Opinion

Letter from the editor: Finding virtual community under lockdown

The author shares a quiet moment with his son while warming up by the firepit at a Roblox ski resort. PassiGames/Roblox
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We’ve all leaned on virtual technology to stay connected during the pandemic. Whether in hangouts, group messaging, various online chat groups or even The Logic’s own community—we’ve come together to work through challenges during the crisis. 

In my own home, our son has been more connected than I’d like to admit to the virtual world of Roblox. The platform has tens of millions of games where users can interact with each other. As with other free-to-play games, it also has a virtual currency called Robux that can be used to purchase in-game perks.

I’ve spent a lot of time reading up on the platform, focusing mostly on the risks to his emotional development and the prospect, lurking on any platform, of bullying and child predators. Roblox, to its credit, does a great job of trying to weed out troublemakers. Our son’s first account was deleted entirely after he created a T-shirt that had a silly but inappropriate word on it. 

While I still have concerns about how the platform may be hampering his imagination, in the same way that a calculator may impede the development of math skills, I do think Roblox has been a net positive in this time of isolation. 

I don’t want to suggest that his Roblox life has replaced his real one, but I’ve been surprised by how the platform has satisfied our son’s deep need for community during the lockdown. As a six-year-old only child, his virtual world can be as real to him as the physical one. And, during this period of intense loneliness, he gets no greater pleasure than having his dad––yes, I’ve created my own avatar—join his virtual world. Just last night, while staring into separate screens, we rode a chairlift together up to the top of a virtual ski hill. To which he said, “Spending time with you in Roblox is my favourite thing.”  

Perhaps to justify my parenting approach—which still includes the mantra “everything in moderation,” especially when it comes to screen time—I’ve also educated him on the incentives animating Roblox Corporation. He understands that the company is worth “billions” (reportedly US$4 billion after closing a funding round in February led by venture capital giant Andreessen Horowitz), and that its executives are motivated to keep him playing the game. 

He’s also learned that maybe that branded hat in the game isn’t worth 25 Robux (budgeting and impulse control), and how to feel his own emotions change when the game is taken away from him (addiction). But most of all, he’s learned something that he’s still too young to fully articulate: that community is a vital part of human existence.

On Thursday, we held a subscriber conference call with entrepreneur Zita Cobb, a former tech CFO and now a social entrepreneur and innkeeper at the Fogo Island Inn. Cobb is a forceful and inspirational advocate for the importance of communities. 

In our conversation, which I’d highly recommend listening to, Cobb explained how her tiny island of 10,000 inhabitants off the coast of Newfoundland has managed to survive the adversity of geographic isolation, a moratorium on cod fishing and now a pandemic. The short answer: by holding on to its sense of community and its connections to the past. 

I asked Cobb how she defines community. “Communities aren’t just something we have; they’re something we do,” she said. “The quality of our lives fundamentally is the quality of our relationships, and the quality of our relationships is the quality of our awareness. All of those ways of thinking about how we exist and how we make meaning and how we live with each other—and how we live together better⁠—all come together in a thing called community.” 

So how can communities pull through during a pandemic, an economic downturn exacerbating inequality and a long-overdue social reckoning on race—all of which are challenging us in different ways?

Cobb is practical in her answer. “As we find out every time there is an awful storm in Newfoundland … the people who are going to come dig you out when you’re snowed in are the people next door or down the road. A community is defined by the distance a human being can walk before dark.“ 

Former governor general David Johnston expressed a similar sentiment in 2016, in an anecdote explaining Waterloo, Ont.’s unique transformation from a manufacturing base to a tech powerhouse.

He told an audience at the Communitech accelerator about trying to determine an insured value for a stable on the family’s Mennonite farm in Heidelberg, Ont., a 15-minute drive from downtown Waterloo:

“Our Mennonite neighbour Edgar, who farmed the land for us, was there…. I said, ‘Edgar, this barn here, we’ve got a value of $50,000 on it, is that right?’

“He said, ‘Why do you ask that question?’

“I said, ‘Well, it’s insured, and if it burns down we’d have to rebuild it.’

“He said, ‘If it burns down, we’d rebuild it. That’s what neighbours do. And we’d bring the materials, we have our own sawmills and so on. Ah, but the asphalt tiles. We don’t make those. So, probably, put $2,000 for the asphalt tiles.’”

Whether you’re creating a self-reliant fishing village, a world-beating tech hub or a country built on the new economy, it all comes down to community. In a time of crisis, all we can do is look after our neighbours.

So, while I’ll gladly play in my son’s virtual world this weekend for just an hour or two, we’re also going to spend some time putting together packages to deliver to the neighborhood food bank.