The game of life: embracing identity and community through board games

By Jackson Moseley

Daniel Manila sits by the gameboard on the living room coffee table, intently contemplating his next move in the strategy game Catan. He glances at the board, then at his resource cards, then back at the board. The gears turning in his brain are almost visible.

The game is a close one. Three of the four players have almost enough victory points to win. At this rate, anyone could take home the victory crown.

But suddenly, a flicker of recognition appears in Daniel’s eyes, and a knowing smile spreads across his face and curves into a smirk.

“Good game,” he says. In one fell swoop, he makes his move and snags the last two points that he needed to claim the victory.

The other three competitors roll their eyes and groan, but they harbor no feelings of indignation. This outcome was expected. Daniel’s affinity for board games is well-known among his friends. Few play against him expecting to win.

Daniel has loved playing games of all sorts ever since he was old enough to understand and abide by basic rules. Strategy games like Catan are some of his favorites.

In many regards, Daniel is a typical American college-aged adult. He goes to school at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he studies computer science. He enjoys playing games, reading, programming and hanging out with friends. For the most part, he fits right in with everybody else (aside from his overall lack of pop culture knowledge). Most people wouldn’t guess upon first meeting him that Daniel has actually spent relatively little time in the United States over the course of his life.

How it all began

Daniel was born in Durham, North Carolina, but has spent most of his life in Central Asia, where his parents do nonprofit work. When Daniel was 5 months old, his family moved to Uzbekistan. However, after seven years, they were forced out of the country, and after a yearlong period of moving around, they moved to Kyrgyzstan, where they have lived ever since.

From an early age, Daniel’s love for games was one of his defining characteristics. His parents recall how he used to organize outdoor games among groups of total strangers on the playground when they would visit his grandparents’ house in the U.S.

“You wanna play tag?” he would ask the other kids. And with that, dozens of small children were running around the playground, chasing each other and having a blast—all thanks to Daniel.

Daniel wasn’t just content to play though. He wanted to win. His parents recall a time when he was 8 years old, playing a game of Phase 10 with them and a group of college students during the brief period that they lived in England. Daniel was losing badly, but he fought desperately to hide the tears welling up in his eyes. He didn’t want the big kids to see him cry.

A complex story

Daniel’s refusal to cry in this situation is reflective of his overall tendency to conceal his emotions behind a calm, collected demeanor. But behind his composed exterior is a very goofy and lively individual. His younger sister, Faith, frequently found herself both annoyed and amused by Daniel. She recounted a time many years ago when her brother stuck his tongue out at her during the blessing before family dinner. Faith couldn’t stop herself from laughing and ended up getting in trouble for his antics. 

Every couple of years, the Manila family went back to the U.S. for a few months at a time. But they never stayed there long. In fact, Daniel estimates that he spent a total of only three or four years in the U.S. prior to starting college at UNC-CH.

Daniel’s time in the U.S. was not particularly restful. Much of it was spent going from house to house, getting dinner with families in hopes of raising support for their nonprofit work. Daniel and Faith dreaded these meetings and found themselves bored to tears when the families they visited had no children their age.

Between two worlds

For Daniel, Kyrgyzstan was home. Though he was American by both background and citizenship, Kyrgyzstan was what he knew best.

Yet, even in Kyrgyzstan, there was a disconnect between him and the locals. For one, he didn’t speak the language particularly well. Though he knew some Kyrgyz, it was hard for him to communicate more abstract concepts, making it impossible to have anything other than superficial conversation. As a result, most of his friends were Europeans who happened to be in the area, with whom he could communicate in English. 

The struggle to assimilate

Coming to UNC was certainly a shock for Daniel. Having been homeschooled his entire life, this was his first experience in a physical, brick-and-mortar school. In addition, many of his preconceived notions about what constituted American culture turned out to be false, only reflecting white American culture.

The first few weeks of school were especially hard for Daniel. In addition to being an outsider, he struggled with social anxiety, and these factors combined made it difficult for him to form close friendships. For someone who identifies as an extrovert, as Daniel does, this was especially trying.

Full circle

However, as time went on, he began to form those friendships that he so desperately craved. He enjoyed hanging out with the other guys in his hall, and he grew close to the people in his small group for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the campus ministry that he joined.

It was also through playing games that these friendships formed. Daniel frequently brought board games to the first floor lounge of Everett Residence Hall, asking those who were already there if they wanted to join in. It was just like the games of tag on the playground that he used to organize as a kid.

Daniel’s friendships have persisted to the present day, particularly with those in his InterVarsity small group. And he maintains those friendships through playing games, among other things.

Remembering home

While Daniel has grown close to these friends, however, physical distance has made it difficult for him to maintain that same level of connection with his family. He only sees them in person once or twice per year, and the 10-hour time difference makes phone communication difficult to coordinate.

But he remains close to them nonetheless. He flies back to Kyrgyzstan once a year to see his family, and this year, they flew back to the U.S. for the summer. Faith said that some of her fondest memories of her brother are from when he came back to visit over Christmas break after his first semester of college.

Despite growing up abroad, Daniel says that he wants to make his permanent residence in the U.S. He appreciates the work that his parents do, but he believes that it is not for him. Living outside of one’s culture is not something to be taken lightly, he said, based on his own experience.

Yet there will always be a place in Daniel’s heart for the country where he was raised. In many ways, it shaped him into the man he is today.

Edited by Isa Mudannayake

TikTok community becomes support system for UNC first-year student

By Benjamin Rappaport

Ainsley Edwards has been running cross country competitively since she was in middle school. She loves having a place to let out her energy, relax her mind and be in touch with nature. Edwards first started going on runs with her dad in the wooded trails near Salem Lake by her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina

During the early months of the pandemic, those runs became Ainsley’s sense of sanity. They were also the place where she got her comedic ideas for her viral TikTok videos. 

Ainsley has amassed more than 245,000 followers and 12 million views on the short-form video app. She and her brother Tre Edwards started making absurdist comedy videos together in March 2020. 

“Me, Tre and my dad would just run for hours and riff the whole time,” Ainsley said. “There was literally nothing else to do.” 

Ainsley and Tre would talk about the latest social media trends and come up with potential ideas for videos. Their father, Mark Edwards, would usually lag both on the runs and on the jokes.  

The first few videos Ainsley and Tre posted together went viral because they reflected the comedic chaos of being trapped in quarantine. They were sporadic and disjointed, but that’s part of what made them so hilarious and relatable. 

“I don’t think we even understood our own jokes back in March,” Tre said. “We would connect ridiculous trends together and mish mash whatever our brains could come up with. It was comedic anarchy.”

The Edwards siblings used their restlessness and turned it into content. 

Quarantine bonding

Beyond the videos, being trapped inside also brought the whole Edwards family together. Tre is five years older than Ainsley, and prior to the pandemic they weren’t nearly as close. Mark was also typically traveling around the country as an investment banker, but he became closer with his family by working from home. 

“As much as I wanted her to have a normal senior year, I secretly really loved having Ainsley right outside my door,” Mark said.  

The two of them had their work-from-home computer setups right next to each other and would consistently crack jokes between, or sometimes during, meetings and classes. Ainsley would try to photobomb her dad’s consulting meetings, and then Mark would shout obscenities while Ainsley was participating in class.

Raised on comedy

While Mark didn’t necessarily understand all the social media trends that his kids’ videos were based on, he was the inspiration behind a lot of the humor in the Edwards household. From a young age, he taught Ainsley and Tre to not take life too seriously. He would force them to make short musical comedy videos for their church to preview the weekly sermon. They would spoof characters from “The Office” to teach the congregation about lessons of family or dress up like fish to discuss the importance of preserving resources. 

“As the youngest child, Ainsley always had to make her mark in those skits and put her foot in,” Mark said. 

Ainsley’s knack for comedy has only grown stronger over the years. It’s her outlandish flare that made her a hit in the church and now on the internet.

Pressure to please 

But as her followers grew, so did her internal pressure to produce for others. Ainsley said she has always been her own worst critic, but that internal voice only got louder when she started college at UNC-Chapel Hill this fall.

So much of her quarantine experience had been making videos at home with her brother, sharing jokes and experimenting with new formats. In college, she could not have this and it was hard for Ainsley and Tre to keep up their social media presence.

“Her and I are like the TikTok partners in crime,” Tre said. “When she left for college, it felt like that dynamic duo got a little less dynamic.”

Prior to her leaving, Tre had pushed Ainsley to start making videos on her own to prepare for what it would be like in school. To Ainsley, though, it never felt right without Trey.

“The reality was, we have this following, and we don’t want to let them down,” Tre said. “I wanted her to keep making videos because she loves doing it, even if it was no longer a thing we did with each other.”

Tre is out of school and pursuing a full-time music career. He has his own successful TikTok page to showcase his talents. He occasionally visits Chapel Hill from Winston-Salem. When he does, the two still make TikTok videos together, and it feels like they’re back at their house again. But with life picking back up, it’s hard to maintain the consistent stream of content they made over quarantine.

Ainsley is trying to make friends, join clubs, manage classes and adjust to everything else that being a college student entails in 2021. All the while, her thousands of followers constantly want more content.

A social media community

“I really want to continue this aspect of my life, but I am the biggest source of pressure for myself,” Ainsley said. “It’s hard to give myself some grace.” 

One of the ways Ainsley has learned to take space for herself is through connecting with other TikTokers with similar concerns. She has befriended several college-aged comedy TikTok creators, like Jack Martin, who told her that her content wasn’t everything.

“I remember when I first came to college and just trying to do all the things, the same way Ainsley is now,” Jack said. “I learned pretty quick something had to give and I needed to continue taking care of myself.” 

Jack is now in his third year at the University of Southern California. His TikTok following got him noticed by an acting agency in Australia, where he is currently filming the NBC show “La Brea.”

He and Ainsley became fast friends over their mutual understanding of what they call “TikTokery debauchery”—the struggles of being a young person and navigating the complex algorithms of TikTok to grow their platform. 

Young creators on TikTok have formed their own community to collaborate and solve problems together. It’s a collaborative environment of creativity that wouldn’t exist otherwise because it fosters connections around the globe.

“TikTok can feel like a really strange and isolating place at times,” Jack said. “That’s why I’m so glad people have reached out and invited me in. Ainsley was one of those people and she’s become one of my best friends because we just get each other.”

The community Ainsley has formed on the app has helped her balance all the chaos of school, life and maintaining a viral presence. 

Her support system, along with her runs, give Ainsley the peace of mind to keep her life and her comedy moving forward. 

Edited by Isa Mudannayake