UW News

November 24, 2020

Q&A: Animal Crossing to K-pop: Gaming, music fandom groups provide human connection during the pandemic

UW News

A portrait of a researcher surrounded by stuffed Pokémon

UW iSchool associate professor Jin Ha Lee studies communities centered around popular video games and the Korean Pop band BTS. Here Lee is surrounded by a variety of Pokémon and an ARMY Bomb (light stick in the middle). This picture was taken by Lee’s daughters.Ariana and Amelia Jones

With COVID-19 cases spiking again across the United States, many states are issuing new curfews and lockdowns that look similar to the first stay-at-home orders issued in March.

These announcements are coming right in time for the winter holiday season, when Americans normally gather with the people they love. But with this year’s recommendations to keep in-person gatherings small, how can people find a way to connect with others?

One option is to find community in online spaces that celebrate a shared interest, such as playing a video game together or bonding over the love of a band, according to Jin Ha Lee, an associate professor in the University of Washington’s Information School. Lee studies communities centered around popular video games — for example, Animal Crossing and Pokémon Go — and the Korean Pop band BTS, which has a huge fanbase called ARMY.

UW News asked Lee about this research and how these communities have changed since the pandemic began.

Based on your research, can you describe a typical video game or music fan community?

I think it is difficult to describe a “typical” community, though these groups definitely have one thing in common: Their members are very passionate about a particular thing and they want to share that love with others. However, each community has its own unique flavor and culture.

For instance, in my group’s research, we have come to understand how ARMYs — a term describing members of the ARMY fanbase — mobilize and successfully organize online campaigns to achieve various goals. Sometimes the goal is to support the artists, such as achieving a music streaming goal. Other times, it is to support a social cause — for example the #MatchAMillion campaign for ARMYs to match a million-dollar donation, that came from BTS and Big Hit Entertainment, to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

This kind of commitment and mobilizing power are impressive, and something that you don’t see in many other fandoms, at least not to this degree.

Why did these communities form before the pandemic?

For game-related communities, these are the places where people can share useful information related to playing the game and also connect to other people who can play with you.

For music fan communities such as ARMY, people can obtain the most up-to-date information about the artists, find other fans and organize and participate in various collaborative efforts to support the group.

Did the role of these communities change after COVID-19 led to stay-at-home orders and lockdowns?

These communities have always provided support, even before the pandemic.

But it is true that the level of support has definitely expanded now. Many of our research participants shared how people in their communities have provided the emotional support they needed for their mental health and well-being, especially during the lockdowns when they were confined to their homes for days and weeks.

Several participants described these online communities as being their “place of happiness” or “light during the dark days.” They shared that their fan community members consoled and encouraged others during their challenges, and also organized to provide help in real life, such as getting groceries and donating money for people affected by COVID-19.

Why engage in a community like this during the pandemic?

Many people will agree that engaging with media is helping them get through the pandemic, be it playing a game, going through music playlists or bingeing on YouTube videos or TV shows.

What we have found is that for many people, the social connection resulting from their engagement with these forms of media is as important as appreciating the media itself. For many of these fans, being part of the fan community is how they connect to the outside world and overcome the increasing sense of isolation that weighs on them in the pandemic.

I also think it is important to note that people sometimes perceive this kind of media engagement as unhealthy and isolating, especially in non-pandemic situations. But ultimately when people play games, watch TV shows and listen to music, a big part of the joy comes from the fact that they can talk about it with someone else — this experience helps connect people.

Can you describe some of the ways people have used these communities to replace events that can’t be held due to the pandemic?

We have seen many examples of Animal Crossing players hosting a variety of social events, from casual hangouts to memorial services, or celebrating special days such as birthdays, graduations and anniversaries.

A screenshot of people gathered around a table in the game Animal Crossing. There are cakes and balloons and everyone is smiling.

A screenshot of a birthday party on Animal Crossing.University of Washington

On the music side, BTS held a two-day online streaming concert “Map of The Soul ON:E” in October because their tour had to be canceled due to the pandemic. The event was extremely successful: The group sold 993,000 tickets and drew viewers from 191 countries. While it is not the same as going to a concert in person, the viewers were able to see the performance and get their ARMY Bombs (official light sticks) connected and synced to the performance, which created a sense of “togetherness” as people watched the show. BTS could also see and interact with some ARMYs who were selected to show themselves on a massive screen surrounding the set as the group performed.

Are there ways parents have used these communities as a way to support their children’s social connections?

In the Animal Crossing community, many families play the game together. I have seen parents who let their children visit other families’ islands to sell turnips, watch fireworks or hang out during the bug catching or fishing events. I have also seen parents use these communities to find other kids who are the same age as their own children so they can play together.

What about people who are just considering this idea? Can this still work for people who didn’t already have this type of community at the beginning of the pandemic?

Definitely! Find a community that will welcome you, and many game- or music-related fandom communities will. Many of our participants shared that there is a sense of “immediate connection” among fans regardless of who you are or where you come from.

For instance, we saw a lot of people who have recently joined ARMY during quarantine after watching BTS Carpool Karaoke. There are many of these “quarantine” ARMYs who are actively engaging with the community and who eagerly prepared for the new BTS album “BE,” released on Nov. 20. It doesn’t really matter when you become a fan, you can still be really passionate.

Do you have some tips or tricks for people looking to join a community?

Find an online community that makes sense to you. This could be the platform where the fans are most active, such as Twitter for the ARMY fandom. Or it could be a small online community that is more relevant to you — for example, a Discord server for Pokémon Go players in your neighborhood, or one of many Facebook groups centered around Animal Crossing, such as those dedicated to parents or LGBTQIA+ people.

For more information, contact Lee at jinhalee@uw.edu.