Connect more: Online games bring IU students and families together amidst pandemic

Dice, game pieces, a video game controller and headset grouped on a chessboardView print quality image
Today, many popular board games can be played online with players around the world. Photo by Niha Alasapuri, Indiana University

Indiana University Bloomington junior Chris Volpi hasn't let social-distancing guidelines get in the way of the friendships forged during his first three years in college. He simply turned to a new way to stay connected: online board games.

"Especially in distressing times like these, board games offer a fun escape that allow you to immerse yourself in a challenge and briefly take your mind off the reality of the outside world," said Volpi, director of marketing for Board Game Engage, an IU student organization.

Before the pandemic, Volpi said, the organization hosted weekly game nights and monthly events such as scavenger hunts or trivia contests. Now, all activities have gone virtual.

The group now meets over Zoom, playing board games using Tabletopia, an online platform with a vast library of virtual board games; Skribbl.io, an online game similar to Pictionary; and Jackbox, a platform for multiplayer party games.

"The fact that our club has access to university technology that allows us to meet virtually has been a huge blessing for all of us during these past few months," Volpi said. "Being able to socialize and game with each other, albeit remotely, has permitted Board Game Engage to continue fostering a sense of community and allowed all of us the ability to still feel connected with one another even though we may be physically apart."

Getting educated in games

But games at IU aren't just about fun, they're also part of the curriculum. Mike Sellers, director of the Game Design Program at IU, teaches game design at The Media School, as well as provides insights on industry trends.

"Video games can help build a sense of community," Sellers said. "They become a way for people to socialize when they're having a hard time doing so otherwise."

While most industries have struggled to remain afloat during social distancing and worldwide lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, video game and console sales have enjoyed an unexpected boom, he said.

Video game software, hardware and related peripherals made $1.6 billion in March alone, and Nintendo Switch consoles reached a new record for sales that same month as "Animal Crossing: New Horizons" became a bestselling title just a month after its release.

According to a report from Global Web Index, 40 percent of consumers in the U.S. and U.K. said they spent more time playing mobile games since the pandemic started than usual. PC gaming was also a popular activity, with 24 percent saying the same.

"Some of this is coincidence, some of this isn't," Sellers said. "'Animal Crossing,' for example, was highly anticipated before the pandemic came along, and now that's just accelerated."

The lockdown may have also made it more socially acceptable for video game fans to invite their friends and family to play, said Sellers, who runs a Minecraft server for his children and grandchildren.

"You know, not seeing your friends, staying home and otherwise, this is just another way for people to get together," he said.

Gaming opportunities for work and play

Emilie Holtz, an IU junior majoring in game design, said games provide a form of escape from reality.

"The essence of a game is to be separated from our own reality -- it's its own 'magic circle,' so to speak -- with its own rules, goals and actions," she said. "It doesn't surprise me, given the circumstances, that video games and video game news have become a larger part of people's daily routine since the lockdown began."

She also thinks people are playing more games simply because they have more time to spare.

But Sellers notes that video games -- or, more specifically, participation in online virtual worlds -- might also gain more participants from an unexpected source: remote workers.

Many people working from home for the first time due to the pandemic are unlikely to return to their traditional desk jobs, he said, as they realize they can perform the same duties without a physical commute.

"If you're not going back to an office, you will want to have some way to interact socially with your co-workers," he said. "A virtual world feels like something more than a phone call or a Zoom room."

The shift toward remote work might also benefit the game industry in another way: job opportunities for those who can't afford to relocate. With multiple companies on hiring freezes, remote work could open up job opportunities in what Holtz describes as "one of the most competitive industries to break into."

Designing virtual spaces as social spaces

Sellers has designed social, mobile and massively multiplayer online games, or MMOs, for over two decades. He worked as lead designer for popular games such as "Sims 2," "Ultima Online" and "Realm of the Mad God."

He said it's relatively simple to make a chat system, or to make game features that encourage socializing, such as non-zero-sum games like Pandemic, where players work together and everyone wins or loses together, versus zero-sum games like chess, with a winner and loser. What isn't simple is successfully creating games that cater to a sense of community.

"It's a fascinating area because we know very little about how communities form and how people socialize in more than just kind of a surface way," he said.

To illustrate the problem, Sellers gives an example: You can have a fun conversation with a person you meet in line at an amusement park, but that doesn't mean you've become close friends. The same situation occurs among players interacting with strangers in games.

"There's no deeper community formation that is really important for building these long-term bonds," he said.

But now, he said, things are changing. There is a renewed interest in studying game design elements to encourage relationship building and community formation -- similar to the connection experienced online by Volpi and his friends in IU's gaming club.

"We're starting to see games being more of a bona fide social activity and social space in the same way that you might go out with friends," Sellers said. "Except, now, you might get together online and play games."