labored when the brothers began grouping up online for some Diablo 3 or Destiny, games that Mahardy said “offered something for us to simultaneously focus on without chatting specifically to catch up.
“It almost lifted the pressure off the conversation, and just allowed us to... be brothers again,” he said. “The games are sort of a substitute for driving, or chopping wood, or whatever the hell guys used to do when they weren’t comfortable just talking,”
Three researchers I spoke to say that they do think that there are specific reasons why men prefer catching up casually over games instead of segmenting out intentional phone time. One of them, Robin Dunbar, is a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford and a contributor to the aforementioned study about how adult male friendships decline. Men’s relationships, he said in an email, are “underpinned by ‘doing stuff together.’” Men’s phone calls, he added, are statistically shorter than women’s. “I sometimes joke that this is because the only reason for phoning someone is to say ‘I’ll see you down the bar at 7 o’clock,’” he said.
“I also think we have raised boys and girls differently and given girls more emotional language tools to use than we give boys,” said Dan Hemmerly-Brown, a 39-year-old technician for a market research firm. Hemmerly-Brown says that if his wife is concerned about something, she’ll call her friend to talk it through. For him, though, it might get brought up over Xbox voice chat with his gaming buddies. Fourteen other men I talked to agreed with the idea that online gaming is a casual way to stave off the loneliness and emotional isolation that can come with getting older.
Chris Richardson, 28, a mechanical engineer, told the story of how his good friend’s wife came up to him at their wedding to tell him that his co-op gaming with her husband while he was out of state on an internship “made him feel so much less lonely because he was living alone in a new town.” Richardson wasn’t likely to have called and checked in. Growing up, when Richardson talked to a childhood friend on the phone, he’d only do it “while playing Super Smash Bros. Melee and listening to Linkin Park. Very similar to what I do now via game chats.”
Dmitri Williams, a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, said that a lot of this is due to how boys and girls are socialized from a young age. He says that boys are pushed farther away from their families’ emotional support and encouraged to be strong and independent.
“Women tend to be more conversational and more emotionally open than men on average,” Williams said, “and so it’s not surprising that men would seek to be less emotional in any medium, including voice.” While everyone needs emotional support, he says, it can feel awkward for men if “emotional support” is the stated reason for initiating an interaction. “Guys will go drink, play football, play games together. All of that would serve the function of emotional connection, but they would be uncomfortable if you labeled it like that,” he said.
On the other hand, Williams said, when his wife hosts her book club, she’s open about the fact that it’s not always about the books. “They have no problem saying that,” he said. “Guys playing games—it’s really no different, except for the awareness of it.”
Adam Johns is a clinician and the founder of Game To Grow, a therapy group that uses role-playing games to support social skills and mental health. He said he has noticed that his male therapy clients are more likely to interact over an activity. He has clients who say that they would never talk to their school acquaintances outside of gaming with them online, and have never sought to close the IRL-URL gap.
“Men generally are less encouraged to socialize about things going on in their lives—the struggles or challenges they may be facing, certainly about feelings they have toward those challenges—but they still want to have a social interaction,” Johns said. “Games can provide an opportunity to bridge that gap, to give them opportunity for social interaction without having to reach out or ask for specific time to discuss the goings-on.”
The two women who play lots of online games and reached out to Kotaku say that they aren’t comfortable with one-on-one phone calls, either, but both of them put it down to generalized social anxiety. “Using voice chat in games has helped me get over a lot of this anxiety because it’s become a more natural feeling to talk to people I don’t know that well or at all,” said Carly Susman, a 27-year-old art director who said she never talked on the phone growing up. “I used to be terrified of game voice chat too!”
And of course, there are plenty of men who have no trouble picking up the phone, or otherwise staying in touch with their friends. When I asked Ohio-based designer John Zidar whether there could be a gendered element to his aversion to phones and preference for Discord, he said he didn’t think so. While he didn’t grow up having lengthy conversations with his guy friends, he said, “a majority of my childhood wasn’t spent interfacing with technology. We’d have short calls to make plans to get together with friends, but we spent enough time together that lengthy phone calls never felt necessary.”
Zidar says he still has longer calls with friends of all genders, even if they aren’t as frequent as his voice chatting in games.
“That said, there aren’t topics I feel comfortable discussing on voice chat that I wouldn’t feel comfortable discussing via the phone,” he said. “To me, they are the same thing.”
The ways we keep in touch are changing every year, and with the introduction of new, well-designed apps and social media networks, our methods of talking are fragmented. We go where our friends and family are, for the most part, but don’t want it to feel like a big deal. Our collective desire to stay connected is stronger, and with channels ranging from full-on video chat to the more opaque email, we are free to choose what level of engagement suits our needs.
What is clear is that video games aren’t just entertainment—they’re communication technologies. When Eddie Gill wants to “open a beer and sit down to play games and talk over the Xbox headset,” he’s not just sitting down to play Apex. He’s keeping his friendships alive.