The video app aims to help ease that loneliness. This week Houseparty announced that it had been acquired by Epic Games, creator of the game-turned-cultural-phenomena Fortnite. While operations will remain independent for now, the acquisition is a perfect marriage between two digital companies successfully fostering socialization among the statistically loneliest generation alive.
Gen Z respondents — those born after 1995 — scored the highest on UCLA’s Loneliness Scale in a survey of 20,000 Americans conducted by Cigna and Ipsos. While the scale benchmarks a score of 43 as “official loneliness,” Gen Z scored a whopping 48.3.
Not only is Gen Z the loneliest generation, the staggering increase in major depression and suicide rates in young people over the last decade may be linked to their inability to escape screens.
A 2017 Clinical Psychological Science study found that adolescents ages 13 to 18 who spent more time on social media and smartphones were more likely to suffer from mental health issues. It’s likely no coincidence that a sharp increase in mood disorders was recorded among young people beginning in 2011 — the year Twitter launched the Follow button, Instagram doubled its monthly active users total from 5 million to 10 million in just three months, and Facebook hit a $50 billion valuation.
While new media has been blamed for this increase in isolation, the emergence of video games as social vehicles may be a solution. Today’s video games blur the line between social network and pure play entertainment. They have become the mall food courts and local skateparks that were once the center of adolescent socialization.
Together, Epic Games and Houseparty could cultivate a central space for young people to connect with peers in a fun and engaging way.
“Joining Epic is a great step forward in achieving our mission of bringing empathy to online communication,” said Sistani in a blog post announcing the deal. “By teaming up, we can build even more fun, shared experiences than what could be achieved alone,” added Tim Sweeney, founder and CEO of Epic Games.
Unlike major social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, Houseparty is not a numbers game. Users can only live chat with up to eight people at a time (in private rooms if they choose), creating a more real, intimate conversation than that of simply liking the post of a “friend” they may not even know or liking a perfectly edited photo on Instagram.
Fortnite itself has become a social network in disguise. The game boasts more than 250 million active users, 53% of which are ages 10 to 25. The Verge called Fortnite “2018’s most important social network,” and a study from the National Research Group found that 40% of American teenagers play the game at least once a week and spend 25% of their overall free time with it.
Because its gameplay consists of a lot of downtime, players have the opportunity to converse, connect and build communities in a central digital universe. That extends into the real world too, where Fortnite’s gargantuan popularity, fueled by word-of-mouth growth and star-studded streams on the gaming-centric streaming platform Twitch, has made it a point of commonality among youth accustomed to asynchronous social media.
In addition to in-game text and voice chat features, players also often use external platforms to communicate, such as gaming chat apps like Steam’s Discord. Houseparty, while not gaming focused, has become one of these platforms. According to a tweet from Sistani, Houseparty users have said “over and over again” that they largely use Houseparty to communicate with friends while playing Fortnite together.
As the esports industry barrels toward a projected $1 billion market size, Epic Games and Houseparty’s similar goal of fostering empathy and creating shared experiences could help their partnership emerge as a powerful antithesis to the validation-driven Facebooks and Twitters of the world.