It’s OK to not be OK with tabletop gaming done via Zoom

My friends and I finished a long-running Dungeons & Dragons campaign last week, over videoconference. There were emotional moments and applause for the DM when the story ended. A multiyear journey had come to an end, and the final act was to shut down the videoconferencing app and go to bed. Once the computer was quiet, once the screen was dark, we were all apart, in our separate homes.

It felt wrong. It was wrong.

I thought back on our in-person reactions when a big moment would happen in a campaign or a board game. We’d laugh, we’d cheer, and we’d also exchange high-fives and sometimes hugs. Competitors might shake hands at the end to show there were no hard feelings. Gaming, when it’s good, when we’re involved with it and each other, causes us to reach for each other. Emotional release is a mental sensation that can compel us to physically touch others, to ground ourselves and to share the moment.

It doesn’t take much to remember all the good times I’ve had gaming on a real-life tabletop, physically in the presence of all the players, and the ridiculous plot twists or miraculous dice rolls that ended with yelling, hugs, and everything in between. One of my buddies gives a great back rub when a game gets stressful.

Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

The game is important, but it’s not the focal point of the evening. These games are often just the inciting factor for the fun atmosphere, the clinking of glasses, and the body language that conveys so much about how the game is going.

When this latest game ended, the clapping we shared and the notes about the story and decisions we might have made are still moments I will treasure forever. It was an experience that ended a long journey, one that began years ago — in person — and I’m glad we were able to continue our story through our laptops and smartphones and tablets.

But the clapping was there because we couldn’t do anything else. What I wanted wasn’t to applaud our DM for doing such an amazing job and giving us a world to escape to when this world became too much. I wanted to hug him, to share that moment of catharsis.

The fact I couldn’t, that none of us could, was a loss. It’s a loss we’re all experiencing every time we game together in a virtual setting. And it’s a loss I want to make sure we recognize, and mourn. This is something that this pandemic has taken from us, and I’m glad we’re isolating ourselves, but the cost is high. This isn’t enough, and it never will be.

The board gaming and role-playing community has plenty of tips for playing or running games remotely. Playing a game with friends or family over video chat, whether it’s a big role-playing campaign or a quick round of The Jackbox Party Pack, can be a great way to connect. It’s also the only way to connect, now. These solutions are Band-Aids — temporary measures to make the best of what we can do together, not a replacement for the real thing, and very often it’s just not enough. It helps, but it can feel hollow and frustrating.

You can only connect so much through a computer screen. The beauty of tabletop gaming has always been the physical closeness, and having to adapt our games to videoconferencing is like trying to cook without seasoning. You may stay alive by eating it, but your soul is going to feel the difference, no matter how grateful you may be that you’re not starving.

We don’t know what the world is going to look like when this is over. Not all of the changes have been bad, either; I love the idea that more companies will be open to the idea of folks working from home, and I hope we learn that we can, in fact, make changes to our lifestyles and give up certain pleasures for the greater good. Those are skills that will become more and more necessary as we deal with global warming.

I’m still more than ready to get back together with friends to play games in person, once it’s safe to do so. After all, none of these changes in how we game should be permanent.

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The tension of tabletop gaming, the moments of fear and uncertainty and adventure, and then the emotional catharsis when we win, or lose, or discover something amazing in our story, is enhanced remarkably by being physically present. But playing our games over video chat also means that we’re missing out on being a physical part of each other’s lives. When you visit someone’s home for a game, you get to say hello, or maybe just good night, to their children. You get to give their partner a hug, and catch up on their life. You see how large their puppy has grown. You share food and drink. Game night isn’t just an excuse to get together; for many of us, it provides an important sense of community and connection to not just our friends, but their families and homes.

I’m not here to offer solutions, because there aren’t any. This is a situation that we must tolerate. But I want to say that I share the feelings you may be struggling with: the sense that none of this is good enough, that we’re still overstressed and undertouched, even if we’re keeping up with our campaigns and weekly games through video or voice chat.

We’re reclaiming an important part of our lives by continuing to play, which keeps our community alive, but we’re not spending time together in a way that fulfills all of our needs. We’re only getting 70% there, maybe. The rest is lost, and we pay for it in exhaustion, fear, and anxiety.

We are all, for the moment, alone together. That won’t get any easier anytime soon, and it’s OK to not be OK with that.

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