Each installment of “The Friendship Files” features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week she talks with a group of men who found connection during the pandemic’s early, isolated days. Spread out around the country, they had fallen out of touch, but the distance didn’t matter so much when they were all stuck at home. They started playing video games together, and the games became a cathartic time for them to chat about their feelings … while talking plenty of trash, of course. They discuss what they’ve learned about long-distance friendship and communication.
Bilal Hafeez, 26, a wealth manager who lives in San Francisco
Jake Kowalski, 31, a consultant who lives in Chicago
Nolan Krueger, 31, a psychology Ph.D. student who lives in San Francisco
Alex Uhlmann, 29, a city-government employee who lives in Memphis
Joel Walsh, 38, a STEM-education Ph.D. student who lives in Los Angeles
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Julie Beck: Tell me how you met and became friends.
Jake Kowalski: It was at public-policy school at [the University of Texas at] Austin. I was organizing an intramural basketball team. [I had already recruited Alex] and I asked my buddy, “Do you know anyone?” He said “I’ve got a friend, Joel Walsh, who loves basketball, and Joel’s got a friend named Nolan.” I actually didn’t go to the first game. Apparently we got thrashed, but Alex was like, “This Nolan guy can ball.”
Nolan Krueger: Put that in. You can attribute it to Jake, so there’s no self-aggrandizing.
Jake: We slowly went from just being basketball friends to hanging out. Pretty soon, we were all integrated in each other’s big friend group.
Bilal came into the picture in January 2020 at Nolan’s 30th-birthday trip. We all met up in San Diego and took a car down to Ensenada. We met a couple of Nolan’s other friends, but Bilal really meshed with everyone, so now he’s part of the group.
After January, we all went our separate ways. Then fast-forward to pandemic. Alex, Joel, and I all had PlayStations. We convinced Bilal to get one; I helped Nolan get a PS4; and then we all started playing NBA 2K two or three times a week.
Nolan: This was the best part: I was playing [NBA 2K] with Joel early on, because Joel and I both lived in Austin, and Jake hops on the chat. We were just chopping it up, catching up, and then he goes, “You’re the only thing holding us back from being great. Get you a PS4.” I was like, “Bro, I can’t do it.” And he said, “This is one of those times I’m being called on as a friend. I will make this happen for you.” Next thing I know, he’s putting the details together to send me a PS4.
It was a great gesture, but I was like, “I’ve got to pay you for it. Put me on a payment plan or something.” So I paid him in installments.
Joel Walsh: We started restaging classic NBA playoff games because there were no playoffs. We did the 1996 finals.
Beck: Had you guys stayed in close touch after grad school, or not really?
Jake: There was definitely some distance that happened. I don’t think any of us even had a group chat until the pandemic. Now we have multiple.
Joel: I believe the big group chat started in January 2020 when we all went to Mexico.
Beck: During the pandemic, did you get into a routine with playing the basketball game? Were you just focused on the game or were you chatting a lot?
Joel: There’s a waiting room in 2K where you pick your character. We would just talk about our days and wait for everyone to log on.
Bilal Hafeez: Actually getting logged on would take a long time. So that waiting-room area was the space where I got to decompress. This was the height of the pandemic, so we’re cooped up at home most of the time, very little social interaction.
Alex Uhlmann: It could be 15 minutes before you start the game. It could also be an hour. It would be a long-ass time where we’re just going through our day and saying, “Holy shit. What is happening with the world?” I’ve blocked out all the Trump stuff from my brain at this point, but it was the height of that and we were just processing. I found it an extremely cathartic space.
I also had a terrible roommate, so I was often holed up in my room. Being with my friends was really like a sanctuary. I was obviously isolating because of the pandemic, and that space felt the opposite of isolating. I was connecting with my friends in this really nice way, and I might not have connected with them had it not been for the pandemic.
Beck: Do you feel like the content or the quality of your conversations was different when you were chatting regularly like that, as opposed to just calling every once in a while and having a catch-up conversation?
Nolan: I’d say yes. Even when we were together all in Austin, oftentimes we would be enjoying shared activities but maybe less likely to dive into where we’re at emotionally.
Those emotional check-ins came [about] in an organic way. We didn’t know what that space was going to become, against the backdrop of a very unique historical moment. It was distinctly different from our interactions at other times.
Jake: The 2K chat facilitated a far more natural conversation and the topics flowed. I’ve read that for guys, it’s easier not looking in the eyes of another man to get vulnerable. So, I wonder if that was an element too.
Bilal: Jake called our group “The Sensitive Boys” because we were really open with our feelings.
Alex: We all got a lot out of that in ways that we weren’t expecting. It was over our shared love of basketball, but it served as a vehicle toward other much bigger and more important things.
Bilal: It wasn’t all that. We did have those supportive conversations, but we did just shoot the shit a lot.
Alex: It got competitive and feelings got hurt sometimes. There were game-winning shots, which I may or may not have taken, that people felt a little salty about.
Nolan: People occasionally quit before the game was over.
Jake: Sometimes I would just be a commentator and roast each player and then they’d be like, “You’re not roasting me fairly.”
Bilal: We all have gotten to understand each other very well, and how our communication styles should be with each other. Nolan will want to be communicated to differently than Jake. That shows in our friendship, because we argue a good amount. But we’ll get through the argument, and get to the point of understanding each other fully.
Beck: Have you still been playing a lot of 2K? Are you more out in the world now if you’re vaccinated?
Bilal: Nolan and I reconnected through this and decided that we want to live together again. We actually moved in together last week in San Francisco. Jake came to visit Nolan and me, the day that we moved into our new apartment, and stayed with us for a week.
Other than that, we took a trip to Arkansas in March. Our group chat’s very active. We don’t play nearly as much 2K because work picked up again. But we still talk very often.
Beck: How was your trip to Arkansas? What did you do?
Nolan: We were in a cabin; it was just a boys’ trip. It was good. Different people had different experiences, but there was definitely, for some of us, a different energy than pre-pandemic get-togethers, because we were holding all of the unprocessed stress of the pandemic situation. Tensions ran high in a way that I don’t think any of us were expecting. Some of it was just personal, but it was amplified by us not being used to connecting in a physical space in such a high volume for an extended period of time.
Alex: Nolan and I got into a tiff. We were both dealing with our own things. Throughout the pandemic, I had been taking care of my dad, who has all these health issues. It was just a lot. I really got so much out of hanging with these guys and their emotional support. They mean the world to me.
Beck: What do you think about the role of geographic proximity in friendship? During the pandemic everyone was equally accessible—when we were isolating, you had to socialize with your friends in town in the same ways you would with your friends across the country.
Alex: I think we need to be more proactive about finding times throughout the year where we can all be in the same place. It’s got to be more intentional. Everyone was so accessible [when we were stuck at home] and now we have so much other stuff going on.
Bilal: Having different methods of communication made it easier to chat. Sometimes we might get bored of chatting on Zoom. Then we would just naturally move over to 2K to spice it up a bit.
Beck: That’s part of the proximity question—we’ve had those technologies for a while, but I think we were more likely to use them during the pandemic. In other times, it can be easy to default to just keeping up with who is closest to you geographically.
Bilal: That distance has always been significant. A few of us have done long-distance relationships, and it’s very tough. Technically, I guess what we have is a long-distance friendship. But it doesn’t feel like we’re far away. The 2K, Zoom, the pandemic, really brought it all together. It solidified our friendship, and that’s not going away.
Joel: I think I’ve met more of my friends’ friends through playing games than I may have in person, due to the geographical constraints of hanging out.
Nolan: Pandemic or not, I think about nonphysical connections as seeds for potential future physical connections—things that can blossom. I think about another friend of ours; her name is Tuss. Bilal got connected to her by playing that game Among Us. Bilal would joke and say “Tuss is sus,” [meaning that] she’s suspect. When they finally met in person after we were vaccinated, Bilal just goes “Tuss is sus!” They built this connection virtually that they’re able to pick up on as soon as they see each other in physical space.
There are all these opportunities to plant seeds that you can come back to later. The pandemic put that into sharp relief.
If you or someone you know should be featured in “The Friendship Files,” get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique