Lessons for Journalists from Virtual Worlds

Lessons for Journalists from Virtual Worlds

In the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, as many people figured out how to work and live in isolation, they turned to various virtual worlds and spaces for comfort. From games like Animal Crossing to Zoom, the popularity of communing and communicating both virtually and synchronously skyrocketed and persists in “post-pandemic” life. Everything from conferences to the rising concept of the “metaverse” connects to virtual worlds.

At the same time, the pandemic was merely tinder for a fire that has been flickering in digital gaming for decades. Almost twenty years earlier, news outlets like CNN and Reuters set up bureaus in Second Life and experimented with Virtual Reality (VR) content. While concepts like the metaverse are positioned as future technology, virtual worlds are already widely available. Given this reality, how should journalists write about them, or even use them, in the present?

This report takes a first step in answering this question. After providing a brief history, it defines virtual worlds as online and digital spaces of implied vast size in which users congregate, mostly synchronously. Approximations of virtual worlds can be found in online gaming, VR, and livestreaming platforms like Twitch, all of which cater to hundreds of thousands of concurrent users if not more at any given time.

Using the pandemic as the launching point for research, the report then analyzes 379 articles that reflect journalists’ current and shifting views about virtual worlds. Animal Crossing, Twitch, and VR technology represent three archetypical cases. An inductive analysis of key themes is followed by semistructured interviews with 21 journalists who wrote about the subject. These interviews support specific lessons writers can take in how to approach virtual worlds from a journalistic viewpoint, as well as the opportunities and drawbacks of using them as tools.

From the analysis of articles, three major themes arose:

Games, the prototypical home for virtual worlds, are becoming ubiquitous in everyday life and influencing business, technology, and (digital) culture. This has resulted in increased appearances of the medium in news coverage. Virtual worlds are often seen as future technologies, while not recognizing their importance in the present. The persistence of this framing suggests rethinking about both virtual worlds and the communities who use them. A diverse set of communities are already the subject of virtual-world coverage, from drag queens using Twitch to celebrities gravitating to Animal Crossing. Virtual spaces clearly offer a wide appeal for journalists and the public at large.

This report is meant to provoke and instigate deeper scrutiny by providing a brief and informative snapshot of virtual worlds during and after the pandemic. It emphasizes not only how the building blocks for the next generation of communications technologies are already being haphazardly developed and used, but also the vital need for reporters and writers in these early and formative stages to serve as gatekeepers and practitioners. Finally, it shows that the core journalistic skills associated with the field, from cultivating sources to investigating communities, will continue to be valuable in understanding virtual spaces.

In the spring of 2020, amid the despair and panic that came from unprecedented quarantining and social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a small oasis of hope sprang up: Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The video game, released for the Nintendo Switch in the first weeks of national shutdowns, granted each player a virtual island replete with cuddly customizable avatars, buildings, and furnishings to create a tiny village. Friends could visit each other’s domains with a few clicks and then chat, trade gifts, and partake in mundane yet comforting tasks like shopping for clothes, listening to music, or tending gardens, all of which had halted in “real” life. Both the mainstream and endemic game press hyped Animal Crossing’s ability to impart a feeling of escape (Khan, 2020) and create opportunities for people to socialize online (Basu, 2020) — a far cry from the usual disparagement that games were addictive, or instigated youth violence.

It is not unusual for a game franchise to capture the public’s imagination. Only a few years earlier, when Nintendo and mobile powerhouse Niantic released Pokémon Go, the news was rife with tales of fans swarming public spaces and causing traffic jams as they chased down virtual creatures that were geolocated throughout the world. However, coverage during COVID-19 took a decidedly different tone. Business meetings were held in the shoot-’em-up action game Grand Theft Auto V (Segal, 2020); weddings (Garst, 2020), graduations (Anderson, 2020), and concerts transpired in sandbox games like Minecraft and Roblox; the shuttering of professional sports allowed for think pieces on the rise of competitive gaming (“The Hybrid Reality of No-Sports Sports TV,” 2020); and politicians like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar found their way onto the livestreaming platform Twitch to playAmong Us(Rivera, 2020). 

For the first six months of the pandemic, articles like these proliferated. Even though the fervor of coverage subsided, the stories have not. Post-lockdown, accounts about the rebranding of Facebook as Meta and its pivot to the metaverse (Newton, 2021) and the popularity of gaming communication tools like Discord (Browning, 2021b) abound, while the suspension of in-person teaching has led to endless debates about online alternatives. Virtual spaces lie at the margins of daily life and conversation.

Unexpectedly, and even as we rush back to in-person events, the COVID crisis has indelibly marked the public’s perception of digital games and virtual worlds. With game companies’ profits soaring (Palumbo, 2021), they are being hailed by news organizations as a vital industry and a force for communication. This is no quarantine-induced change of heart, but part of broader trends: Media companies likeVoxandThe Washington Posthave created game-related verticals (e.g., WashPostPR, 2018), while newsrooms have experimented with games and virtual/augmented reality tools for at least a decade. The coronavirus only deepened mainstream acceptance. Even Democratic National Convention organizers toyed with virtual conferences and campaign stops in games likeFortnite(Krawczyk, 2020). 

The boundaries between such spaces and widespread platforms like Zoom, livestreaming services like YouTube Live and Twitch, and even audio programs like Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces are imprecise; aren’t all of these “virtual worlds” in one way or another? Further, companies like Facebook (now Meta) and Amazon are vying for entry into a game market already dominated by tech brands like Microsoft and Sony, while Epic, the maker ofFortnite, is embroiled in lawsuits with the world’s largest company, Apple, arguing its game was aubiquitous social space. Put simply, it’s increasingly difficult to draw the lines where games and virtual worlds end, and other modes of sociality begin.

Therefore, this report considers the COVID-19 pandemic as an inflection point in the interrogation of virtual worlds, their coverage, and value to journalists in general. These digital realms dominate contemporary discussions around technology, and many unanswered questions persist about what we will do in them in our post-pandemic lives. 

The report is structured to tackle each major question. The introduction lays out a brief history of virtual worlds, their coverage, and their relationship to game journalism, which has been the locus for most reportage. It also details the report’s methods and data collection. The second chapter presents the results from a six-month study of virtual worlds’ coverage in the earliest months of the pandemic in the U.S., finding that even though they are portrayed as future-forward technology, most articles shed light on how virtual worlds and the communities that surround them are omnipresent in everyday life. However, this analysis is mainly used to introduce themes that are taken up in the next chapters, together with lessons garnered from interviews with the 21 journalists who wrote or were associated with those articles, and set forth their best practices on coverage of virtual worlds. The final question on the possibilities of virtual worlds as journalistic tools is explored in the fourth chapter. Finally, a short conclusion speculates on the future of virtual worlds and journalism.

For some readers, “virtual worlds” are old news. Wasn’t this topic popular in the early 2000s? Those readers are not completely wrong. They might be thinking of the hype around the expansive 2003 “game”Second Lifethat fascinated journalists and academics alike because it allowed the user to embody an avatar — from mirror images of themselves to anthropomorphized creatures — and fly through virtual lands constructed by players, as well as congregate with others and exchange funds for virtual objects. Media outlets like Reuters and CNN set up bureaus in the game, reporting not only on its currency’s exchange rate, but also how real activities reflected those in the virtual world (Brennen & de la Cerna, 2010). Additionally, an outpouring of articles and books described how in-game newspapers like theAlphaville Heraldissued daily PDF exposés on the robbery and death of players, virtual commerce, and online mafias and cyber-prostitution (Ludlow & Wallace, 2007). Many of the early tactics mentioned in this journalism, especially embedding oneself deeply into virtual communities, were echoed in my interviews almost two decades later.

Also present were the hallmarks and effects found with many emerging technologies, from telepresence (or co-locating in virtual spaces) (e.g.,Jin and Bolebruch, 2009)to a virtual currency that portends contemporary cryptocurrencies (e.g., Kaplan and Haenlein, 2009). As a consequence,Second Lifecommunications and communities underwent intense academic scrutiny (e.g., Boellstorff, 2015; Boellstorff et al., 2012; Bowers et al., 2010; Johnson, 2010; Milburn, 2015). Scholars particularly noted how much of the game’s daily media activity emulated that of the real world, with fashion and lifestyle columns, and — most relevant — coverage of current events in the virtual space. Altogether, a robust media ecosystem contributed to residents’ well-being and growth (Johnson, 2010). 

Researchers were intrigued by the differentiation between “virtual” and “material” worlds (York, 2009). They found that there was a quasi-adversarial relationship between traditional and virtual journalism inSecond Life, with real-world outlets tending to treat these spaces as mutually exclusive (Brennen & de la Cerna, 2010). However, as Tom Boellstorff (2015) observes in hisseminal bookon theSecond Lifecommunity, “It is in being virtual that we are humans: since it is human nature to experience life through the prism of culture” (p. 4). In other words, the virtual itself is not so much separate from the “real” world as the actual (p. 21), representing individual (and even humanity’s) potential. Put more plainly, interactions and communication in virtual spaces are just as real as any material activity.

 Furthermore, as implied in the opening, such distinctions seem to be crumbling in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Boundaries between virtual and “actual” worlds meld with the institution of government-mandated quarantines and lockdowns. More importantly, many of us seamlessly slip between virtual meetings, games, and other online activities. 

For another group of readers, the term “virtual world” may provoke the question of what exactly qualifies as virtual. Wasn’t it just a few years ago when most major newsrooms dabbled with virtual reality (VR), and even the staidNew York Timessent cardboard headsets to its subscribers (Wohlsen, 2015)? The Tow Center sponsored some vital research into this phenomenon, finding that while VR technology represented new modes of storytelling, it required reconfiguring news production and engendered significant burdens on crews who had to learn to operate 360º cameras and affiliated equipment (Aronson-Rath et al., 2015). Subsequent studies on VR and similar forms of immersive journalismidentified numerous key features and benefits, such as the ability to make one feel telepresence, or be transported to situations and places that would be inaccessible to the average viewer.VR headsets themselves have gone through a hype cycle of popularity as curiosity peaked and fell, while use cases are still being figured out. However, the idea that virtual tools and worlds provide new means of storytelling is worth underscoring, even if newsrooms have moved away from heavy investment in the technology. 

So, how exactly can “virtual worlds” be construed? One definition, born from early 2000s research, zeroes in on “A synchronous, persistent network of people, represented as avatars, facilitated by networked computers” (Bell, 2008, p. 2). However, as Carina Girvan (2018) asserts, virtual worlds represent a wide variety of environments and lack coherentclassification. By stressing their permanence, virtual worlds can represent any given space online where we congregate, mostly synchronously. Because these spaces remain persistent, we can return to them again and again, which evokes a real sense of “world.” Also, scale is a factor because “virtual worlds” or the “metaverse” imply vast expanses: endless interconnected digital space in which to navigate, as well as being (ideally) technically interoperable and standardized (Ratan and Lei, 2021). However, as those who profess that the metaverse is already here are quick to remind us (e.g.,Kessler, 2021; Macias et al., 2021), virtual worlds are not experienced as such, but are as regional as the material world, with their own topographies, geographies, neighborhoods, and cul-de-sacs. In practice, virtual worlds are a patchwork of diverse media. 

This report concentrates on some of the larger sectors: Online gaming, from massive multiplayer games like World of Warcraft to competitive gaming (esports) like League of Legends, may host hundreds of thousands of players at a time. The majority of Meta’s “metaverse” or virtual reality-based spaces are currently relegated to co-presenting business meetings; a closer approximation to the company’s sweeping rhetoric may be found in competitive programs like Second Life, its more modern incarnation Sansar, or the application VRChat. Outside of computer-generated images and avatars, Zoom and other virtual meeting software and livestreaming platforms like Twitch provide spaces for groups to communicate synchronously. Games, virtual reality, and livestreaming are not only tangible ways to grasp what virtual worlds are, but also act as case studies in the next chapter. Each provides spaces for theexperience of synchronous presence and socialization, colocation in an immersive environment, and, to some degree, the ability to modify one’s appearance or embody an avatar. 

Importantly for journalists, people congregate, discuss, and make news in these virtual worlds, which have become as indispensable as taverns and coffee shops, especially at a time when physical gatherings are more difficult and/or dangerous. But such spaces have their own history, practices, economies, and customs that make simply parachuting into them hazardous for gathering the best information. Newsmakers need to acquaint themselves with platforms and services hosting virtual worlds, and spend time in them, to render meaningful work. They also require new skills and tools to navigate, and suggest potential new modalities for reportage. TheAlphaville HeraldorSecond Life Gazette, delivered digitally to residents daily, point to novel means of news engagement in contemporary corollaries like Twitch and Discord,which will only continue to normalize as they are adopted by the broader public. 

While virtual worlds may be a curiosity for most reporters, they are part of everyday life for game journalists. Along with reviewers and critics, what my interviewees called the endemic press, or outlets whose focus is gaming and tech, has been at the forefront of covering the nitty-gritty of digital spaces for years. I found these writers had the strongest opinions about virtual worlds and how they should be covered. In fact, it was not only them who wrote most of the articles analyzed in this report, but also who responded to requests for interviews. This makes intuitive sense: As in other forms of lifestyle (not to mention technology) journalism, game writers not only follow virtual spaces more closely than their hard news peers but also must be atthe forefront of industry advances, products, and intrigue. When a new game or update is released, an esports tournament occurs, or something dramatic happens to a player, it is precisely this group who is tasked with informing fans. 

However, some key points of tension are unique to the game beat. Above all, the industry is incredibly tight-lipped, often controlling the arteries of access to a degree that far outpaces other entertainment formats. This often means that game writers are heavily reliant on their connections, which can impact their writing and livelihood. Historically, gaming publications were primarily promotional, and are partly responsible for creating an insular language and perception of the medium. While this has changed significantly over the last decade, sustaining staff is difficult, and many outlets count on eager freelancers to produce much of what is printed. The result is occupational precarity; writers must swing constantly between publications, and many interviewees left journalism altogether since the pandemic began, sometimes for positions within the industry itself. Even when virtual worlds are covered correctly, writers simply may lack the career stability to continue doing meaningful work, and their circumstances breed a singular form of skepticism that shades perceptions about virtual worlds. They are difficult to apprehend, either because mainstream outlets have not invested in coverage, or endemic websites are too engrossed in the minutiae of specific games. In other words, the occupational and structural norms of game journalism, while to a degree outside of the scope of this specific report, color much of the commentary and perspective of the findings. 

In order to better comprehend how journalists investigated virtual worlds in the midst of the pandemic, we adopted a case study approach. This “qualitative inquiry” is used for “explanatory,interpretive, or descriptive aims” (Harrison et al., 2017) to produce a contextual narrative. Following similar studies (e.g., Xie et al., 2021), we analyzed three disciplined configurative cases that explicitly revolved around my definition of virtual worlds. Case studies can be considered “data outcroppings” (Luker, 2009, p. 103) that may indeed represent broader “social phenomen[a] of interest” (Petre et al., 2019), but also are particularly useful for looking into “neglected areas” (George & Bennett, 2005, p. 74) of theory and scholarship such as this one. 

We chose three cases for a variety of reasons. First, having spent more than five years studying the intersections of games and journalism, I was well versed in the issues surrounding virtual worlds, akin to what anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1998) described as “deep hanging out.” Each, furthermore, represented broader phenomena in virtual worlds. Therefore, the team settled on games, virtual reality, and the livestreaming service Twitch as the center of our studies and, following similar work (e.g., Petre et al., 2019), constructed our narratives through reportage on each subject. 

To collect data, the research team used Google News as an archival site to search for appropriate terms for each case. Specifically, we searched the keywords “video games,” “board games,” “augmented reality,” “virtual reality,” and “Twitch,” along with key pandemic terms “COVID-19” and “coronavirus.” Each was searched in tandem (e.g., “coronavirus” AND “video games”) to produce our sample. We supplemented our initial database with targeted searches on key game journalism websites including The Verge, Kotaku, IGN, and Polygon. While these sites are indexed by Google, we recognized their prominence in reporting on these subjects and thus looked beyond our initial terms for any relevant media on some specific titles (e.g.,Animal Crossing) and platforms (e.g., Twitch), as well as a number of articles discovered through our own media consumption during the time period. 

Our research period extended from April 1 to September 1, 2020. Research assistants went through each article and removed any deemed irrelevant or lacking significant relevance for the case study topics. This resulted in a final sample of 379 articles. We concede that not every article we collected was focused on the pandemic, and that this is not an exhaustive list, but believe it produced a suitable sample to identify common themes and discourses surrounding the subject matter, and, more importantly, a sample that is trustworthy, which is the goal of such qualitative research (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).

During and after data collection, at least one researcher reviewed each article and qualitatively coded it for relevant themes (e.g., “Twitch as opportunity,” “social connection”) using an inductive approach that generated specific themes through a close reading of each text. The team met and communicated regularly to discuss themes, as is common with the approach (Nowell et al., 2017). Ultimately, subthemes were organized into key findings. These themes were meant, to a degree, to be introductory, providing a map of the current state of virtual worlds coverage and acting as a foundation for interview recruitment and question generation.  

Based on the articles, I assembled a core list of interviewees for the next phase of research: semi-structured interviews to better glean how and why journalists approach their coverage of virtual worlds. From this list, I requested meetings with those journalists who had written most in the dataset (10 articles at most) to those who wrote least (1 article). I then used snowball sampling to finalize a list of interviewees. In total, I interviewed 21 journalists from more endemic esports sites (Dexerto) to institutional mainstream newspapers (Washington Post), alongside freelancers and former journalists. In the end, the selection represented a broad swath of outlets, with roughly 20 percent from game publications (e.g., Polygon,Dot Esports), 20 percent from new media outlets (e.g.,Inc, Vox), around 25 percent from legacy media (e.g.,Washington Post), 10 percent from “tech” outlets (e.g., TechCrunch, CNET), and approximately 25 percent independent or former journalists. Just one third of the writers were female and about 75 percent were White, following the uneven level of representation in this mode of reporting. Participants were given the option of anonymity, and are only identified with their consent and/or request to remain on the record.

Interviews lasted between 30 and 90 minutes. Following transcription, they were coded for common themes, a convention of grounded theory. Data was retheorized during the interview process as I amended questions, originally derived in part from themes arising from the articles, and based on previous answers. This second set of research produced a robust dataset showcasing not just common themes on how best to cover virtual worlds, but opinions about the game and tech industries and the business of journalism. 

For the sake of clarity, quotes in this report were condensed where necessary; ellipses were only included if there is significant distance between statements. In total, the report offers a vital picture of virtual-worlds coverage and how it has changed, as many interviewees have switched positions and occupations since they wrote the original articles in the dataset. The next chapter will focus on the themes derived from those original stories.

In the first days of pandemic lockdowns, a spotlight momentarily shone on games and virtual worlds. “I think people were inside, and everyone started playing video games,” mused independent journalist Bijan Stephen. “It’s funny, because I think it put us all sort of closer in time to Gen Z than people necessarily realized. Because for them, games are just part of culture.” Journalists jumped at the opportunity to grasp how people were staying happy and sane at home. Whether it was highlighting politicians playingAmong Uson Twitch or concerts given inFortnite, the stories of communal diversion were obvious and simple to tell. As Stephen suggests, the effect on popular culture has endured. Platforms like Twitch have only grown in popularity, with influencers streaming activities from political commentary (e.g., Hasan Piker) to chess matches (D’Anastasio, 2020). So what themes germinated in this moment of intense media scrutiny that can inform future coverage?

This chapter presents three case studies:Animal Crossing: New Horizonsas an emblematic video game/virtual world of the pandemic moment; the uptick of Twitch usage during quarantine; and views of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). Each consists of a short anecdote describing the case—be it a specific title, platform, or technology—and summarizing journalistic activity during the first months of the pandemic. 

Three key themes also emerged from the entirety of coverage and are explained after the case study descriptions: a focus on the ubiquity of gaming; the framing of virtual worlds as futuristic technology; and the emphasis on online communities. These findings mark the state of virtual worlds as we enter a more endemic phase of COVID-19 amid shifting patterns of online engagement. While the report’s findings provide a useful snapshot of trends in coverage, including how users and anticipation of the technology’s future drive stories, they also demonstrate how reportage is still very much nascent, necessitating the more expansive lessons that are derived from the interviews and presented in subsequent chapters.

The serendipity ofAnimal Crossing: New Horizonsand the COVID-19 pandemic was not touted in much of the coverage surrounding the game. Part of the long-establishedAnimal Crossingseries inaugurated for the Nintendo 64 console twenty years earlier, the fifth installment had been in the works since at least 2012. While initially planned for a 2019 release, delays moved distribution in the U.S. to March 20, 2020, just as states began to enforce lockdowns, and the game was even marketed as a way to find escape as the pandemic ripped through the populace (Webster, 2020). 

The actual game activities are fairly mundane. Like many of its social simulation competitors,Animal Crossing’s primary mission is to provide players with tools to build and tend to their small village. Hardly a new conceit, institutional outlets likeThe New York Timesdubbed it “the Game for the Coronavirus Moment,” paraphrasing one fan who said it offered “a haven and can give players a feeling of empowerment and community, particularly at a moment when many are being told to stay home” (Khan, 2020). While theTimesstressed the game’s positive message and aesthetic, numerous newsmakers looked into how “ordinary” activities in the real world moved intoAnimal Crossing.The Washington Post’s Launcher vertical recounted weddings that occurred in the game (Garst, 2020); academic uses (Leporati, 2020); economics (Tan & Fox, 2020); election-year civic activities like Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s virtual meetings with constituents (Park, 2020c); and celebrity culture, with a series of “visits” to popular musicians’ and entertainers’ islands (e.g., Sommerfeld, 2020). ThePostwasn’t alone in this coverage.The Guardianfeatured a piece on dating and romance in the game (Paul, 2020); The Verge noted how the Detroit Lions used it to publish their schedule (Lyles, 2020); and others reviewed its fashions (Trebay, 2020). 

For a few months, seemingly the whole world had set up home inAnimal Crossing. And while focus on the specific title hit fever pitch, it was part of a larger constellation of coverage that examined attempts to perform everyday activities in other games likeMinecraft(e.g., BBC News, 2020).

As much asAnimal Crossingseemed a haven for everyday pursuits, there was surprisingly little negative coverage. Even Gita Jackson’s (2020) criticism zeroed in on players’ attitudes toward the game, rather than the content itself. Yes, concerns were voiced, especially about playing the virtual stock market, but characterized as “dark(ish)” (Morris, 2020). Where objections may previously have extended to somewhat standard dystopian frames about the medium, like excessive screen time, addiction, or violence (Williams, 2003), the coverage was decidedly positive. Similarly, while the game’s history was recognized (theTimesarticle briefly mentions that this is the game’s first console release in 19 years), little was written of its connection to a longer tradition, characters, or norms. Simply,Animal Crossing: New Horizonswas positioned as a game of the day, rather than the latest iteration in a long stream of hits by parent company Nintendo.

Interest in the livestreaming platform Twitch in many ways parallels the story ofAnimal Crossing: New Horizons. Founded in 2011, the service caught the eye of newsmakers after its acquisition by tech behemoth Amazon in 2014. Twitch shares some commonalities with its livestreaming counterparts — live video feeds accompanied by a “Chat” of viewer commentary — but particularly differs in terms of economics (Johnson and Woodcock, 2019) and target audience. While it hosts IRL channels,the majority of Twitch’s content consists of influencers and streamers playing through digital games while commenting and responding to their audiences in real time. 

Perhaps because of this backdrop, coverage of the platform centered on the media professionals and figures who flocked to it. Many articles discussed, for instance, musicians performing live concerts on Twitch, hoping to connect with fans while entertainment venues went dark (Coates, 2020). Professional athletes and teams also used it to, among other things, play simulation versions of their sport of choice. The National Hockey League started conducting games inNHL 20and broadcasting them through Twitch, which was credited as a “lifeline” (Wyshynski, 2020) to the industry. To some degree, these groups congregating on the platform, along with more esoteric games like chess (D’Anastasio, 2020), highlight the pressure on arts and entertainment to find new modalities to cope with the effects of the pandemic. Twitch was just one of many services to which these groups resorted in order to stay afloat and remain in the public eye.Varietyfeatured a story of drag queens’ move from traditional shows to online performances, with queer businesses featured during ad breaks. The drag queens enthused about the benefits of the new format, specifically room for more video art (Framke, 2020). Twitch’s unique opportunities and features were emblematic of a general warming by entertainment industries to livestreaming.

Shortly after this initial spurt of enthusiasm, mainstream media coverage began to more closely scrutinize the platform. Much analysis revolved around Twitch’s function as a fundraising tool: comedians (CBS Los Angeles, 2020) and even middle schools (Lubrano, 2020) made appeals on it for emergency relief, or donations to medical staff. A handful of articles delved into monetization and legal issues: Dani Deahl (2020a, 2020b) published a few articles about musicians receiving affiliate status to more easily monetize their performances. Similarly, Shawn Reynaldo (2020) disclosed DJs’ difficulties with copyright laws during streams. Other stories explored the communities forming on Twitch, ranging from athletes, musicians, and drag queens to local zoos (Nelson, 2020), bar trivia enthusiasts (Beckman, 2020), and Black Lives Matter protesters (Browning, 2020a). Unreported in these articles were longstanding cultural issues like harassment or trolling, which certainly received coverage according to my interviewees, but were at odds with concerns provoked by the pandemic. For instance, only a couple of corpus articles discussed far-right groups gathering on Twitch (e.g., Bergengruen, 2020). As withAnimal Crossing, there was less institutional knowledge about the service’s history, with journalists instead preferring to dwell on current opportunities. 

While specific platforms like Twitch and games likeAnimal Crossingseemed to fit well within the purview of a feature-length article, VR and AR were too large in scope or too far removed from easy use for significant coverage. There were a handful of think pieces about VR’s potential. One fromForbes Indiadescribed how the technology will give customers the ability to “experience products before they buy [them] and in large part will replace the need for traditional retail stores and showrooms” (Kishore, 2020). This type of article was incongruous in our corpus. While enthusiast outlets like Road to VR and UploadVR continued to cover the nuts and bolts of the technology and the endemic press wrote about minor instances of VR use by the military (Sprigg, 2020) or photographers (Taylor, 2020), mainstream outlets eschewed such stories.

The one area in which VR technology popped up with any frequency involved investment. Such news emanated primarily from press releases or reports, pointing to market growth in the midst of the pandemic. A few remarked that funding had returned to some of the highest numbers since before VR’s commercial release (Merel, 2020) or that it was seeing strong capitalization generally. All point to the technology’s potential future benefits, not current ones. 

However, the subject of virtual spaces and the metaverse outside of VR/AR head-mounted displays (HMDs) was more robust. Although Facebook would commit heavily to the concept of the metaverse a year later, at this time Epic was invoking the term in relation to its gameFortnite. There was a disconnect between the use of headsets and these debates. This is particularly ironic, given the outlays major newsrooms had made in VR a few years earlier. Beyond a number of commendable experiments primarily for the smartphone, for instanceThe New York Times’ simulation of COVID-19 droplet spread (Parshina-Kottas et al., 2020), the technology sat very much on a back burner, while interest in games surged. One notable exception was an in-depth piece byThe Washington Post’s Gene Park (2020b), who in the Launcher vertical not only detailed investment in VR technology, but addressed advancements propelled by the pandemic and how such work was building toward metaverses.

Three key themes emerged from these cases: the ubiquity of games in everyday life, their frame as future technology, and a distinct focus on communities using specific virtual worlds and affiliated platforms during the pandemic. Most coverage, to varying degrees, demonstrated how virtual worlds were havens for everyday activities. It is unsurprising that such stories mushroomed as journalists themselves were forced to move their lives and professional practices online. At the same time, the ease with which so many types of digital spaces were embraced speaks to the relevancy and longevity of the topic. COVID-19 provided a scenario for stories already being told, from reframing the importance of games to adopting immersive technologies. The following themes, therefore, should not merely be seen as responses to coronavirus panic, but rather as steady steps in the progression of virtual world and tech coverage.

Theme 1: The Ubiquity of Games in Everyday Life

One major theme to emerge in our study centered on the pervasiveness of games. They became a hub for socializing in part because of their accessibility; most homes already contained a console or computer. The pandemic was portrayed as a boon for producers and users because gaming offered established spaces to comfortably and safely communicate. One article fromUSA Todayhighlighted not only the benefits of connecting “socially with friends and family while at home,” but also reiterated that most devices and smartphones have no shortage of multiplayer modes of engaging online (Snider, 2020). Producers (studios and publishers) were described as growing and resistant to the period’s economic turmoil; for instance, aNew York Postarticle highlighted how sports gambling moved to simulation titles likeFIFAandNBA2K(Vega, 2020). Despite disputed drawbacks like addiction, games were repeatedly portrayed as a solid means for finding solace. In the same paragraph, an article inTimewarned that “Playing in moderation is key,” citing the WHO’s classification of “gaming disorder,” then reassured that “[r]ather than rue this pandemic-driven video game and screen time boom, research suggests we should be cheering it” (Gregory, 2020).

Twitch, not quite as ubiquitous but equally accessible, attracted novel communities. The results are humanizing stories of finding and adapting to virtual environments. AChicago Tribunearticle on the growth of livestreaming music quoted one converted naysayer that when casting on Twitch is “done right, it actually keeps the community together. … It can actually be an extension of the authentic community experience we want here” (Lukach, 2020). In contrast, virtual and augmented reality devices may have inhibited these feelings because of a lack of access and difficulty of use. While there was reporting on the increased financial backing of the technology, the same type of personal stories associated with the other cases were hardly present. The difference is instructive, particularly when considering emergent concepts like the metaverse: options proposed by companies like Meta without the same level of accessibility will not generate the sizable participation, or enthusiasm, of a popular game, which lessened anxiety and provided (much needed) escape from the pandemic.

The attention to potential investment in VR/AR indicates another theme: Virtual worlds will be lucrative and vital in the near future. Not only were there deep investigative pieces like the one written by Park, but even a trade source predicted immersive technologies would be a “critical factor” in reimagining the “retail experience” (Browne, 2020). Articles discuss the use of video games such asAnimal Crossingand future tools and tech like the metaverse as alternatives to the humdrum routines conducted on Zoom for work. Virtual worlds were viewed as more entertaining accessories that would proliferate and connect socially distanced individuals. This frame counterbalances the singularity of the moment: The once-in-a-century pandemic necessitated innovations in how we convene and communicate, but there is a sense of inevitability that tinges the coverage. Taylor Hatmaker (2020) of TechCrunch asserted that the pandemic led people to think of games as social platforms, an idea that “seems to be resonating right now, even among the kinds of people who wouldn’t identify as gamers. That last bit is important.” In affirmation, Twitch’s growth skyrocketed, with reports of 10 and 20 percent increases in viewership each week (e.g., Shaw and Kharif, 2020; Stephen, 2020). Virtual worlds contained tools to help surmount issues stemming from the pandemic, like how to achieve social or professional cohesion outside institutional congregate physical settings. Business reporter David Segal(2020)recounted that executives sought to avoid Zoom fatigue even back in July 2020 by meeting and bonding in games: “The goal is to break up a day that is crammed with get-togethers that generally look, sound, and feel identical.” Such concerns (and experiments) have only escalated in the years since, particularly as students, offices, and government agencies wrestle with sporadic closures and reopenings. There is certainly a need for technological improvement, with games and other modes of entertainment as potential remedies.

Another theme revolves around those who inhabit virtual worlds. InAnimal Crossing, a wide variety of communities came together to socialize and partake in everyday activities online. Kari Paul (2020) drafted a fantastic set of human-interest stories about the limits of these communities, including a dominatrix adapting and replicating their in-person work to the game, and an ad-hoc talk show set up and streamed through Twitch. Beyond this, stories included the construction of a virtual university campus (Shaw, 2020) and LGBT+ gamers in Mexico participating in a virtual soccer tournament (Lopez, 2020). 

Twitch also contributed to community formation. That so many diverse groups thrived on the platform attested to its ability to provide comfort and support. One article from the first days of the pandemic quotes a Twitch content creator: “I feel my job … right now is to help facilitate digital friend groups, look after my community, and make sure people know they aren’t alone” (Wilde, 2020). Another attributes the service’s popularity to the “sense of community and personal connection these lo-fi videos create” (Berman, 2020). Additionally, the platform itself was credited for supportive features: an endemic outlet, IGN, discussing how athletes and fans adopted Twitch, called it an expression of empathy: “[W]e watch our favorite streamers out of strange, tender solidarity; the feeling that you would’ve connected with them in any other context — co-workers, schoolmates, or just a brief conversation in line for the bathroom” (Winkie, 2020). Articles also addressed the cultural, economic, and occupational impact (Ingham, 2020; Muldofsky et al., 2020). Fundraising was a popular topic early in the pandemic (e.g., Haasch, 2020), but copyright and content distribution concerns (e.g., Suciu, 2020; Warren, 2020b) were voiced along with a steady hum about platform growth and underwriting (e.g., Perez, 2020). In fact, compared to the other case studies, it is interesting that scrutiny of Twitch’s attributes deepened throughout the months we assessed. 

Community focus was less apparent in the virtual and augmented reality content we collected, which is understandable given the technology’s comparative lack of accessibility. A few related stories appeared. The MinnesotaStar Tribuneprofiled digital artists and their exhibits and galleries, quoting a virtual-museum organizer: “We’re bringing people together spatially. … Not like on Zoom, when you are looking through a screen and still alone in your space” (Eler, 2020). However, examples like these were few and far between compared to games and livestreaming.

At the same time, we noted several absent themes across all case studies. Much of the coverage was positive; there were simply fewer articles about the negative impact of virtual worlds. We expected to find stories regarding personal struggles, infrastructure, infringement of privacy, and the escalating cost or labor in maintaining such spaces, but such issues did not feature prominently in our corpus. Notably, even while games and VR seemed to avoid these topics of conversations, they were being levied elsewhere. For instance, such concerns were expressed about Zoom because of its widespread usage (Lima, 2020; Warren, 2020a). It is ironic that this startup, which was thrust into the public spotlight due to COVID, was put under a microscope while longstanding publishers like Activision-Blizzard, which needed to deal with similar criticisms for its massive multiplayer gameWorld of Warcraft,received comparatively little examination. 

Furthermore, few journalists in the stories we analyzed used or mingled in virtual worlds themselves. While Seth Sommerfeld visited a few celebrity islands inAnimal Crossing, there was not a surge of mainstream writers adopting these platforms — in fact theWashington Postshuttered its Twitch channel prior to the pandemic, during the first impeachment of then-president Donald Trump.Instead, reporters focused on more classic forms of storytelling.

Clearly, the case studies onAnimal Crossing: New Horizons,Twitch, and VR/AR illustrate how virtual worlds grabbed the limelight as a propitious means by which to congregate and commune. While the themes that emerged from our analysis found the ubiquity of digital games in coverage, the focus on virtual worlds as a technology of the future, and the production of generally community-driven stories, a few broader generalities appeared. 

Online spaces were treated as an (often welcome) novelty. Despite their ubiquity, and as many use cases revealed throughout our corpus, much of the reporting was imbued with wonder. In appraising the amount of time and money spent online, a writer forForbesdescribed the £100 spent on games per month by British citizens as “whopping” (Gardner, 2020). The author of aMIT Technology Reviewarticle similarly stated: “These games are more than escapist entertainment, though; they’re helping to reshape how we connect in a future where social distancing might become the norm. Video games are letting people chat, connect, and meet new people”(Basu, 2020). Virtual worlds, livestreaming, and the metaverse are hardly new, but these terms have been in the vernacular for decades. They may be framed as novel because of their complexity. With so many platforms, corporations, and communities involved, few reporters have the interest or time required to provide comprehensive coverage. 

A case in point is Twitch, whose platform and business model is shaped by community-driven expectations, formal features, leading-edge technology, ethical codes, games that streamers play — which themselves can be multiplayer virtual worlds — and the aspirations of its parent company, Amazon, to gain a foothold in the gaming ecosystem (Browne, 2020). Additionally, limitations to access, including expensive and exclusive hardware and software, preclude marginalized communities, an issue that has long plagued the industry and preoccupied academics.However, these restrictions also hinder those writers who strive to reach the broadest possible audience.

Nevertheless, certain stories coalesced in this moment, particularly those about people. By assuming the human-interest angle, reporters circumvented some of the thornier issues surrounding games and tapped into more universal emotions during a period of great tribulation, fear, isolation, and anxiety. It also allowed journalists to evade conventional tropes surrounding gaming — such as worries about addiction or instigating violence. Especially since these frames are perpetually debated (e.g., McKernan, 2013; Perreault and Vos, 2020; Williams, 2003), those used during the pandemic are refreshing, even if they represent only a fraction of the larger conversations surrounding virtual worlds. 

At the same time, the case studies provide only a partial overview — bound by the deep worries of quarantine and the pandemic — of what writing about virtual worlds looks like. The themes discovered here may point to some norms around coverage, driven by classic frames of the profession surrounding game beats, important figures, and of course newsworthy events like COVID-19. What is missing is how this fits into both the long-term approach to reporting about virtual worlds and the (often shifting) decisions writers make about the subject over time. The next chapter presents lessons learned from the authors of these articles and probes their approaches to the subject and the broader trends in coverage they spearheaded.

The previous section presented an overview of key themes from our sample of news coverage about virtual worlds during the onset of the pandemic. However, such reporting did not exist in a vacuum: game and tech journalism have blossomed since the early 2000s (Ananny, 2020). The next two chapters shift from text analysis of the articles to interviews with the journalists who wrote them. Through long-form interviews I was able to get a deeper understanding as to what motivated their writing and specifically how they approached coverage and use of virtual worlds and the metaverse. 

This chapter looks at the present and future direction of coverage through conversations with those who wrote or were connected to the articles in the previous sections. For many, digital cultures and spaces were quotidian, but growing. Noah Smith, a regular contributor on games and esports forThe Washington Postand other outlets, recalled how he had recently been invited to a medical conference looking at the metaverse, which he said reflected the “interdisciplinary nature of this industry and where it’s [gaming/the metaverse] going.” Another mainstream tech reporter told me: “We now fully realize that what happens on the internet spills over into whatever you want to call the real world. I think January 6 was the best example of that, in which people who clearly live their lives online almost all the time and are getting fed bad information took some very real-world action.” 

This acceptance is indicative of the type of reporters interviewed. Almost all of them covered games in one way or another, either as part of a tech beat or working for a more endemic outlet. The position of game journalists is uniquely ambivalent (Foxman and Nieborg, 2016); the usual professional boundaries found in other forms of media coverage exist to a lesser degree, with many writers seamlessly moving between reporting, reviewing, and critiquing the medium. While initially publications were owned by gaming companies (e.g.,Nintendo Power), the industry continues to tightly control access to its products, which shapes coverage and exacerbates freelancers’ stress.Many of those with whom I spoke moved fluidly in and out of different positions—their section was shuttered; they spent some time working within communications for a gaming or tech company; or they bolstered writing their columns with podcasting and other forms of media production. To some degree, such instability undermines the occupational viability of virtual-world journalists, and reinforces a situation where turnover is high and institutional memory is lacking. It also breeds animosity, both for the scant few who are able to report about this subject full time, and those who do not adhere to the specific type of writing deemed legitimate for this type of reportage. Endemic and tech writers claimed that their mainstream equivalents suffered from “gee whiz” attitudes to the subject, but also felt that successful niche outlets were just producing clickbait. Still, if there is a bright side to this complex situation, it is that these writers possessed vast and varied perspectives. 

The following lessons span those who wrote for some of the most mainstream institutions like (but not necessarily including)The Washington PostandNew York Timesto outlets like Dexerto and Polygon that specialize in esports and games respectively, not to mention independent journalists aiming to build their own personal brand. 

From this group, the following lessons about the state of virtual worlds and game coverage evolved:

These points are interrelated: Game beats, for instance, are a natural fit for certain members of the endemic media. Also, each reveals the mindset of those already invested in virtual worlds coverage. However, given their backgrounds, I conclude by discussing a few concerns that were excluded from interviews but worth consideration despite their omission.

One problem when deciding how to write about virtual worlds is how much to actually explain what’s going on. Many games are expansive; characters in major studio AAA titles likeRed Dead Redemption 2orThe Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wildtraverse hundreds of miles of sweeping vistas. However, there are many more nuances: How many features of gameplay in esports likeLeague of Legendsneed to be spelled out to the newcomer? How about the thousands of outfits and skins inFortniteorAnimal Crossing? Such quandaries plague mainstream coverage of blockbuster games. 

An opinion article by Peter Suderman (2018) inThe New York Timesabout the blockbuster titleRed Dead Redemption 2drew explicit connections between the budget of the game and that of cinema. Toward the middle of the piece, he surmises, “So the perception is that video games don’t really matter, because they have nothing — or at least nothing important — to say.” He then reminds readers, “But the best games reveal a mass cultural medium that has come fully into its own, artistically flourishing in ways that resemble the movie industry during its 20th-century peak and television over the past 20 years.” Statements like this assume that, especially for older players or non-gamers, such a justification is necessary for this form of entertainment. 

For some mainstream outlets, however, this issue seems to be fading. “I don’t think you’re going to get as many chuckles at a pitch meeting if you bring up video games,” one reporter for a major national news outlet told me, adding later, “I definitely think you’re seeing stories that respect it as a legitimate culture and pastime that has highbrow things, lowbrow things, middlebrow things, problematic parts of the culture, good parts of the culture.” 

In some ways, the pandemic freed virtual-worlds coverage by recognizing that we all participate to some degree. According to Bijan Stephen, the pandemic “was one of those things where everybody was playing” games. “It was a cultural event” that gave permission to those “who didn’t want to admit to themselves that playing games was fun” to actually embrace the pastime. This can be seen as a somewhat significant leap in the legitimization, if temporary (as explained below), of the medium due to the pandemic.Reporters presumed that most readers had some connection to games. If they did not play themselves, maybe they had watched their children playing online with friends during the darkest days of quarantine. This also meant writers could have less expertise and assume their audience would have about as much interest and understanding of the topic as they did. 

Still, journalists had to tread a fine line. Too little familiarity raised issues of treating virtual worlds as foreign objects. Ian Sherr, technology editor at CNET, warned, “If you’re parachuting into” games and “sticking out like a sore thumb,” then if you write from that point of view “you’re probably not going to come off very well.” A games and technology investigativewriter also suggested, “In the early 2000s, journalists or mainstream publications were known to parachute inside of virtual worlds, includingSecond Life, and report on scandalous goings-on inside of these games. That included everything from ERP — erotic roleplay — to child sex rings.” Consequently, frequent users of such games were “quite reticent to speak with reporters for a long time after that.” 

Too much familiarity, however, entailed hours of unpaid labor playing through games. A happy medium was for writers to be well acquainted with established titles, especially as studios update successful works rather than produce sequels, and charge monthly subscriptions or for add-ons, objects, skins, and clothing (e.g., “free-to-play”)to make money. Thus having experience with a title likeLeague of Legends,which is more than a decade old, could serve writers better in the long run compared to hunting down the next and best independently made (indie) game, which might only inspire fleeting interest. 

Part of the shift in perspective was a cultural response. The gamer identity represents a narrow and somewhat exclusionary audience that does not match the mainstream public to which most of the reporters either aspired or actually wrote. For the sake of inclusivity, writers were interested in games that engaged a majority of players. However, some cases warranted more explicit coverage, such as competitive gaming or esports. Like their real-world counterparts, esports writing demands a full grasp of all facets of the game: player stats, changes to gameplay, title-specific language, and even team drama. While this type of coverage may be standard for outlets that thrive on the daily goings-on in leagues, it is anomalous in most mainstream venues: “I’m not reporting on who wins a match,” Noah Smith said, noting that he would be more likelyto look at “Activision being sued in federal court or state court.” He then asked rhetorically, “What’s going on? What’s the analysis? What are publishers doing to combat racism online? I guess you could call it enterprise stories, more investigative.” 

Smith went on to explain that the remit for his writing had changed. Whereas stories about investment in esports might have made the front page a few years ago, more analytical works currently occupied a lower bar. Kellen Browning ofThe New York Timessaid contemporary game coverage “allows you to get a little more granular because you don’t need to defend just the fact that you’re writing about this topic” — another moment of legitimization spurred by the pandemic. Other respondents suggested that general audiences attuned to popular culture would appreciate these types of stories. 

Overexplaining games was also discouraged. A former journalist, who wrote mostly for trade publications, argued, “If you have 1,000 words, and you have to spend 250 of them explaining what Twitch is every single time you write about it, that’s very limiting.” He also thought “the biggest change” would be when writers could write the word Twitch and “assume the reader understands, at least generally, what that platform is and what it does. It allows you to talk more about how it’s actually being impacted and how it’s changing, which I think makes for better coverage.” 

Another correspondent at a mainstream outlet attributed this to a general trend in journalism, which had tried to get away from the outsider “gawking” viewpoint: “We should have people who are a little more in the know in these communities, reporting on them, and that’s true, I think of gaming, but also race, policing, communities, things like that.” Ultimately, respondents’ assumptions about gaming knowledge underscore a desire to discuss players and what they chose to do in virtual worlds over specific products and platforms. 

In lieu of telling stories about virtual worlds themselves, journalists overwhelmingly, and in alignment with the case studies findings, advocated concentrating on who was using virtual worlds and how. As Seth Schiesel, former game writer forThe New York Times, put it, the “software product is actually a smaller part of the experience. But so much of what actually constitutes the experience lies in the human engagement.” For him, this was unique to games coverage: “There are no stories about the [art] consumers, right? … Classical music: there aren’t any stories about the audience hardly, right? … There aren’t stories about people who read books, right?” He concluded, “But with gaming, it is different. You have an opportunity to tell stories that aren’t just about the product — software — itself, but also about the human stories that emerge in that context.” At the same time, Schiesel’s outlook is indicative of larger industry repositioning. Quite a few of the reporters came from or dealt with esports outlets where reportage about the inner workings of teams and fans was normal. Jacob Wolf, Dot Esports’ chief reporter and investigative lead at the time of these interviews, described his site as a “daily digest” of news: “If something happened relevant [to esports], it’s likely on our website.” But the reason for such breadth of coverage was also practical: “I think that generally people don’t read that kind of coverage as much as they do in traditional sports, and reading recaps, etc, because of the ability to access VODs [Video on Demand]. The way that streaming rights work, media rights work in esports differently from traditional sports.” Dot Esports anticipated and expanded on everything regarding competitive gaming to satisfy the consumer base. 

The industry itself is also facing increased scrutiny. During the period of my study, a number of scandals erupted, from the working conditions of employees at publishers like Activision-Blizzard (e.g., Grind et al., 2021) to Twitch closing Donald Trump’s accounts in the wake of the January 6 riots (e.g., Chalk, 2021). Reporters continue to scope out the working conditions and attitudes of those involved in games production. Schiesel, reflecting on his decades-long career covering games, stated: “There’s much more forthright coverage of how games get made. And the relationship between management and labor. And there’s definitely much more understanding of the rigors of game development, from a human perspective.” He added, “You see more coverage of the potential downsides. And potential elements of toxicity or antisocial behavior that can happen online.” Later, he reiterated that he saw this coverage broadening out “beyond just reviews of specific products. To really looking at the social, cultural aspects of gaming, which is entirely appropriate, because games are how people communicate and socialize now, and going forward.” 

Given their ubiquity, it was easy to find interesting stories of the public’s involvement in virtual worlds. Writers proudly referenced their work about specific communities and people: Wolf described his beat as “sexual abuse, fraud, and millionaires and billionaires,” citing an example of a scam artist who tried to bilk $42 million from people through competitive gaming. Another writer mentioned interrogating the life of music makers on Twitch. Others touted stories on older streamers or celebrities who broadcast content. There were those like Willie Nelson, who reached out toIncreporter Amrita Khalid to tell her that it “became a way for more artists to actually perform, and it didn’t really matter whether they were doing it for profit or not, like some of them were just doing it to work and for exposure.” 

By and large, interviewees stressed that much of contemporary culture had moved into these spaces and thus deserved this type of exposure. Mike Kent, co-founder of Dexerto, concurred: “I think the general consensus about gaming has changed a lot. You’ve got people like Henry Cavill, Superman, he’s coming out and saying that PC is better than PS4 and he’s this six-foot-four jacked movie star. You’ve got all these sports stars who are now really coming into the spotlight. They’re all gamers because they’ve all grown up playing games.” He concluded that “gaming has become part of society.”

Celebrity profiles also extended to longstanding game streamers who are household names. As Blake Hester ofGame Informerflippantly predicted: “I feel like when the history books are written, [streamers] PewDiePie and Ninja are going to have done more for the mainstreamification of video games than Shigeru Miyamoto [famed video game designer] ever did. And that’s probably not true. But you know what I’m saying?” FormerInsiderandNewsweekreporter Steven Asarch speculated: “The space between gamer and influencer is really, really faded and really doesn’t exist anymore. Like I wouldn’t qualify xQcas a gaming streamer, I would [qualify] him as a variety streamer who also sometimes plays games.” Most striking in these examples is the convergence of games, virtual, and other online spaces. 

Cultural issues surrounding race, gender, and politics not only persist online but also seamlessly infiltrate various platforms and virtual spaces. A long-time tech journalist opined that “past coverage of MMOs and virtual worlds has focused on them being a space apart from real life, social identities, and relations, and a place that really empowers escapism.” However, there was recognition that this notion was changing: Khalid agreed with the previous reporter that people could bring their “social dynamics” to virtual spaces. As she said, “Like, if a bunch of Nazi trolls Zoom-bomb a Jewish student group meeting over Zoom, that’s not just a tech story.” Consequently, journalists felt they needed to maintain a presence on virtual worlds and affiliated communication channels to track stories that flowed across traditional

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