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COVID-19 Isolation Guide: Online games provide social connection


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  • Griffin Swartzell

Rome burns, Nero plays his fiddle, and here are we, the people left to dance or die to a sickening soundtrack of gunfire and plague. Given the protests in Minneapolis and across the country, talking about responsible ways to connect with loved ones while staying inside to prevent the spread of COVID-19 seems pointless. But even those on the front lines protesting police brutality and institutionalized racism will need to rest and recover. Those for whom a COVID-19 infection can be more dangerous — the elderly, the immunocompromised and those with existing respiratory conditions — still need to feel connected and comforted.

Affirming healthy relationships and spending quality time with loved ones helps people stay resilient, and during times of crisis, that’s all the more important. In March, developmental pediatrician Mark Bertin wrote in Psychology Today that “one of the best uses for screens is in sustaining relationships with true friends and family.” So let’s talk games.
Connecting online can cost money, and those who want to play with friends using a console will have to pay a premium fee, which varies system to system and requires all parties to make or have made that initial investment in the console itself. Those who want the relative plug-and-play convenience may want to look into an older console, which can be bought secondhand relatively cheaply. Microsoft has not yet shut down its servers for online multiplayer video games on the Xbox 360, though Sony has decommissioned servers for certain Playstation 3 online services, and Nintendo has shut down most online services for its Wii and WiiU consoles.

Still, a multiplayer console game isn’t a solution for everyone, especially not those who miss playing a simple hand of cards. Thankfully, it’s arguably easier to connect online with a computer or smartphone. There are many services online that offer voiceover IP chat, including Google Meet, Zoom, FaceTime, Skype and Discord. Many of these offer easy access to features critical for playing games with friends, namely voice chat and screen sharing (i.e., broadcasting what’s on one participant’s computer screen to other participants).

Those looking for simple games already familiar to multiple generations should look into services like PlayingCards, which is free, lets players log into a shared game session. One player opens the room and gets a code to share, which the other players use to join. The website does not include a built-in chat feature, so players should use an external VoIP service or a conference call. However, everyone sees the same screen once they’re in the session, so it isn’t necessary to use a program with screen-sharing to play. Until recently, PlayingCards hosted a version of the popular shock-centric party game
Cards Against Humanity, but they have pulled it. For those who still wish to play CAH, Pretend You’re Xyzzy (pretendyourxyz.zy) is a dedicated site that lets players play with a selection of official expansions, as well as a rainbow of fan-made expansions for any microculture under the sun. This also gives players some ability to avoid content that may be triggering or otherwise unwelcome, which makes its Apples to Apples-like structure slightly more accessible. Pretend You’re Xyzzy has built-in text chat and does not require screen sharing, but it does not have voice chat.

Available on nearly anything with an internet connection — e.g., consoles, computers and Smart TV services — the Jackbox Party Packs have gained attention during this pandemic as a popular set of party games to play while in quarantine. The games range from quizzes to games of cooperation to games that test players’ wordplay or drawing skills, offering a variety of ways to play. Only one player needs to own the game. Everyone else participates through a web browser interface on, either on a smart phone or a computer. The game does not include any built-in chat feature, and the host must be able to use a screen-share function, so it helps to have some familiarity with one of the VoIP clients mentioned above.

Those interested in a more free-form way of playing together should take a hint from nerds and look into a tabletop role-playing game (RPG). These games allow players to experience any kind of story they want, immersing themselves in fictional characters. It’s a form of escape that can cultivate important interpersonal,
leadership and teamwork skills. But at the core of the experience, it’s a means of setting a framework for telling a story with friends.

Choosing a system to play with means choosing certain rules for how characters grow more powerful and how the players resolve conflicts. Thanks to the ubiquity of the Dungeons & Dragons system, most people imagine tabletop RPGs as consisting of maps with figurines, many-sided dice and a mix of books and complex character sheets. Wizards of the Coast publishes a variety of adventures and pre-made characters for Dungeons & Dragons, and these can be a great way for new players to try out the system with less initial investment. There are a variety of simpler, rules-light systems out there, too, with pre-written adventures ranging from stereotypical fantasy and sci-fi to Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels-esque heists gone wrong to children fighting off real and imagined bogeymen.

Those interested in learning more or actually playing together online should check out Roll20, similar to PlayingCards, offers users a virtual game table with a shared table environment, text chat, built-in dice rolling and a digital store full of adventures that can be ready to play with little setup time. Plus, for those new to tabletop RPGs, the site hosts an introductory video series and a forum where people can share ideas, recommend systems and adventures, and form new groups for one-off and ongoing games. It’s as good a place to start as any and, for some, another tool to help cope while the world feels like it’s ending.


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