(Guest written by Jan Cao, cross-posted from Jan’s website)

Now that you are (almost) vaccinated, do you remember this time last year when you had been stuck at home for two months and was aching for some human interaction? How long have you been fantasizing your next game night? Did you wonder, how other board-game enthusiasts coped with COVID-19?

We were curious about how people creatively use existing technologies to play tabletop games while socially distancing, so we interviewed 15 players to look for some answers. (We also spent a lot of time scraping and reading posts and comments on Reddit, Twitter, and Instagram.) We found three approaches that best describe people’s social and game experiences:

  • Build a shared space for remote gaming. Physical board, rolling dice, or deck of cards, plays a vital part of the offline experience and creates a sense of togetherness in the same game space. Many players feel inclined to recreate this space virtually by utilizing a hybrid setup (rather than relying on virtual gaming platforms). Depending on the complexity of the game, people use different hybrid setups for remote play. For more complex boardgames (e.g., Pandemic), one player often sets up the game board and shares it with other players through cameras (figure a, b). If all players have their own copy of the game, they might set up their own boards and manipulate their boards for both sides (figure c). For tabletop games that only need pen and paper (e.g., Scattergories), there is no need to set up a dedicated game space for sharing among players.

  • Create a personal space for shared information and awareness. In offline games, information is communicated not only verbally, but also through indirect non-verbal social cues such as body gestures and eye contact. Besides the shared game space, people often set up dedicated communication space for their remote game sessions, including video, audio and text messages. However, the lack of non-verbal cues with these communication channels is likely to make players feel disconnected. For example, moving out of the camera area could frustrate the other player during a remote game session, since they couldn’t tell whether their opponent was still engaging in the game.

  • Facilitate a communal temporal experience. When tabletop games move online, the structure of time in these remote game sessions changes. Game sessions become easier to schedule online versus in-person, but because of screen fatigue and the lack of social cues, these sessions tend to be shorter. Because playing remotely does not require all players to be present in the same place, it becomes much easier to schedule a game while accommodating the needs of people from different time zones and under different work or parenting schedules. This change also brings more opportunities for people to connect through remote tabletop gaming.

Traced pictures of examples for Hybrid Setups retrieved from online observation: (a) Gamemaster does-it-all (board view); (b) Gamemaster does-it-all (videochat view); (c) mirrored board (videochat view); (d) pen-and-paper.

So, how can technologists design better systems to support people playing board games across distance? One idea is getting away from trying to replicate a game and all of its rules online. Instead, our study suggests that allowing players to customize rules, scoring systems, and teaming strategies could potentially make the social experience better. You can read more about our work and findings in our paper.

Written by

Irene Ye Yuan is a third year Ph.D. student with GroupLens Research Lab and advised by Professor Lana Yarosh. Her research interests focus in the areas of Human-Computer Interaction and Social Computing. More information can be found in https://ireneyeyuan.me/.

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