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A Haunted Discord Server Is the Last Good Place Online

In a charming game called This Discord Has Ghosts in It, up to 15 participants at a time gather in a Discord server that has been reimagined as a haunted house. (Of course.) Inside lies a maze of (chat) rooms where each player takes the role of either an eponymous spirit or a paranormal investigator. Each character has a secret motivation, chosen at the start of the game: For investigators, their secret is the reason they are in the house; for ghosts, it’s what pins their shade to the mortal realm. Your MO is not to win but to “give away the game,” as the very purple game manual states. That means figuring out a way to communicate your secret to the other team.

The problem is, you’re not allowed to just say it. Ghosts can interact with the game only via text-based chat. They can type descriptions of their hauntings, share images and GIFs, link to songs and videos, and add new rooms to the house. Meanwhile, investigators are confined to Discord’s voice call function. Like investigators on TV, they narrate the haunts they see and the rooms they enter to the other investigators wandering other corners of the house, all while trying to stay in character.

Like any bit of technologically mediated communication, this gets messy. In one game, I was Alicia Macready, a foolhardy investigator on a mission to capture hair-raising footage from inside a haunted house and land a TV deal. At the start of gameplay, I had Alicia meander into the basement. There, she ran into the ghost of Buried Ben. Ben had died in an unfortunate accident involving a pile of boxes. He also held a grudge over being cut out of his family’s fortune, which kept him stuck in the house. My character, Alicia, didn’t know any of that. In an attempt to show Alicia how he died, Buried Ben played a YouTube video of objects being crushed. “The doors slam shut,” he typed into the chat. “The walls start closing in on you.” But Alicia read what was happening and saw only a horrible trap.

The fear this inspired in Alicia set the tone for the rest of the game. Ben wrote about doors to new rooms in the house, pulling Alicia deeper inside. I got more scared. I whispered into my headset, describing the way I rattled at door handles and actively tried to flee the house. Through increasingly frantic sequences—videos of hydraulic presses smashing Technicolor plastic toys, audio files of shuffling paper and falling shelves—Ben led Alicia to a storage room, home to a cabinet full of scrapbooks. There, I finally learned Buried Ben’s real name—Benjamin Arlington!—and narrated finding a slip of paper folded inside one of the books. Ben’s player latched on to this moment and transformed the paper into a document that proved his right to the fortune, helping to settle the question that had kept him on earth.

The game’s final ritual is a séance, which the ghosts begin by summoning all the players together into one room. The ghosts are still confined to the chat box and investigators to the audio channel, but it’s the first time everyone is allowed to communicate clearly about their secrets. In the room, each player shares what they believe they know about the others. The others chime in with any missing details. Together, the group decides their characters’ fates. So what became of Alicia and Ben? At the séance, she was able to encourage him to let go of the past—to pass on, so to speak. As they said their goodbyes, she acquired the footage that she so desperately wanted: a glimpse of Ben flickering at the door of the house, finally able to leave.

And then I logged off.

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Pretty much every day on the internet, tone gets lost in a swirl of digital text. Context is endlessly eroded, and typos and barely considered missives get immortalized, become infamous. It’s a brittle way to connect with people.

But after playing This Discord Has Ghosts in It, I felt a jolt of dopamine, the thrill of calling out and finding a kind of clarity in all the noise. Rather than encourage quick and pithy exchanges, the game asked me to take time to reach consensus, something that digital spaces don’t often reward.

The designers of This Discord Has Ghosts in It, Will Jobst and Adam Vass, set out to re-create a specific kind of detritus that shapes our experience and communication on the internet: the IRC messages, the C-boxes, the replies and DMs that linger online long after a conversation is done. The game leaves a similar footprint: I can look back on the abandoned haunted house channels and see the ghosts’ side of the conversation. Sometimes, as an outsider, I can only guess at their meaning, like reading an annotation scrawled inside a secondhand book. Seeing other messages, like the YouTube link that set off my story, still brings me joy.

So much of the internet is miserable these days: harassment, bad faith, cruelty. A haunted Discord server, of all things, becomes a space to remember how to build understanding together. To practice saying, “This is how I see things. How about you?”

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