Alex Chalk remembers venturing into the caliginous world of Bloodborne on his PlayStation 4 (PS4), rolling and slashing away at the game’s threats while socially isolating in Brighton, Ontario, a town that’s roughly 100 km west of Kingston.
From the get-go, the game throws its players into a series of grisly rooms that lead towards belligerent werewolves with rugged obsidian fur and coruscating white eyes, armed with sharp nails used to lacerate nearby players. Chalk, who got his PhD in communication and culture at York University and Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University) in 2022, acknowledges that the game is violent and contains dark themes.
But it’s games and their communities that knit players together to engender social experiences that go beyond pressing a few buttons. Gaming isn’t all entertainment and escapism; it forges a sense of belonging.
The brace snugged around Chalk’s right wrist is a testament to his zeal for playing games, an activity that’s instilled him with exuberance during hard times.
“I was real depressed around early 2021, as I think a lot of people were because that was during peak pandemic lockdown time,” he says.
However, Bloodborne would occasionally deplete his tank and urge him towards quitting. The game, according to Chalk, accentuates “making the same mistake over and over again, and slowly learning how to not make it.”
In these moments, he would call upon other gamers for assistance. For example, he would rifle through the game’s player-created Wikis, which he describes as a collective effort of other players pooling their solutions to the game’s hurdles.
Chalk had his first exposure to video games around the early ‘90s in Montreal. His mother would spend some free time in the computer room playing puzzle and adventure games, an immersion that would rub off on him.
His passion for games burned into fall 2022 when he taught COMS 2010: Pixel Power: Digital Games as Communications at York’s Glendon campus to share the gaiety with students.
“Gaming is a really rich, beautiful, and dynamic form of culture and entertainment,” Chalk says. “I think a lot of people get a lot of different things out of it.”
Marcel Martel, a history professor who’s been part of York’s faculty since 1998, contends that games are a way of connecting. He taught HIST 3801: Video Games and History last term and has been playing games over the past 30 years; he says he still plays a couple of times per week.
“The World Health Organization (WHO), at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, encouraged people to play video games,” Martel says. “It was a way of dealing with lockdowns, which was difficult for some of us.”
Now, even as lockdowns have become more sparse in Ontario, video games and digital media are still lifelines to some.
Kelly Bergstrom, a digital cultures researcher and an assistant professor at the communication and media studies department at York, has a 98 year-old grandmother who nearly lost her life because of COVID-19.
“I don’t wanna be the one who brings COVID-19 home, so I am much more likely to have Zoom meetings or play online with my friends now because I would still like to talk to them,” Bergstrom says. “But I haven’t reached that level of comfort to go back into restaurants or pubs.”
Martel says that video games have been around for roughly 50 years and that their popularity is rapidly increasing.
Enrico Moretto, who’s working towards his PhD in history at York, is teaching Video Games and History this winter term, a course he assembled with Martel that’s been running since fall 2021.
Since more people are playing games, both Moretto and Martel believe that studying and boosting representation in games are crucial.
“As the number of people playing games grows, the diversity increases correspondingly,” Moretto says. “We can see that while things are getting better, representation is not really where I think people would want it to be, to represent the diverse array of gamers themselves.”
“The way that I see it, having more representation doesn’t take things away from other people,” Bergstrom says. This could be significant especially for younger gamers.
“Maybe if they’re playing a game that allows them to play as someone who they wouldn’t necessarily see in their day-to-day lives, it allows them to develop empathy for another perspective,” she says.
Elizabeth Caravella, a games researcher and an assistant professor who taught WRIT 4103: Video Game Rhetorics last term at York, states that having more diverse characters and voices in games and media not only produces more interesting stories, but it also normalizes diversity in more bubbled social settings.
When there’s a lack of representation, she says, people’s perspectives can be more narrow; however, bolstering diversity in games and media could cause a cultural shift that creates a “new normal” for many.
“I remember playing Pokémon Crystal for the first time, and it being the first time ever in a video game where I could pick a female character with a little female avatar, and I remember how excited I was,” Caravella says. “I was 13 or 14 at the time when that came out, and I remember the level of excitement that I had and how much it changed my own experiences of playing that game.”
Unfortunately, some discourses within games and their communities still propagate toxicity.
Sarah Miller, a first-year theatre student who is the co-president of York Esports (YUES) — a club that was founded in 2014 — notes that while games have kickstarted her love for design and storytelling, some gaming experiences have subjected her to antagonism.
“I’ve encountered quite a few toxic and sexist people while playing, but I try my best not to let it get to me,” she says, specifically referring to first-person shooter games, which she started getting into around 2020.
Regardless, Miller says she made most of her close friends while playing games throughout her life.
Chalk’s message to gamers is simple: Share the love of games with others. He asserts that gaming, in moderation, can spurt positive experiences.
“Trying to police or tell people the correct way to play a game, to enjoy a game, or think about games tends not to be super helpful,” he says.
Chalk says he felt gratified when he finally beat Bloodborne in the former half of 2021, a game he had owned for three or four years then. Receiving advice from other Bloodbourne players, he says, was a “really warm” and “a really nice feeling.”
“I think that’s one of the magical things about this sort of interactive entertainment,” he says. “It does get people talking to each other and thinking about how to do stuff together.”