I hope one day folks will be able to read this article and reflect – “yeah, that’s right – we were in the middle of a pandemic back then.”
Like probably every one of my “gaming generation”, I was introduced to gaming via face-to-face, physically present gaming. It was the early 1980s, and my next-door neighbor had received the D&D Basic Set for Christmas. I thought it was the coolest thing ever when he introduced it to me on a snow day. Playing a game virtually back then would have been quite the challenge. There were “play by mail” games advertised in Dragon Magazine of the time. But my gaming was all physical. Our first D&D club was in the public library of our home town (where we were frequently exhorted to keep it down). I was probably a horrible DM. But I was learning, just like everyone else in the group. It was a blast.
By high school, my gaming slowed down, and it nearly stopped during college. After moving to Massachusetts in the mid-1990s, it picked up again. And technology began playing a much more significant role. We were able to use email to schedule games,
As people began moving away, having families, etc., I began advertising for games on various message boards. – While there were some busts there, I also made some great friends – people I’ve now known for years, become friends with, been to their weddings, etc. As life became more complicated for me, my group went to a hybrid virtual group and eventually to an entirely virtual one. I definitely miss having people hanging out in the house, but with two little kids, it became far too challenging. Amazingly, those two little kids are now 15 and 18, with the younger one joining us for gaming.
The earlier efforts at virtual gaming were tough. We made use of one or more cheap webcams in the game room, and when combat broke out, we’d focus one of the cameras on the battlemap. We were playing a lot of d20-based games at the time – D&D 3.5 and Star Wars being biggies. At this point, webcams weren’t standard on every laptop, and we made use of Skype for our gaming. I seem to recall splurging for a premium Skype account to be able to incorporate video chat. We experimented with early virtual tabletops – I recall using Maptool on occasion – but we usually made do with the camera solution.
As time went on, we began adjusting the technology we used. We were big users of Fantasy Grounds and Google Hangouts for a while. I liked Fantasy Grounds quite a bit and would still gladly use it – the officially supported games are superb. I’ve gravitated more towards MacOS and cloud-based solutions and have been a Roll20 user for quite some time now – I’ve even made a few contributions to it on GitHub. I do tend to make use of Discord now for my gaming chats and video calls.
On the social aspect, I definitely mourn the loss of Google+ – while it never came close to being a Facebook or Twitter competitor, it was a superb place for gaming discussions.
With my kids older, gaming face to face began to become a possibility again. At a previous employer, people would sometimes play Pathfinder after work or D&D 5e. I joined a startup in early 2020, and there were a lot of gaming discussions on Slack – I’d been giving some thought to joining a D&D 5e game or running a Call of Cthulhu game. Alas, Covid-19 sent most of us all working from home. As part of trying to keep the team together, we were doing a variety of virtual activities, and I was going to run some Call of Cthulhu online (and write about it here). That never came to be as come early April, half of us (including me), lost our jobs, as we were intimately tied to the restaurant industry. I thankfully found a new job quickly, interviewing and coming onboard virtually. I suspect all that time gaming virtually helped me with that. And amusingly, my Cthulhu and D&D references in my most recent jobs tend not to go over everyone’s head.
Covid-19 is awful. Clearly, the worst part of it is the illness itself, having claimed over 650,000 lives as of this writing and nearly 17 million having been infected with it, many suffering greatly. The isolation required to manage it is brutal as well. Many have lost their jobs, businesses have failed, and it gets darn lonely. I miss taking the commuter rail to Boston. But I’m grateful that the technology we have in 2020 helps bridge some of the distances between us.
~ Daniel Stack
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