The memory of my last in-person Game Night has crystalized deep in my mind, playing on repeat over the last year. It was March 17th, 2020, a Tuesday, like it always was up in New Paltz. We slowly gathered in the pool hall over the course of an hour or two, unpacking bags, suggesting beers to try and things to eat. Adam set up his Overlight RPG campaign in the corner, while Eric and others opened up some of the new games we had gotten from PAX East to test out for review.
That night was the last night things felt normal, although the nervousness was setting in. Two old friends from college stopped by for the first time in months; one ordered a Corona ironically while I set up Pandemic: Rapid Response so we could pretend like we could possibly save the world with just a little daring and a little luck. Between rounds, I quietly shared the news that my wife was pregnant, and was rewarded with excited shouts and bear hugs of congratulations.
The next day, the college where I work suddenly announced that students were to pack up and go home for the rest of the semester, and that campus workers should begin packing up so they could do whatever work they could from home. The COVID Pandemic had come home to the Hudson Valley, and those hugs from my friends were the last I got from anyone besides my wife for a very, very long time.
A note from the writer: this article is a contemplation on gaming in 2020, on what games I played and kept me sane. It’s also absolutely a stream of conscious therapy session. There are many personal details to give context to a hectic year outside of just COVID – your own experiences during the pandemic may certainly differ from my own.
The Before Time – All Fun And Games
It’s funny how memory works. In my attempts to write this article, to put into words an experience that feels too large and surreal to explain properly, I suddenly remember a lifestyle that feels impossible and decadent in the new normal that I now live in. Weekly game nights out at a bar, with both friends and strangers packing in tightly around tables. The ability to see friends when you wanted to, provided you had some energy after work.
What sticks out in my mind is how roughly two weeks before, I was at PAX East with my fellow Sprites and Dice writers. Two months before contained was a wonderful PAX Unplugged, but that experience feels too distant and idyllic to even compare against. No, PAX East 2020 was a wild ride of excitement and good times and joy, but it also brought with it a ominous sense of things to come.
March 1st, 2020. The amount of people in this photo feels surreal now.
A week before the convention began, Sony pulled the plug on coming to PAX East. Suddenly, the growing anxiety that was starting to dominate the regular news slammed into the world I usually retreated into to try and escape the doldrums of modernity. A buzz of activity happened through our staff chat, a conversation that was mirrored all over Reddit forums and fan groups: was going to Boston a dangerous thing? How bad could this virus really be? Other organizations like Facebook announced they were also pulling out their representatives from the event. Organizers felt it was important to issue a statement that there would be improved sanitation and extra precautions taken to make sure people felt that it was safe to come.
We still went. It turned out to be a great time, and one that I have to highlight: I have never seen such a studiously clean convention center. Every time you played a game demo, a team of volunteers would sweep over the keyboards and game controllers to wipe them down. Custodians could be seen on the escalators at every hour, wiping down rails and disinfecting any surface nearby. I’d start many interviews with a handshake through sheer muscle memory from previous events, only to have one of us laugh nervously, apologize, and offer hand sanitizer that we were keeping nearby or in our bags.
I had an ulterior motive for PAX East 2020 however, one that wasn’t focused on trying to score big interviews or review codes or trying out cool new games. I had just recently found out my wife was pregnant, right before finding out we’d have to move out of the house we had lived in for years. At an afterparty Saturday night, I let my guard drop totally to enjoy the night. I played Fortnite for the first time on souped up Predator computers, sipped gin and tonics, and belted out lyrics as the DJ played. Part of me knew that – for many reasons – this weekend was a bit of a last hurrah.
When The World Shrank – Dauntless and Discord
By the time the USA decided to close down, the writing was on the wall. Living in the Hudson Valley, we were close enough to New York City to realize how bad it could get. While we had plans to run some more events, we had been talking as a team that maybe we should be cautious. When the lock down hit, it was a relief to know it was being taken seriously.
In my hubris, I remember packing up things for my job to come home to work and trying to stay positive; at least I could relax at home a little before this all went away in a few months.
Gaming changed quickly for our team. We had spent three years building up a loyal group of board gamers to come hang out every week, and now that had been dashed. We had been fortunately starting to build a Discord channel in January, so we had the infrastructure to shift game night online. We played a lot of Dauntless and Streets of Rogue: games that were easy to play with friends and had a sense of humor. The idea was to keep morale high and see this small hiccup in normal life through.
Sometimes, you want really complex games. Other times, fighting giant monsters with huge weapons is the right call.
To be fair, going on giant monster hunts with three friends and succeeding is a huge stress reliever. When you’re all stuck inside thanks to a disease you can’t actually fight, facing down a raging ape made of fire feels like a fine alternative.
During these first few months, I had to move out of my home. Working from home was a gift, as I spent lunch and breaks packing up boxes and looking for apartments. Jess broke her toe during the move. Friends in masks came by to help, and I’d often leave our now empty house by midnight after a long day of cleaning.
We managed… somehow. The weekly online games and digital board game emulators helped as bright spots in a stressful time; it kept me away from the TV, doomwatching the number of casualties in my home state skyrocket and praying that COVID wouldn’t find its way where we were. I remember seeing Adam and Eric in person for the last time, as I dropped off board games that wouldn’t fit in the apartment – I couldn’t really play them anyway until this was all over. Hopefully by Autumn.
The Need For Distraction – Final Fantasy 7 Remake
By the middle of May, life had hit that strange pause that everyone across the world was settling into. Days began to repeat. Time began to lose meaning. In some ways, having to rush a move had kept away the doldrums that had already begun for so many, but now in a tiny apartment it was hitting hard. Jess was due with the baby in September, and still had a broken foot; doing anything besides going to work, coming home, showering and decontaminating immediately felt reckless. The idea of risking her and the child was unfathomable.
I'll be honest - Barret's fatherhood backstory hit different this year than it did back in 1997.
Fortunately, there were games. Big games, with crazy plots and flashy designs. Final Fantasy 7: Remake was the first game I mainlined, loving the mixture of nostalgia, new graphics, and fun gameplay. It felt good to be a bunch of heroes trying to save the world when the real world felt impossible. I finally broke down and got Pokémon Shield, in part because my wife hadn’t played a Pokémon game since the Gameboy. It was fun spending nights rooting each other on.
Having so much time at home trapped inside let me finally pull up the Total War: Warhammer series. I had been terrified of trying to master this game series for a long while, partially because I knew much of a time sink a Total War game could be. I didn’t really have an excuse now.
As spring ended, the ability to push out the real world started to crumble; it wasn’t just COVID out there, but people’s lives falling apart and social unrest. Sprites and Dice ran a charity stream for the first time because of the horrific deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. It felt good to do something, anything, while trapped inside. Like much about 2020, it was no where near enough, but it was something.
When Dice Rolling Wasn’t Enough – Dungeons and Dragons
The summer was when my mood collapsed. We hit affiliate on twitch, we managed to keep the discord game nights going from a distance… but everything was losing its luster. I know I lost hours to many games, but I couldn’t tell you for the life of me what they were. One of the few that stands out is State of Decay 2, just because the co-op gameplay was a blast. Yes, our world felt like it was falling into shambles, but at least we didn’t have full on zombie hordes yet.
I had been running a Dungeons and Dragons game for the last year, and the shift online had a lot of positives and negatives. It was a campaign I was proud of, having twenty alternating players based on who came to game night at the bar. I was hoping to finish the plot I had planned with a huge bang, with pages of notes and preparation in the works.
But I just couldn’t. Something I had been giddily preparing for month after month just felt grey. I brought up to the therapist I’ve been seeing for ADHD about how suddenly everything felt harder, like swimming through molasses. Even though I had more time for myself than ever, nothing seemed to happen. They laughed, saying “Trust me, you aren’t alone in this”.
I still finished my campaign, using Discord and dramatic music to infuse a little life back into things. I still had a string of boss battles and dramatic moments as different teams ran to different parts of the world to try and stop dimensional rifts from tearing apart their homeland. Some characters died, others left in flashes of light to other worlds to repair the damage.
It still didn’t feel right, not to me. Not being in person, feeding off the laughter and the sound of dice on the table didn’t help this feeling of distance. I misbalanced some fights, I could have managed some of the dramatic points to be stronger. I’m glad I did it – it’s one of the few things I remember from the long COVID summer, and I’ve had a few players excited for a chance to start the next chapter. I just know it could have been better.
New Party Member, New Challenges
September arrived, and gaming slowed down. I got about to building baby furniture, reading parenting articles, vetting what sort of car seat to get. With COVID looming over everything, with so many people losing jobs and lives, it often felt wrong to play games.
PAX Online kicked off, and I started having fun covering it with my staff: trying out tons of new demos and experiencing different games, it gave me a sense of normalcy. We played Spellbreak, enjoying some online competition, trying to get in on the ground floor of a Fortnite style game with magic as its main focus. I was pretty bad, but I didn’t care. I had about two weeks left before the baby came, and I was going to get some last-minute articles out while I had the chance.
And just like that, about two weeks ahead of schedule, my strong and courageous wife started having sudden complications. At 1 am on September 14th, my wife woke up with a migraine that wouldn’t go away. By 6 am we were going to the operating room, wheeled in with doctors and nurses. At 7:12 am, I became a father. It’s something you hear all the time, it’s true: in that moment, everything changed.
Good morning Jonah: welcome to the world.
All at once, I couldn’t care less about gaming. Yet, at the same time, it became a life raft. We spent a week in the hospital, with no visitors due to COVID. Baby Jonah was born at just under 5 pounds. He couldn’t keep himself warm. He’d sleep on my chest bundled in blankets. Jess would toss and turn in her bed, the machines beeping and whirring all night long. I opened up Hearthstone for the first time in a year and played Battlegrounds matches to try and stay awake until the new nurses arrived for the day at 8 am.
2020 turned a lot of things on their head for me. One of them was suddenly having card games on my phone become a lifesaver instead of a constant source of distraction.
Saving Solar Systems And Avoiding Sleep - Stellaris
When we got home, it became apparent Jonah didn’t sleep well; he was still just a little too small. I started taking the overnight shift, just holding the baby for 4 hour stretches to make sure Jess had a chance to recover from the ordeal she had just gone through too.
This is when I fell in love with games that had seemed too intimidating in the before-times. I sank hundreds of hours into Stellaris, a game all about trying to build a planet-spanning nation. It’s filled with insane curveballs and devious problems. Your spacefaring nation might discover ancient artifacts that either give psychic powers or kill off your scientists. Maybe you’d colonize a perfect planet for your people just to find out five years later it was actually an egg for a world-eating monster. You know, like you do.
I was hooked. This was entire world I could lose myself in. This didn’t feel like a game I was trying to win so much as experience. After so much immediate insanity and stress, I needed an escapist experience to ground me again. I know that sounds weak, but all my strength was going to my new family. Here was a game I could play with one hand while rocking my new tiny human to sleep with the other.
It became a routine: staying up until 8 or 9 AM with a tiny little baby in my lap. He’d wake up, and I’d prepare a bottle without waking Jess. Jonah would fall asleep, small enough to fit on a pillow, and I’d hold him close to keep him warm until the next feeding an hour later. All the while, my fledgling lizard-scientist empire was scrambling in a panic as rampant nanite swarms devoured solar systems while I was tasked with saving the Galaxy.
The Sleepless King Of My Own Castle
Crusader Kings III is a game I would have never touched outside of 2020; not because I wouldn’t love it, but because I couldn’t devote that much attention to learning its intricate system of politics. Suddenly, I had 8-12 hours a day to fill with a need to stay awake. I tackled learning about feudalism and the rites of succession in a way that high school history teachers would have swooned over.
Just how many Byzantine Emperors do I have to assassinate to impress my neighbors around here?!
Jonah was gaining weight healthily now, but Jessica's health hadn’t recovered yet, so full rest was at a premium. I was blessed with a job that let me take months off to help assist, which was fortunate since COVID meant family couldn’t visit, and friends couldn’t stop by to hold the baby for a few hours. Days were becoming a blur of chores, trying to figure out how to care for a newborn, and sleeping after all-nighters.
I’m ashamed to say I started looking forward to midnight. It was easy to feed Jonah back to sleep, even if putting him down to rest still felt like disarming a bomb. I started rationalizing the need to stay awake until sunrise instead of trying to put him down and possibly waking up Jess. Instead, I’d curl up in front of my computer and continue to work on trying to unite Africa against that scary Byzantine Empire.
If I want to remember one thing from those early days of parenthood, it’s how soundly Jonah slept on my shoulder, breathing warmly against my cheek. As I simulated trying to build a galactic empire in Stellaris or tried to create my own religion in Crusader Kings III, it will always be paired in my memories with feeling this soft 8 pound weight held in one arm, cuddled in close for comfort.
When Games Weren’t Enough
One of the last hurrahs of 2020 was a second charity stream we ran for Sprites and Dice, the same weekend I turned 35. It was a weird week, filled with melancholy. Like everyone else, having holidays and celebrations taken away felt a bit personal, and anything to stave off that melancholy felt like a good idea.
Nothing quite like a zombie apocalypse to distract you from... a pandemic.
State of Decay 2 was my game choice, and we had a blast. Four hours of uninterrupted gameplay to raise money for a good cause felt like a personal gift; it didn’t hurt that the gameplay included my friends Nella and Jack riding around in cars held together by duct tape and fire to get away from zombie hordes. The ability to jump into a friend’s world to help them fight against a hopeless cause felt especially poignant.
And then…I can’t really remember what other games I played from then until March. I know I did play games, but it was more of a fugue state than actual enjoyment. I had been occasionally playing the much beloved Hades since its full release, loving the story, the characters, the music, the gameplay… but as time went on, I played less and less. Not because I wanted to – but because time became more fleeting.
With November, I went back to work. I stopped streaming. Everything stopped, honestly. It was sleepless nights, followed by catching up on months of E-mails and projects, then fighting my lovely child to try and build a sleep schedule. Jonah still didn’t like being put down, his body is still catching up. The games I played were “Picasso the stuffed donkey” and reading “The ABC’s of D&D” to try and distract him from crying.
This isn’t to say I didn’t treasure the months I had with my son. I have so many pictures and videos: our first walk in snow, his first time trying to roll over. It’s just that free time vanished. Thanks to COVID, there was no cavalry coming, no family swooping in. There was no time to refresh and recollect yourself. When I did find time to play games, it was like the color and excitement had been sapped away. Everything went grey.
A New Year, A New Hope – Board Games Again
Color started to reappear in my life in February. Jonah was starting to sleep through the night; granted, he wouldn’t go down to sleep until 1-2am, but it was a start of a regular schedule. Work didn’t feel as overwhelming. The icy cold was starting to subside so we could go on more walks… and I got my first vaccine dose.
I wasn’t expecting to feel so giddy the next day. I had another month to wait before the second dose, but I think it triggered something instinctual in my brain, letting me hope again. A shot was scheduled for Jess. Jess’s father became fully vaccinated, and after two weeks waiting, we were able to visit in their home. After five months, he got to hold his grandson for the first time.
The first game I really remember playing in 2021 was My City. It’s a board game that feels a bit like Tetris, where you build competing towns as buildings of different shapes and sizes are revealed out by the deck of cards. My wife had agreed to try and play with me as a Christmas present, and fell in love with the puzzle-like nature of it. When Jonah would pass out early, we’d gather around our apartment kitchen table and excitedly whisper as we drew cards from the deck.
Our first family game night! Taken January 1st to ring in the new year.
Multiplayer games on the computer were still out, and I was burned out of Stellaris and Crusader Kings III. I still love them, but when you play a game just to stay sane for a month straight, you need some time away. Like many people, I wanted to use this weird year to catch up on games I’ve always wanted to play through, so Pathfinder: Kingmaker has been a real winner. An old-fashioned Isometric RPG crawl, trying to save the world and build a better future? I could use that in 2021.
Where Do We Go From March 2021?
Gaming got me through the last year. It was my escapist hobby of choice when asthma trapped me inside as a child, and it saved me again when I was 35, trapped inside due to a virus. I feel so incredibly fortunate that I was able to get through 2020 and still keep my health, my job, and a good amount of sanity. I was able to visit other worlds as the hero of my own story, spending nights connecting to friends I was a disconnected from and chatting about life as we stomped zombies.
It also felt a bit hollow. There’s something to be said for games being great escapism, but that escapism is best shared with others. That’s always been the magic of both gaming conventions and sports arenas: thousands of people gathered to enjoy the same thing. To collectively know without a doubt you aren’t alone in what you enjoy. For most of us, COVID took that away. Yes, we had the internet to connect us, but day after day of screens both for work and hobby can blur together.
March 1st, 2021. How much things can change in a year!
By the end of April, my wife and I will be fully vaccinated, and a few of my gamer friends will be as well. We’ll be able to safely gather. We might be able to bring board games and actually throw dice together. Jonah’s now 6 months old, and we’ve finally begun to give him a bedtime that isn’t 1 AM. The idea of being able to stream again, of picking up a game that needs two hands to play is an actual possibility. Yet, it feels so trite. My life has changed so much in the last 365 days – after everything I’ve been through, should I even be gaming?
Yes. Yes, I should do things that bring me joy. I fully understand that gaming on its own isn’t always fulfilling, but it’s the tool I’ve used my whole life to find community and a sense of belonging. Whether running a D&D campaign or streaming for charity, the ability to play games has enriched my life, not just whittle away the time. I need to remember that as 2020 is finally starting to appear in the back mirror and 2021 stretches out in front of us. To enjoy what you can, and to always, always make sure you can enjoy what you can with others.
I can't wait for the first gaming convention I can go to safely. I can’t wait for the first game night back at the bar. I can’t wait for the moment when I get to see the friends I hugged over a year ago come back through the door, and I have a chance to hug them again. Some of the brightest points I remember from 2020 was when I was laughing with friends online about what we were playing, whether it was doing it together or saving worlds on our own.
Gaming is the hobby, but having community is the dream.