Ethan Sykes has been exploring the popular online video game Minecraft for about seven years. Sykes, a college student in Michigan, logs in almost every day to traverse a landscape of trees, soil, homes, and even monsters. But the game is more than a hobby for the 21 year old. It’s also where he’s made friends.
“I think what I like most is the abundance of content for all types of people and the opportunities it can provide,” says Sykes.
Just like finding a date through various apps, it’s become common to make friends online. Teens and young adults who grew up in today’s digital world feel especially comfortable online and can sometimes express themselves more easily than in person.
There’s an online community for almost everyone, whether it’s gaming platforms like the one Sykes uses to social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to aggregation and discussion websites such as Reddit. Users can connect with each other based on their shared interests, hobbies, opinions, and more.
For Sykes, the appeal is not only the game itself, but also the community forums. Throughout the years he’s been playing, Sykes has written more than 38,000 posts and amassed more than 1,500 followers. In 2015, he started a Minecraft show with a friend he met through the game. Their show allowed people to watch them as they played Minecraft; 50 to 200 people would tune in. Sykes still has a show called Fields of Blue, in which he interviews other users.
Sykes’ father, Jeremy Miller, says while he doesn’t advocate for anyone spending too much time online, Minecraft has been a healthy outlet for his son. “With Ethan, that’s where he communicated,” says Miller. Sykes has Asperger’s syndrome, which is an autism spectrum disorder. Because of the disorder, Sykes wasn’t able to make friends like a typical child.
Sykes’ participation in the game’s community forum even blossomed into a real-life friendship. Sykes and Joshua had been chatting online for a long time and made plans to meet in person. When Sykes, who lives in Michigan, visited his parents on O'ahu, he met Joshua at Windward Mall to see a movie.
“We were so excited,” says Miller. “This was a huge step for Ethan’s personal development and it was very emotional for us. Joshua was Ethan’s first real friend. At the same time, we needed to make sure he’d be safe.” Miller says that he and his wife talked with Sykes about it before he met Joshua and they stayed at the mall until Sykes confirmed that he had found Joshua and everything was OK.
Sykes says participating in the Minecraft community has improved his life. “Before then, I never really talked to anyone,” he says. “The only people I talked to were people in my family, but ever since joining the community, not only have I been able to improve my social skills in the game and online, but it’s also helped to improve my social skills in real life.”