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Virtual Gaming: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

I took In-Person Gaming Conventions for granted.  There. I said it.

I miss my physical dice…

We could really close the curtains here, but nahhh. Let’s dive into this Virtual Gaming thing. Gaming Conventions were not only a vacation for me, but a chance to debut new material, explore new games, meet new people, and connect with friends who I only see a few times a year. Sure, I’d complain about long lines, rank body odor, and lack of sleep… but man! Talk about not appreciating what you had until it’s gone. Give me ALL of the BO. I’m ready. I’ll work through the sleep deprivation. That’s what coffee is for! I’ll stand in lines… just to overhear or join a conversation about a game that I’ve never experienced.

Pleeeease, just let me roll some physical dice and grab a quick bite to eat with my friends from New York (I’m in Ohio) before my next event!!!

So… yea. In an attempt to maintain the hobby, strengthen those long-distance relationships, and not to go completely insane, several of us transitioned to Virtual Gaming. Here’s a sneak peek into my experience with Virtual Gaming as I explore The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.

The Good

Gaming Lives On!

I am both fortunate and grateful for the ability to still game! This is a HUGE boost to my mental health. I am still able to write new material, play-test and publish. I also find that there are more opportunities for me to play, instead of GM. Also, keeping it 100, my publication output has increased by 100% during the pandemic. Don’t ask me why, I haven’t thought too hard about it.

Global Games!

Virtual gaming has brought me into direct contact with gamers across the globe! Sure, in person conventions offer the same opportunity, but not on this scale (in my experience). I’ve been at several tables where I was the only American. Hearing the accents, the vocabulary, the different cultural approaches to various aspects of the game is intoxicating for me! I’ve learned to walk a thin line with Aboriginal folklore by players from Australia to realizing the persons in the UK have no idea what a “jail bond,” is!

GM Note: When writing games to publish, be aware that what’s common in YOUR worldview isn’t common in others. We had a Bails Bondsmen Investigator at a Call of Cthulhu table once and none of the non-American players knew what that profession was!

Admit it… you’ve looked like this before, haven’t you?

No Pants, No Bra!

Come on, now. Don’t act like you haven’t done it! If the video feed is off, you knnnnowwww that you’ve gamed in pajamas, under a blanket, your hair looking a whole mess, no bra, no pants, and with a pet probably sitting on your head. You may be extra cool if you’ve done the above with the camera on!

New Skillsets!

Not going to lie to you, folks. I had no idea what Discord was until those Stay Orders hit. I’d never created a Roll20 account. I had never played a Virtual TTRPG. Now, I’m semi-fluent in Discord, Roll20, Google Meet and various other VTTs (Virtual Table Tops). These are valuable skills that you can roll over into various aspects of your life. Phil Vecchione does a great job of exploring those platforms here [1]!

Connection!

I miss my friends. I miss catching up with them at conventions, hugging them and seeing their faces. Virtual Gaming gives me the opportunity to still see their faces, hear their voices and continue to be inspired by their intelligence, wit, and play styles. I have a friend in Cleveland, Ohio who works as a nurse on the COVID Ward. She constantly expresses gratitude for the games that we’re able to run and play together, but she’ll never truly understand the gratitude that I feel to still be connected to her in this small way.

Virtual Conventions!

Big Shout Out to each and every Convention that made an effort to transition games onto the virtual format for us lowly gamers! I’ve had the opportunity to attend several online conventions (U-Con, GaryCon, etc.). I’ve cultivated new friendships. These conventions also helped me to learn and navigate these new virtual platforms  (ya’ll know damned well that I didn’t learn Roll20 by myself).

I also had the opportunity to be a collaborator for a convention! Miskatonic Repository hosted an online convention focusing on horror games (mostly Call of Cthulhu). WOW! That was an eye-opening experience. Coordinating events, creating convention rules, watching the Discord bloom and connecting with so many Call of Cthulhu fans from around the globe? Humbled!!!

GM Note: Oh, and apparently UTC is the standard time to host international events. You’re welcome.

Author Note: If you haven’t thanked your convention organizers, go do that now! It’s quite a task and a feat to bring you the opportunity to game. 

Streaming!

I had no idea what Twitch was until the pandemic hit. Judge me, I don’t care. Now, because of the awesomeness and generosity of the Untold Stories Project [2], I was able to play live AND be featured as a GM on their stream. Watching live play is easier than ever with platforms such as this.

Community!

“Our heads are bloody, but unbowed.” Despite our businesses closing, our health failing, and the world crashing around us… Virtual Gaming has given us respite. We are able to lean on each other, share with each other, and suffer together. I may be sitting alone in my house, but by the time I log into Discord and join in on the pre-game chatter, I feel better. Friends and strangers alike disclose their fears, their insecurities and how the pandemic is affecting them. We cheer, we lament, and we strengthen each other.

Gifs & Memes!

I absolutely LIVE for funny Gifs and Memes during game play. Absolutely. Live. For. Them. This is something that in-person gaming will NEVER be able to touch. When you’re not involved in the scene, but you can still participate by asking the GM questions, posting a hilarious GIF or RPing with another player in chat? Best. Ever. I can’t tell ya’ll how much I love the side fun!

There is a myriad of things to love about online gaming, but now let’s explore…

The Bad

Techno-difficulties

Whether you’re battling technological difficulties, or you’re like me, technologically challenged, it’s a whoooole new game when you’re playing virtually. Let’s explore.

Phil Vecchione, the author referenced above, made two very solid points that I want to reiterate: you don’t cover as much ground with virtual games and virtual gaming is exhausting!

Exhausting.

So, so, sooooo tired.

Gaming virtually comes with its fair share of distractions, experience management, and issues. Players (or you) dropping in and out of servers, trying to figure out whose mic isn’t working (or whose mic is causing the echo), reminding the person who isn’t using a mic that we can hear everything in their background… deep breath players talking over each other, trying to micromanage screenshots of your maps, handouts, uploading them correctly another deep breath someone’s internet just went out, someone is affected by a storm, real life got in the way and players can’t commit to events… GAH!

Virtual Gaming and Hosting should be listed as a skillset on resumes, because let me tell you… It’s. Exhausting. I can run/play 3 events straight at an in-person con. Back-to-back. 9A, 1P, 6P. BAM! I’m good. Let’s do it again tomorrow. If you try to get me to do more than one virtual event a day? Look. I ain’t got it. I’m not even apologizing for it.

Distractions.

Darned distractions. I have dogs. At a convention, where my only focus is gaming, my fur kids aren’t an issue. Sitting on my couch? Let’s play. I want a snack. I need to go potty. Who’s outside?

I’m talking about dogs, but this also probably sounds like a lot of your kids. They still scramble for your attention and affection. Do your kids have a hard time going to bed at night? Whelp, you might not be able to join a game until after 9P EST. The problem with that, the other half of your table has to rise early in the morning to go to work, so that doesn’t work for them.

WORK! Hey guys! We still have jobs, businesses, families, responsibilities and other things that require our attention. Trying to game virtually while simultaneously working? It’s a bummer and one heck of a juggle. Whether you’re at a convention or gaming at a friend’s house, the primary focus… is gaming. All of that other life stuff goes into a temporary void. Not online gaming. You have to find a way to manage both simultaneously.

Be honest. Have you ever folded laundry or washed dishes during a game? No? Just me? That’s fine.

Author’s Note: My favorite saying that I developed during this pandemic is “Life > Gaming. Always.” We’re people coming together for the love of a shared hobby. You will be late to an event. You may have to cancel. Real life may get in the way… and you know what? That’s okay. Life > Gaming. Always. 

Pants and Bras (and more)

Yup, I recycled this one. Sometimes when I hear that a future game requires video, my neck snaps back until the top of my head reaches my shoulders. I. Have. To. Put. On. A. Bra. NOOOOO!!!!

What does my hair look like? Are my eyebrows still under that “plant growth,” spell? What shirt should I wear? Should it be themed appropriately? I don’t feel like gaming at my desk, how crazy am I going to look gaming with a bouncing laptop in my lap?

Do I really need to wear pants? Some of us have grown quite comfortable in our “pandemic casual” attire. Virtual gaming with the camera on can be a long walk back to 2019.

Those We Left Behind.

You know all of that fluffy fluff I wrote above about connecting with our friends and maintaining contact? What about those friends who don’t game virtually? Whether they hate the experience or are unable to participate… they’re still out there. One of my best Rainmaker [3] players loathes online gaming and refuses to do it. (Richard Ferris, I love you and I miss you!). One of my best friends feels the same.

Author Note: Don’t forget about those friends just because they’re not in your immediate virtual orbit. Be intentional about reaching out, connecting and involving them in your life. They matter to you, and you matter to them.

Global Gaming

Global virtual gaming is EPIC, until you start dealing with time zones. I have one too many time zone converters saved in my browser and I’ve missed out on a fair share of highly coveted events because they were being hosted at 3A EST. It is what it is.

Never underestimate the importance of body language.

This is SO CHALLENGING FOR ME! If I’m running an audio-only virtual game, I can’t see nor react to the body language of the players. I can’t tell if players are engaged, uncomfortable, or even if I’m doing a terrific job! I can’t see a raised hand for a question. I can’t see the iconic forehead smacks. Those awkward silences? Is something wrong, are they just waiting to see if I’m finished prior to responding, or are they just rolling dice?

Even if the video is on, trying to juggle my notes, my handouts, and the server while looking over the pixelated faces of 6 people staring at my overgrown eyebrows is difficult to manage.

Sometimes it may certainly feel like the bad outweighs the good when it comes to virtual gaming. Different strokes for different folks.

We’ve covered the Good and the Bad, now let’s explore… the Ugly.

The Ugly

The Ruining

Virtual gaming has brought out some real ugly in folk. I’ve seen it. I’ve been both a victim and a participant. Let’s briefly discuss.

When you stick a handful of pandemic worn strangers into a virtual room together, some keyboard bullies may surface. I’m not sure if is the geographical distance or the fact that we’re not face to face, but I’ve been antagonized and berated more as a GM online than in person. Persons who aren’t happy with a rules decision or how much screen time that they’re receiving have both the mediums of voice and chat to attack while being completely defended behind the safety of their screen.

Players who can’t see (or hear) their fellows may inadvertently be spoken over. I’ve seen that turn ugly. “Why won’t you let me speak?” “Can I finish my sentence?” “Am I even in this scene?” Oftentimes, it’s harmless, and truly the fault of technology… but it’s still the people who bear the brunt of that negative force.

Veiled Prejudices

In case you couldn’t tell from the header above, I’m black. I’m also a woman. Black women are definitely the minority in gaming circuits, though it pleases me to see more and more come into the fold. However, in virtual play, you may have no idea the gender, race or sexual orientation of the person on the other side of the screen.

I’ve seen the misuse of pronouns turn south quick, fast and in a hurry. “Oh, sorry. You sound like a girl.” Yeaaaa… don’t say that to anyone ever again.

I’ve seen old friends make inappropriate jokes about topics that may not be open season for everyone in virtual games…. and then I’d have to juggle those complaints afterwards.

Those words came out of your mouth?

I was running at a virtual convention once (audio only) and it came out that I was black. A player asked, “Wait, you’re black?”

My response, “Yep, I’m black.”

Their immediate response was, “What, like Canadian Black?”

Ya’ll take as much time to unpack that as you’d like. That initial inquiry would not have occurred in an in-person game, because… well, yea. I’m black. You see me. I see me. Their response? What’s the likelihood that I would have been asked, “Are you a Canadian Black,” in person?

Author’s Note: I’m fine! Just sharing an experience. Don’t shed any tears nor comments on my behalf. The wheel turns and the world spins. I laugh about this now. 

Virtual Gaming can bring out the ugly, for sure….

In Conclusion

Virtual Gaming has pros, cons and some serious pitfalls. It can be good, bad and sometimes even ugly. If Virtual Gaming brings you joy, continue to chase the things that make you happy. If Virtual Gaming leaves a bad taste in your mouth, we’ll see you when it’s safe to be outside again!

We’re all human beings and we’re all flawed. We are each good, bad, and sometimes ugly. Let’s work together as gamers to highlight the good, minimize the bad and eradicate the ugly!

What are the goods about virtual gaming for you and your group(s)?

What are some of the bads?

What are some uglies, and how can we work to eradicate them going forward?