Staying at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, while separated from family and friends, is hard. Being together in person is woven into our multigeneration family’s Irish DNA. Our family is apart while our daughter shelters in place with her fiancé in Bellingham, where they attend Western Washington University; our son, a high school senior, is with my husband and me in Sammamish.

But even while apart, we are using technology and creativity to stay connected with each other and our extended family and friends. We upload pictures of our meals to a closed Facebook group a friend created to celebrate our quarantine cooking skills. We taught my mom how to use FaceTime.

And we found ways to continue doing something that has been an integral part of our family activities for years: playing games together. Only now, we play our favorite board games online, and have started playing online multiplayer games as a family.

Playing board games online

I remember playing Monopoly with my parents and brother when I was a child growing up on Bainbridge Island. We battled over who got to use the coveted metal racing car piece to mark his or her place on the board. Given his love for the game, it isn’t a surprise my brother now works in commercial real estate.

The first time I met my husband Dave, he was the Dungeon Master for the Dungeons & Dragons game he ran out of his University of Washington dorm room. He thought I wore too much makeup. I thought Dave was a big nerd.

Eventually the nerd became my boyfriend, then husband, and we made some more game-playing nerds. We have played games as a family since our kids were very young. And now our daughter is the Dungeon Master for her college Dungeons & Dragons group.

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Playing board games, chess and cards together with our kids has been a fun way to teach math, strategy and teamwork, build their self-esteem and let them see their parents, friends and extended family be competitive and playful, and lose gracefully. Playing board games with our future son-in-law was an excellent way for him to witness our family dynamics and to give him the opportunity to share his strengths and skills with us.

As our kids have grown older, time to play together in person has become more precious. We look forward to playing together as a family when our daughter and future son-in-law are home from college. And we have established a tradition of playing marathon sessions of our favorite board games when we celebrate holidays with our extended family.

Kathleen F. Miller’s family plays Ticket to Ride after Thanksgiving dinner in 2019. (Kathleen F. Miller)
Kathleen F. Miller’s family plays Ticket to Ride after Thanksgiving dinner in 2019. (Kathleen F. Miller)

When we began to shelter in place weeks ago, we searched for a way to continue to have family game nights while staying apart. We figured out how to play some of our favorite board games online and now play together several nights a week.

We use laptops and headsets and a free application called Discord. Discord is similar to Skype, but was designed specifically for video gamers so that players could talk to each other from separate locations while playing together. The platform also hosts thousands of online communities, many focused on gaming, but also other interests.

Once we’ve launched Discord to communicate with each other, we hop on Steam — a platform from Bellevue-based Valve for purchasing and playing games — to launch the games. In Steam, you can send an invitation to family and friends to play multiplayer games. Once everyone has accepted, you are playing online together.

To play our favorite board games online together, one of us launches Tabletop Simulator by Berserk Games on Steam, and invites the rest of us to play. Tabletop Simulator provides the option of playing many of our favorite board games together online, including Ticket to Ride, Root, Monopoly, checkers, chess, backgammon and Settlers of Catan.

Kathleen F. Miller’s son, Mychal Miller, plays Monopoly online with his sister’s fiancé using Tabletop Simulator. (Dave Miller)
Kathleen F. Miller’s son, Mychal Miller, plays Monopoly online with his sister’s fiancé using Tabletop Simulator. (Dave Miller)

Multiplayer role-playing games

In addition to playing board games online, we are enjoying playing multiplayer role-playing games.

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Our favorite, available on Steam, is Don’t Starve Together. The game, sort of Minecraft meets “Survivor,” drops players in a virtual world where they work together to survive through seasons, battle monsters, craft tools, make farms and catch, kill and cook bunnies — which our vegetarian daughter is shockingly good at.

I had never played a multiplayer video game online, and my future son-in-law delights me with his patience, explaining how to avoid dropping my torch so my character doesn’t get killed in the dark or giving me virtual food so I don’t starve, again. Being able to hear on Discord our children laugh together and strategize with my husband how to survive the game’s tough winter eases my sadness that we are not physically in the same space.

We’ve also figured out how to play interactive video games from Jackbox Games, designed to be played by multiple people as a group on a variety of digital platforms including cellphones, laptops, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One and PlayStation. Our son launches the game from his laptop, we hop on our laptops at home, and our daughter and her fiancé hop on theirs in Bellingham. We then go to Jackbox.TV to see the “lobby screen,” which displays a code we use to enter the game and play together. We listen to each other by putting our phones on speaker mode (you can also video conference while playing using Discord or Zoom). We love Quiplash, a game where we compete to complete phrases with the funniest responses; Push the Button, where we try to guess who’s playing the alien and push a button to flush them into space; and Fibbage, where we try to figure out who’s lying.

Connecting through other creative means

Even staying apart, my friends and I continue to connect through our creativity. Several of us woke up recently to the welcome surprise of rocks, brightly painted to look like chickens, on our porches — inspired by the painted rocks people are leaving on popular walking routes for families to spot.

I’ve made postcards and mailed them to friends. A friend with fabulous sewing skills has been churning out beautiful cloth masks, placing them on her porch and insisting her village of friends take them for family and other friends, as well as offering them to delivery drivers. I’ve happily mailed her masks to my son’s godfather and partner and my daughter and future son-in-law, protecting them with her help, from afar.

I still miss seeing my family and friends in person. I’d rather play board games with them in person. But in the meantime, I’m so very grateful for the new ways we’ve figured out to connect, through technology and creativity, while apart.