How Awkwafina Found Her Community on Discord During the Pandemic

The star opens up about her new projects, mental health, and making gaming "a place for everyone."

Imagine a place where people from all over the world can find belonging, where craft services provides you with mouth-watering sandwich options, and where several iterations of Danny DeVito exist, each searching for the meaning of online connection. That’s Awkwafina’s new reality in Discord: The Movie, a short film made by the popular messaging platform starring the actress and DeVito. 

Initially created in 2015 as a way for people to connect with friends worldwide while playing video games online, Discord has grown to have over 150 million users—including Awkwafina, the Golden Globe-winning actress and gamer. Over the course of the pandemic, the 33-year-old has frequently turned to the platform as a means to hang out with friends, chat with her fans, and feel a connection to the outside world at a time she’s needed it most.

“I was using Discord, I think, at my heaviest [during] lockdown and I spent many, many late nights on it. It is a place to feel less alone,” Awkwafina says, speaking at the Discord: The Movie premiere on July 22. It’s why when the opportunity came up to partner with Discord for a short film, the star (originally named Nora Lum) couldn’t resist. 

“I know how accessible it makes gaming, but I also think there’s so much more to it,” she tells HelloGiggles after the event. “There’s the aspect of community with your friends and there’s also a feeling of connection that is also moderated. I feel safe on it.”

I think a big part of gaming is avoiding the aggressive environments and the toxicity that comes with it, she continues. And so I think [Discord] is a really great place to turn to.

Over the past year, much of Awkwafina’s time on Discord has been spent playing video games like Among Us and Golf With Your Friends with pals, but she says she was surprised to find how versatile the platform was from a social perspective. “It’s just this weird place where you can engage with fans, you can engage with friends, and you can engage with people who are in Korea on the other side of the world,” she explains. “During the pandemic, that was really nice to have.” 

The community the star found from playing games online has become an outlet for more than just social connection. “It’s something that I think has positively impacted my mental health,” she notes. 

The actress, whose HBOMax show Nora From Queens premieres August 18th and new movie Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings hits theaters and Disney+ September 3rd, also gives credit to Discord for helping her rediscover her love for video games. “It wasn’t until the pandemic hit, during lockdown, that I really got into it,” she says. “I bought myself a PC, loaded it with [games], and I was on Discord a lot. It became a really fun hobby for me.”

As a kid, Awkwafina recalls, she started out her gaming career by playing on her cousin’s Nintendo Entertainment System (NES); over time, she eventually leveled up to Donkey Kong on the Super NES. “I got into gaming in different phases of my life because the technology is always changing,” she remembers. 

Although many girls and women in the gaming world unfortunately face harassment from male players, the actress says she was lucky to have grown up surrounded by other female gamers who were not only familiar with the space but dominated it. 

“I grew up with my cousin who played, and she would just absolutely destroy all of my other boy cousins,” Awkwafina recounts. “And my writing partner now, Teresa [Hsiao], plays Mario Kart competitively on the internet and will come in first while she’s sitting there talking to us as a group.” 

As for the backlash some female gamers do face for playing, “There is a stigma but it just doesn’t make scientific sense to me, you know?” the actress says, adding:

I don’t think that this is a world where females can’t enjoy anymore. I think now there is a place for everyone. 

Indeed, while the gaming industry still has a lot of work to do in creating a safer space for womxn, there is a push within the community to make it inclusive. Programs like Limit Break and online communities like Queen’s Gaming Collective are working to help underrepresented groups within the gaming world build their careers and feel safe while doing so.

Awkwafina herself is doing her part, not only by speaking about her love of gaming but by giving more representation for women of color through projects like Discord: The Movie. In the short film (available to watch below), the star guides a clueless DeVito through the ins and outs of the platform, explaining its importance to so many people.

While the film plays out like a dinner table scene where the tech-savvy daughter explains yet another messaging service to her out-of-touch father, there is a significance to Awkwafina being the one who “gets it.” Her role encompasses the idea that women, especially women of color, often know just as much about the gaming space as men—sometimes even more.

The star believes that on-screen visibility can help people feel less alone, as well as platforms like Discord that promote connections between users. “I think it all starts with community, and it starts with reaching out [to others] and building that scaffold,” Awkwafina says.