Screenshot documentation of Kaelan Doyle Myerscough's Worldbot, a Discord-based bot game that was recently commissioned as an interactive online experience by Toronto-based arts organizations Trinity Square Video and DMG. (courtesy the artist)

For many, Discord — the popular group-chatting platform originally designed for gamers — made their pandemic survivable.

“This Discord has been my rock through the pandemic,” says Callie, an admin for the server of the popular artist-hosted Death Panel podcast. “It was the single best mental health decision I made over the pandemic.”

Initially designed in 2015, Discord came to be known as “Slack for gamers,” allowing them to socialize with friends via fluid synchronous and asynchronous communication channels, like text messaging and voice or video calling. Yet within the past couple years, the app has crossed over into other online communities and been embraced by podcasters, Youtubers, and more looking to create a more private networking space. 

Describing Discord’s uniqueness is challenging: with its text-based channels and ability to DM or group chat, it’s similar to Slack or Microsoft Teams. But Discord also provides a range of communication features including video and music streaming, and the ability to fluidly jump onto a voice call or participate in an in-depth text-based conversation. 

Screenshot documentation of the customized emojis for Death Panel’s Discord. Some of these emojis — like the “Froggy Chair” — are used as visual shorthand cues during programming initiatives, like their reading group (courtesy author)

Like Zoom, the pandemic gave tremendous growth to Discord — it now has over 140 million active monthly users and 6.7 million active servers. Discord, however, is not open-source software. While it’s free to use, users are encouraged to upgrade to “Nitro” status in order to access greater individual features, as well as be able to “boost” their favorite servers. And like many digital forums, it’s also embraced by anti-government extremists and GameStop financial speculators. While Discord managed to purge its initial predominance of white supremacists by enacting more aggressive trust and safety policies, these issues remain ongoing. Now that Microsoft is currently in talks to acquire it in a rumored $10 billion dollar deal, the greater question remains of what ownership looks like for its server-based communities.

Nonetheless, Discord is worth looking at closely, especially if you follow online communities. In being shaped by its early adopters of gamers and game developers, those values of identity creation and play now imbue its platform. As more artists, artist-run organizations, and even podcasters are entering the fray, here’s a glance at how they’re using it to build community and navigate what it means to stay connected during this ongoing pandemic.

Discord as a Programming Platform for Small Arts Organizations

Screenshot documentation of a recent Babycastles online event, LOLBOWL, organized via Discord and co-working on Jitsi. It was organized by Flan Falacci, Dave/Hireddivas, Crezno, and Frank DeMarco with voiceover commentary by Flan Falacci and features a performance by virtual avatar Hatsune Miku. The event occurred during the Superbowl on February 7, 2021, on Twitch. Participants could donate money and could also send commands through TAwitch to attempt to control and move the two competing robots. (courtesy Babycastles)

For Lee Tusman, a co-organizer with Babycastles, Discord has emerged as just one part of a wider digital infrastructure enabling the NYC-based video game collective to continue its programming during the pandemic. For over 10 years, the collectively-run DIY arts organization has made it its mission to foster and amplify diverse voices in video game culture. Prior to the pandemic, much of its public programming — like the monthly computational performance event series or weekly co-working night — ran out of its small Union Square gallery space. Now, these events happen via the live streaming platform Twitch or the open-source video-conferencing tool Jitsi Meet. 

But Tusman is realistic about what it means to leverage for-profit online communication platforms. 

“These platforms aren’t inherently democratic. We’re a collective and a DIY artist-run organization,” the artist and curator said. “[When] we try to translate some of our previous live type culture to these platforms, we have to hack them to make them work for us. […] Discord fits into that suite of platforms and tools that we use, but it’s one of many, and we have to consider the ways they can serve us, or not.”

Screenshot documentation of the Babycastles Academy channel on Discord. The channel is an extension of the organization’s educational arm, which delivers weekly workshops and jams. (courtesy Babycastles)

In a way, Discord has become the online hub in which Babycastles’ community now gathers: creator resources and professional opportunities are circulated, but it’s also a dumping ground for memes, streams, or programming hacks. 

According to Babycastles co-organizer Flan Falacci, the Discord has enabled the organization to gain a deeper understanding of its community. The “Introductions” channel, for instance, encourages visitors to acquaint themselves in a more fulsome way not likely possible in-person. “You might meet someone at an event, but you might not necessarily know everything about them right away,” Falacci explains. “So this format of writing a bio, almost to introduce yourself in a space and for everyone to see it — I feel like it does bring us closer to the community, just in terms of knowing who people are and what their backgrounds are.”

Its recent residency program was able to accommodate applications from outside of New York City, with the Discord continuing to keep discussions alive. And when in-person events become possible in the future, Babycastles wants to continue to engage this digital infrastructure to sustain its now broader community-based network: “It would be a shame if we lost that ability to do that,” says Falacci.

Discord as a Collaborative Worldbuilding Game and Artwork

Screenshot documentation of Ana, one of the visualizations produced from Worldbot. (courtesy the artist)

Worldbot, a Discord-based bot game created by game designer and critical creator Kaelan Doyle Myerscough, dives deeper into the app’s asynchronous and secret communications for collaborative worldbuilding.  

“There’s a lot of game designers that are trying to create possibilities that exceed the kind of themes and stories we’ve seen in games,” says Myerscough, alluding to the popularity of tabletop role playing games (RPGs) on Discord. Dungeons and Dragons, an enduring pen-and-paper RPG, focuses on a singular objective or subjectivity at the core of its worldbuilding. But indie game developers like Myerscough want to upend these mechanics: “How do we make a game that’s not about fighting or conquest or domination or competition?” they ask. “How do we create games that are creative, imaginative and radical?”

Commissioned as an interactive online experience for a fall 2020 exhibition organized by Toronto-based arts organizations Trinity Square Video and DMG, Worldbot operates as a bot. Typically added to a Discord as a means of expanding its features, a bot can act as a community moderator, music-spinning DJ or even event scheduler. 

Screenshot documentation of the private server playtest for Worldbot. (courtesy the artist)

Originating within a private server playtest where a small group of artists and game designers participated via a tabletop RPG, Worldbot unspools two visualizations of a collaboratively-shaped fictional world.  These universes include a distant soft pink planet called Ana and a so-called planetary alignment festival with blooming magnolias. Text pop-ups, drawn from the participants’ own reflections, further contextualize these worlds. But they also allude to the IRL social conditions that shape them, like anxiety (Ana, after all, “needs space” because she’s “too overwhelmed”) and environmentalism.

In developing the game, as well as participating in Discords via their involvement in gaming communities, Myerscough primarily sees Discords as a space for social and creative play. During the first lockdown, they organized Jamdemic, a month-long game jam via a Discord server encouraging game development inspired by the pandemic. They received over 30 submissions, resulting in atypical game fare like a social distancing dating sims or a crowd control simulator. At a time when our screen-based work and play remains blurred, they see Discords as a throwback to when websites were portals to chat rooms or Neopet-filled virtual playgrounds. 

“Once you know the link, you can get in, and go there whenever you want,” explains Myerscough. “It gives me the same feeling that I had when I was younger on the early internet, before everything became part of our online brands or reputations.”

Discord as an Accessible Learning and Social Space

Cover art for “Meaning Production At 500,000 Dead,” the February 25, 2021 episode of the Death Panel podcast (courtesy Death Panel)

When artists Beatrice Adler-Bolton and Artie Vierkant began using a private Discord server in support of their podcast, Death Panel, it was largely as a tool to record episodes. Alongside co-hosts Vince Patti and public policy scholar Phil Rocco, the twice-weekly podcast focuses on health care policy, culture, and politics from a leftist perspective. By fall 2019, they created a separate, public server, intended as a small community hub for its listeners and Patreon supporters. This pace accelerated, naturally, during the pandemic.

“When COVID-19 hit, people who had been pretty casual on the server started getting more involved. It became a resource to try and sort through disinformation, ” observes Adler-Bolton. Much of Death Panel’s inception originated from the disability/health justice activist’s own challenges with the healthcare system. Diagnosed with a rare vascular autoimmune disease, her arduous experience navigating the administrative hoops and hurdles for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) was radicalizing. Given Death Panel’s beat, the pandemic not only highlighted the urgency of issues like universal health care and income inequality, but also galvanized the podcast’s community to organize and support one another. 

“It’s really not ours anymore,” says Vierkant of the server with over 700 members from several different countries, an accessible community-led hub running with the volunteer support of a dozen community moderators. Alongside the typical channels expected of a podcast Discord community — news and episode chats — there are text-based channels focused on politics, illness and disability, book PDF sharing, and even selfies. Voice channels, meanwhile, are primarily for weekly live programming, like TV and movie streams, and even a weekly meetup. 

“We talk a lot about social reproductive theory on the show because it’s important for people to be thinking about and acting on big ideas right now,” says Adler-Bolton regarding Death Panel’s openness to the community ownership that drives the podcast’s Discord, inspiring its members to launch their own podcasts or Discords. 

Screenshot documentation of a Discord channel conversation between the author and Death Panel moderators on its public server (courtesy author)

When I spoke with some of the Death Panel moderators in a Discord chat, many discussed the ways in which their participation opposed the vertical social hierarchies rampant in public online spaces like Twitter and Instagram. But they also talked about developing safety protocols to ensure community-led initiatives are truly barrier-free. Much of this is because many of the community members and moderators have disabilities themselves: Scott, one of the mods, is autistic and has an OCD diagnosis. He found Death Panel’s “flexible horizontal approach to building community” gave him the space to be “more confident and able to engage in social interaction.” 

A key initiative has been its widely popular reading group — which even has its own Soundcloud — currently focused on the work of the late disability rights activist and author Marta Russell, who is best known for an extensive body of work looking at how disability intersects with capitalism and oppression. When I tuned in for one of the Sunday sessions last month, I appreciated the ways in which the text was treated as a jumping off point. Participants had the option of partaking via the voice or text channels that were happening simultaneously. Customized emojis in the text channel emerged as a visual shorthand to signal when a participant wanted to speak, or offer their thoughts. 

“The idea was to make the discussions in the group as accessible as possible to push back against the hierarchical and abelist aspects of a traditional learning environment — a key tenet is ‘you don’t have to do the reading to be in reading group,’’’ explains papaya.official, one of the moderators of the reading group. 

As semi-private online spaces allow people to disconnect from singular, corporatized online identities, Discords are providing flexibility and safety for those seeking affinity spaces. And, at a time when many question institutions’ abilities to fully grasp the ways in which the pandemic has upended collective trust, there’s potential in the ways online social interactions and gatherings can be reconsidered.
“It’s like part-peer support group, part-collaborative creative thinking, part-grad school level class, part-utopian brainstorming, part-party/casual hang out,” says Casey of the potentiality of the gatherings on Death Panel’s Discord. “And all the richness feels really in line with this larger project of community care and mutual aid.”

Rea McNamara is a writer, curator, and public programmer based in Toronto. She has written extensively on art, culture and the internet for frieze, Art in America, The Globe and Mail, VICE, Art F City,...