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How social distancing, strangely enough, has made me even more social

A few nights ago I put on a suit and tie and asked a dozen friends to answer questions about pop culture for two hours over Skype. For years I’ve dreamed of hosting my own trivia night at a bar or restaurant, in the fond tradition of the classic English pub quiz. In fact, I keep a running list in my Notes app on my iPhone of ideas for themes and prospective categories —  the surprise origins of well-known foods, songs that have been famously sampled. I didn’t expect it would take a global pandemic and social distancing measures, but I finally realized my dream of playing the quizmaster, tallying scores as I asked what movie franchise “On Stranger Tides” belonged to, and what NBC crime procedural was based on a book by David Simon. I’m planning to do it again this coming Friday night.

I’m hardly the only one who has turned to games in this difficult time. Over the past two weeks I’ve been invited to participate in a whole range of virtual game nights organized by friends and friends of friends, built around any number of different diversions and activities. Two of my oldest friends, under lockdown in their apartment just a few blocks from mine, cracked open a box of ’80s and ’90s trivia cards they’d picked up last Christmas and read them aloud to us in turn. My girlfriend’s best-friend’s husband engineered a remote version of a PlayStation party game called Quiplash by broadcasting his TV screen over a Google Hangout. A troupe she performs comedy with managed the same idea with a Facebook Messenger group chat. As long as the game can be played separately, the players connected by video, someone has probably already tried it.

Board games, of course, have long served as safeguards against cabin fever, whipped out to stave off boredom on rainy days like an incantation invoked to protect the weary and weak. We are all going a bit stir-crazy in self-isolation, and where we might have ordinarily diversified our schedule with meals at expensive restaurants or trips to the shopping mall, the current situation has made it uncomfortably difficult to distinguish leisure time from work, as the home and the office have become the same set of rooms. The connection and camaraderie afforded us by these virtual game nights are indispensable reprieves from what’s rapidly melting into one long, monotonous morass of solitude. Not surprisingly, for many of us, they’re emerging as an ideal way to beat the social distancing blues. It’s not just a game —  it’s a lifeline.

Isolation can be brutal, unforgiving, even if you are comfortable and having an altogether nice time. I’m really enjoying the company of my girlfriend, as we watch reality TV shows and do workouts in the living room together and try to cultivate a sensible new routine. But my girlfriend is the only person I speak to or even see face-to-face in the flesh now, sometimes for days at a time — and that’s an extremely unusual sensation, no matter how much you love spending time with any one person. Yesterday, there was a problem with the plumbing in the building, and the kitchen sink backed up and started spewing a kind of inky water and grey sludge. The plumber who came to fix it — wearing a face mask and rubber gloves and generally keeping his distance — felt like a visitor from the moon.

The sense of communion, of connection and communication, felt staunchly defiant in the face of crisis

Video chats are keeping us connected to our friends. And in a funny way, they are intensifying some of those connections — my girlfriend and I have found that we’re spending more time hanging out with friends online than we normally would be in person. I’m a relatively outgoing, extraverted individual, and I like having dinner parties and meeting people for drinks. But the amount of time we’ve spent on the phone, on Skype or FaceTime over these last weeks has dwarfed my usual social patterns entirely. We have been reaching out to distant friends we’ve been meaning to touch base with, hoping to check in and see how they’re coping. We’ve had movie nights where a few friends connect over the web and watch a film together to discuss. Once I’ve filed this piece, I’m jumping on Skype with a gym buddy to work out.

The quarantine pub quiz was a great deal of fun to organize and conduct and, not to speak for anyone, I think everyone playing enjoyed themselves as well. But I think the real pleasure of the enterprise was the sense of communion, of connection and communication, that felt staunchly defiant in the face of crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted our lives and forced us to change, in ways both subtle and pronounced. While we fear for our wellbeing and the health of our loved ones — while we worry about work and how we’re going to make rent — what’s made a stressful time significantly more challenging is the absence of the human contact we’ve always taken for granted. I know games seem like a small thing next to something so monumental. But the connection they bring is nothing short of a vital reprieve.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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