Video Games Offered My Son a Haven From Bullying

Luke has fast-twitch muscles and lightning-quick reaction time. It’s what made him good at tae kwon do, playing the violin, and gaming. It also made him a good catcher in baseball, where he got the chance during the summer after sixth grade to tag out his fourth-grade bully at home plate. One aspect of ADHD is hyper-focus. Luke could play Lego Star Wars and Super Paper Mario for hours on end, his hands never leaving the remote, his concentration fixed on the screen.

Luke with Josh and Justin of Novelline, developers of Bleak.Photograph: Linda Cutting

Eventually, Luke started gaming with strangers online. That worried me. We had hoped he would make more IRL friends, but his rep of being bullied followed him like a dark shadow. I’d read that online bullying is real and can be just as damaging as in-person bullying. A 2017 article from the BBC quotes a 16-year-old gamer: “If you’re going to school every day and you’re being bullied in school, you want to go home to your computer to escape,” he says. “So if you’re getting more abuse thrown at you, it’s going to put you off doing anything social—it has for a lot of people I know, me included.”

Despite my worries, Luke’s online gaming experience turned out to be the opposite of his IRL encounters. Luke met people who had no preconceived notions about him, and his online social world grew. My husband, Keith, commented on this: “IRL friend groups can be limited to a locality. That was the case with Luke in high school, where it was hard to escape his reputation. But online you have the ability to build your own worlds and populate them with friends from all over the world. The ability to break out of the ‘local’ bullying seems to be a key piece to online friendships. Even if there are online bullies, you can always escape them and start over with a clean slate.”

While he was online, we heard Luke laughing a lot, swearing a lot (in the way gamers do), and he just seemed happy. So we let him play. We also hovered nearby for hours until he finished his homework.

“In online gaming spaces, I felt 100 percent more welcome,” Luke says. “When you’re playing a game online with someone, no one gives a fuck what you look like. They don’t care about your race, if you’re tall, if you’re scrawny. The only thing they care about is how well you play the game. And that’s only in competitive games. For cooperative games like Worlds Adrift (one that I played with my lifelong friend Aaron, which very sadly got canceled), GTFO, Destiny 2, VR Chat, and Dungeons and Dragons, people go out of their way to be welcoming and try to introduce people into the community. When you meet people online, you play the game. But there’s also this part of gaming where you chat online. There are people I’ll invite to hang out with me, and then there are my friends, my few close friends.” 

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