“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”
Such goes the final line in Stand By Me, the 1986 Rob Reiner film (based on a Stephen King novella) that probably captures the adolescent male spirit better than any other piece of media ever created. While taking place in 1950s small-town Oregon and featuring a squad of cigarette-smoking foul-mouthed 12-year-olds, the time, place, and—to a certain extent—age, is irrelevant. If you’re a dude, you likely once had a group of friends similar to Gordie, Chris, Teddy, and Vern.
For the kids in Stand By Me, they bond over camping trips, card games, and swimming holes, but for me and my friends as pre-teens and into high school, it was video games. Gaming was an interest I shared with both my football teammates and my more artsy, nerdy friends I made through music and theater. Lunch-time conversations were packed with Halo 3 war stories, Twilight Princess dungeon tips, and what upcoming titles we read about on IGN and GameSpot. It was also the golden age of online console gaming, and all of us had Xbox 360s.
After football practice and homework, endless nights concluded with online matchmaking in Call of Duty and Halo. Though we were awkward weirdos with blotchy skin, cracking voices, and Dorito dust caked to our sweaty hands, we felt like bad-asses when we hit our in-game stride. When we trash talked in a pre-game lobby we were John Randle barking at a quivering quarterback, our side-splitting banter was as funny as any Saturday Night Live writer’s room, and our gameplay tactics would make Sun Tzu blush.
But then something happened: we got older.
Some guys got girlfriends who weren’t into gaming; others drifted towards the allure of house-parties and beach fires; and some simply lost interest. We could get a full squad going occasionally, but by the end of high school, that communal adolescent energy had begun to fade.
Through university and most of my 20s I mainly focused on single-player experiences, or if I did hop online in Halo 4 (and eventually COD: WWII), I did so solo. But in late 2018, seemingly out of nowhere, a bunch of my old friends bought Black Ops 4, and we started to play again. We reunited for the same reason we drifted apart: we got older.
A lot of them are now engaged or married, and are settling into a more domesticated life indoors where date nights have (for better or for worse) been replaced with “You play games while I read my book in the bedroom”. Now that our rapidly decaying bodies get hungover after two beers, going to the bar on a Wednesday isn’t particularly appealing anymore. We’re spending more evenings indoors, and at 27, I was able to put together my first squad of friends in an online game in a decade.
Now a year later, with Covid-19 keeping us indoors as much as ever, the game nights have become even more frequent. With Modern Warfare going cross-platform, my pool of friends to play with has grown even larger. There are former football teammates, university friends, my younger brother and his friends, former roommates and co-workers, and people I know from the local music scene.
Though only 28, I’m ancient in online-shooter years (should I be sitting in a rocking chair and sucking on a Werther’s Original?), so I admittedly feel a bit out of touch with the burgeoning Battle Royale craze. However, with Call of Duty’s Warzone placing the game mode within a franchise my friends I have played for over a decade, we’re doing quite well. We’ve even landed a handful of first place finishes under our collective belt, which I’ll chalk it up to wily veteran moxie compensating for the ‘ol drop in reaction time.
Getting that full squad together is as easy as it’s ever been. I’m reconnecting with friends I haven’t seen or spoken to in ages, and whom I’d like to see in person when social-distancing restrictions are eventually lifted. Is it the same as when we were 14? Absolutely not. The Doritos have been replaced with a bag of damp baby carrots and there’s no trash talk fueled by pubescent machismo, but we’re connecting in a way we haven’t in a long time, and at a time when we need it the most.
If you’re feeling alone in the current climate of social distancing, consider hitting up some old friends to jump into a game. Whether they’re from your childhood crew who you discovered a dead body with one summer, or just pals from high school, give ’em a shout. You’ll be glad you did.