Connect More: Online Games Bring IU Students and Families Together Amid Pandemic: News at IU: Indiana University


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

“Especially in difficult times like these, board games provide a fun escape that allows you to immerse yourself in a challenge and briefly distract from the reality of the outside world,” said Volpi, chief marketing officer for Board. Game Engage, an UI. student organization.

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

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

“Having our club have access to university technology that allows us to meet virtually has been a huge blessing to all of us over the past few months,” Volpi said. “Being able to socialize and play with each other, albeit from a distance, has allowed Board Game Engage to continue to foster a sense of community and has allowed us all to still feel connected to each other even though we are physically separated.”

Train in games

But games at IU are not only fun, they are also part of the program. Mike Sellers, Game Design Program Director at IU, teaches game design at The Media School and provides insight into industry trends.

“Video games can help create a sense of community,” Sellers said. “They become a way for people to socialize when they otherwise find it difficult.”

While most industries have struggled to stay afloat during social distancing and global shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, video game and console sales have seen an unexpected boom, he said. he declares.

Video game software, hardware and related peripherals brought in $1.6 billion in March alone, and Nintendo Switch consoles hit a new sales record in the same month as “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” became a hit title just a month after its release.

According to a Global Web Index report, 40% of consumers in the US and UK said they have spent more time playing mobile games since the start of the pandemic than usual. PC gaming was also a popular activity, with 24% saying the same.

“Some of those coincidences, some of them not,” Sellers said. “‘Animal Crossing,’ for example, was highly anticipated before the pandemic hit, and now it’s only accelerating.”

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

“You know, not seeing your friends, staying home and otherwise, it’s just another way for people to come together,” he said.

Game opportunities for work and play

Emilie Holtz, a junior IU specializing in game design, said games offer a form of escape from reality.

“The essence of a game is to be separate 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 bigger part of people’s daily routine since the lockdown began.”

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

But Sellers notes that video games — or, more specifically, participation in online virtual worlds — could also attract 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 office jobs, he said, as they find they can perform the same tasks without physically move.

“If you’re not going back to the office, you’ll want to have a way to socially interact with your colleagues,” he said. “A virtual world is like something more than a phone call or a Zoom room.”

The shift to remote work could also benefit the gaming industry in another way: employment opportunities for those who cannot afford to relocate. With several companies on hiring freezes, remote work could open up job opportunities in what Holtz describes as “one of the most competitive industries in which to break into.”

Designing virtual spaces as social spaces

Sellers has been designing social, mobile and massively multiplayer online games, or MMOs, for more than 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 build a chat system or create game features that encourage socializing, like non-zero-sum games like Pandemic, where players work together and everyone wins or loses together. , compared to zero-sum games like chess, with a winner and a loser. What’s not easy is successfully creating games that respond to a sense of community.

“It’s a fascinating field because we know very little about how communities are formed and how people socialize more than superficially,” he said.

To illustrate the problem, Sellers gives an example: you may have a funny conversation with someone 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’s really important to building those long-term bonds,” he said.

But now, he says, things are changing. There is a renewed interest in studying elements of game design to encourage relationship building and community formation – similar to the connection experienced online by Volpi and his friends in the game club of UI.

“We’re starting to see gaming as a real social activity and a social space in the same way you might hang out with friends,” Sellers said. “Except now you could get together online and play games.”

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