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“Now is the time to call your friends.”

I’ve heard that advice a lot over the past few days. I’ve called and FaceTimed and reconnected with people I would never think to contact on a regular Tuesday evening. We’ve had lovely, heartfelt conversations, asking “How are you,” and really listening to the answers.

But “talking” and “hanging out” are not the same thing. And especially if coronavirus-induced social isolation stretches on for months, as experts now say it might, just talking to friends isn’t going to cut it.

All over the world, people are already making memories across a video screen, staging virtual baking sessions, art classes, dance parties, book clubs, birthday parties and family dinners. Socially-distanced friends should try a virtual game of Dungeons & Dragons, suggests Oakland-based Lauren Frazier, who leads the Valkyries, a role-playing game group for black women, with members who live across the country.

“Years later, we still talk about the things in the game like they really happened. We’ll be like, ‘Remember that time when you killed that orc, that was so cool!’ It feels like real memories because you are so immersed in that world together.”

I found a few women with virtual hangout success stories and asked them how they did it. It might have been a little awkward at first, says Emma Alterman, who organized an online game of Codenames for 10 college friends (complete with her own virtual-friendly instruction manual). But if you do it right, she says, “there is a point in the night when you forget that you’re virtual.”

Here’s how you make that happen:

1. Get friendly with your videoconferencing service

“I’m a total Zoom evangelist,” says Alterman, who has used the video service at work for years. For free, you can host a gathering with up to 100 participants for as long as 40 minutes. Whatever service you use — Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, FaceTime — spend some time getting to know its special features. On Zoom, you can chat, share and annotate screens, split up into smaller groups in “breakout rooms” or use a virtual whiteboard (perfect for playing Pictionary, Alterman says).

(Courtesy of Emma Alterman)
(Courtesy of Emma Alterman)

2. Embrace the weirdness of the situation

“When we try to pretend things are normal, it causes more anxiety,” says Allie Nagle, a Salt Lake City based therapist, who planned a “family dinner” for 10 of her closest friends on Monday. “It’s okay for this to be weird — just giggle and agree to make the best of it.” Inevitably, there will be technical glitches, Nagle says, but don’t let that throw everything off. Whenever someone’s screen froze at the dinner, they took a beat and waited for the technology to sort itself out. By the end, they were making jokes about it. “We’d say, ‘Hey if your screen freezes, you should probably moon us,’ and everyone would laugh.” The key, Nagle said, was to acknowledge the “odd moments of disconnection with humor and grace.”

Technical failures can lead to some of the best virtual memories, says Mabel Thu, who threw herself a virtual 17th birthday party on Saturday. When she brought out the cake everyone spontaneously started singing “Happy Birthday” — but all their voices were slightly delayed, playing over each other. “It made it funny, I just started laughing,” said Thu. “I loved it.”

3. Warm up

It can take a few minutes to get used to talking on video. When you’re all in the same room, it’s easier to read body language, and figure out who’s about to start speaking, Nagle says. It helps to start with something to make everyone a little more comfortable, says Alterman. Before Codenames, she asked her friends to share “a little update on their life,” jumping from one person to the next, down each line of their “Brady Bunch” style Zoom screen.

4. Think through all the details

Before game night, Alterman thought through exactly how the evening was going to work. “Sorry that there is some prereading for game night,” she wrote to her friends in an email, “but sending around some basics of Zoom … as well as some info to prep for games.” In a bulleted list, she explained each Zoom feature they’d be using. The email closed out with a list of things to have on hand: a computer, a phone, a mouse, and a spreadsheet she’d prepared for optimal game play.

5. Or maybe just wing it (depends on your style)

“Honestly I didn’t really go in with a plan,” said Thu. “Just go with it.” She set a time, and asked all her friends to send over their email addresses. The only other thing she planned in advance was the cake (chocolate ice cream, from Publix). Once everybody signed on, she just let the party flow. They played a few online games, did some drawings, and then everyone else watched Thu eat cake. At some point, “everybody just started talking and laughing,” Thu said. “You just get the hang of it.”

6. Buy into it

When one couple arrived at Nagle’s dinner party, they were wearing the clothes they wore at their wedding. “I saw them come on and it was so, so, so delightful.” Everyone laughed, especially when the guy in the couple stood up to go to the sink: He’d paired his suit jacket with short shorts. That meant something to Nagle: She’d planned the whole dinner party, and pushed her friends to sign onto the idea. Showing up in wedding clothes was like showing up at a Halloween party in a super elaborate costume, Nagle says. “I could tell they were ‘in,’” she says. “It’s like, oh yeah, you are with me, here in this moment.”

7. Sit back from your computer

Don’t sit right up at the keyboard, says Nagle. And put your phone away. It’s super tempting to open another tab on your screen when you’re video chatting. This only really works if you’re fully present, she says.

8. Make a plan to do this again. And again. And again.

Frazier’s gaming group usually meets every other Sunday — and while those who live in Portland typically gather in the same room, now they’ll all be playing remotely, keeping their regular schedule. It helps to have a plan, says Alterman. At the end of the Codenames evening, someone said, “So should we just do game night every Saturday for the foreseeable future?”

Everyone agreed that was a very good idea.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said that Lauren Frazier was based in Portland.

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