The coronavirus pandemic that locked down nations and drove church services online also brought a vibrant board-gaming scene to a standstill. Usually busy game stores and cafes were forced to shut their doors. It was suddenly not safe to have your regular Saturday game night at a friend’s home. Gamers accustomed to in-person community found themselves unexpectedly isolated from each other. Just as churches held services online in order to maintain community, however imperfect, we took game night online.
Board games are the very definition of in-person, communal activities. As a community group leader in my church, I facilitate a monthly game night, when folks come together to play strategy games like Ticket to Ride, Lords of Waterdeep, or . . . erm . . . Pandemic. It’s as much about being together as it is playing a game.
As COVID-19 shut normal social interactions down, our communities have been tested. We’re seeing that they find a way to persevere and hang together or they fly apart. Those communities who avoid dispersion act intentionally to hold the community together. That’s what most churches have done in quarantine, making in-person communal worship virtual-communal worship. For my board-gaming group, we needed a similar solution to keep the community intact. Thankfully, online platforms like Steam make it possible for our group to come together around a game virtually, yet in-person.
Steam is a digital distribution platform for games featuring over 30,000 titles, ranging from video games to virtual-reality experiences to board games in every genre imaginable. Indeed, Steam is home to thousands of board gamers who prefer to play online. But for table-top gamers, the system is a true godsend. The system makes it very easy to get started and facilitates voice chat while you play, which is key to creating that virtual, in-person experience. Lots of platforms for board games exist out there, some easier to use than others, but the important thing is to have a helpful hub. For our first game night under quarantine we pulled up Lords of Waterdeep and settled into a match of wits, guts, and resource management. While not the same thing as being in person, it gave us that port in a storm to hold together our community. And as a church group, this was also an opportunity to worship God together while playing a game.
As COVID-19 shut normal social interactions down, our communities have been tested.
Online gaming has allowed me to maintain relationships that have been disrupted on other fronts. I run a league out of a local game store for the table-top fantasy football game Blood Bowl, in which traditional fantasy creatures—elves, dwarves, and orcs—play a mashup of American football and rugby. “Coaches” play in leagues and develop their teams over the course of a season. I also play in another league in my area. These two leagues are a community every bit as important to maintain as the gamer group at my church, perhaps even more so.
Jesus is not the explicit center of our relationship, but there is a decidedly church-like quality in the greater community of Blood Bowl players—an attitude of grace. Having been sent out by Jesus, I’ve wanted to represent him well by fostering real friendships, without making anyone in this community my project. For me, playing in these leagues is a kind of ministry. So with COVID-19, we want to hold these friendships especially close. Unable to look forward to in-person matches each week, we found solace online, where there is already a well-established digital community available through the old-school FUMBBL client and the more up-to-date Blood Bowl 2. Although we’d much rather play our games in person, we’re able to continue our community for the time being on these digital platforms.
Online interaction will never replace being present in-person, but—as I’ve experienced in these gaming communities—it can still open doors to each other and show the true strength of our relationships.