Forget about resurrecting a sourdough starter, filming TikTok videos or binge-watching “The Crown.”
In the quest for virus-safe fun during the pandemic, my friends and I have been meeting regularly on Zoom to play a raunchy online game that features jokes about sexual practices, Miley Cyrus, vegans and “Star Wars” characters.
Sure, it’s juvenile. But, hey, watching sourdough rise can get really dull real quick.
I’m not alone. The worst pandemic in more than a hundred years has turned the nation’s most popular social activities — movies, concerts, sporting events and travel — into potential health risks. It has pushed Americans to find new pastimes that don’t involve face-to-face interactions.
Take, for example, watching streaming television. Disney+ beat Walt Disney Co. executives’ expectations by ballooning to 73.7 million subscribers as of Oct. 3, up from about 60 million three months earlier.
Spending on video games in the U.S. has also broken records, reaching $11.2 billion in the July-through-September quarter of 2020, up 24% from the same quarter last year, according to NPD Group, a consumer and retail data company.
This year’s pandemic-fueled hits have included “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” in which players develop their own islands and can visit their friends, and the free-to-play “Among Us,” a group game in which players try to suss out which of them has been designated as a saboteur.
“We’ve seen a huge, massive uptick in every metric we measure for the gaming industry,” said Peter Basgen, director of partnerships for Arsenal, a gaming data analysis company.
But, he said, in the last few months, the most popular category on the Amazon-owned game-streaming platform Twitch hasn’t involved watching people play games. The category is Just Chatting, which features people talking on camera about food, technology and other topics.
This may reflect the growing effort by Americans to connect through good, old-fashioned conversation, said Pamela Rutledge, a psychology professor and expert on social media and technology at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara.
“People are having to get very creative in ways to connect,” she said.
The game that has kept my friends and me connected doesn’t involve anthropomorphic animals or a dysfunction-riddled space station. After all, we are mostly fiftysomething empty-nesters who haven’t played video games since “Pac-Man” and ankle warmers were all the rage.
Instead we got hooked on “All Bad Cards,” a free game reminiscent of “Cards Against Humanity.” Players win points by entertaining one another with the funniest and most depraved answers to fill-in-the-blank statements. And there’s no need to download anything: It just requires an internet browser.
“All Bad Cards” can be played while the participants are chatting on a Zoom call — replacing that face-to-face interaction that most of us lost because of the pandemic.
For my group of friends, the games are usually intermixed with conversations about events of our week or grousing about the polarization of our country. Often the games are interrupted by a family dog barking in the background, an internet connection failing or a wineglass tragically going empty.
After the game launched in April, it surged in popularity, quickly overwhelming its small server, said Jake Lauer, the game’s creator. The game site has been getting up to a million page views a week and up to 10 million minutes of usage a month, he said.
If Lauer’s numbers are accurate, “All Bad Cards” is about as popular as some of the most positively reviewed online browser-based games. “Slither.io,” in which players control worms that consume glowing dots, and “Agar.io,” which features round cells that try to eat a jelly-like substance, put up similar numbers, according to Comscore, an analytics and marketing data company.
“All Bad Cards” isn’t even Lauer’s day job. The 31-year-old is a senior engineer at Bungie, the Bellevue, Wash., video game developer behind “Halo,” “Myth” and “Destiny.” He said the idea to launch “All Bad Cards” came to him during a conversation with his sister-in-law when stay-at-home orders were first announced in Washington state.
“We were talking about how difficult it was that we couldn’t see each other, and how it’s crazy that everyone in the world was going through this same struggle,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be nice to do something normal together?”
Lauer said he made “All Bad Cards” as a tribute to “Cards Against Humanity,” one of his favorite games.
The creators of “Cards Against Humanity” did not respond to a request for comment.
At first, Lauer asked players for donations to help recoup the $700 a month it cost him to rent the server space. The game’s popularity grew, and costs went up, so in August he stopped asking for donations and began running ads via Google on the game’s website. The game remains free to play, although people can pay to remove ads or access expansions.
Lauer declined to say how much revenue the site is drawing but said it’s enough to cover the cost of the now-increased server space.
“My plan when I launched the site was to pay for it out of pocket as long as states were mandating quarantine because I knew a lot of people would be out of work or bored at home and would need some kind of emotional reprieve,” he said.
He was right.
For the last several months, my weekly “All Bad Cards” games have been like a regular gathering among friends at a bar. We joke. We tease. We tell bawdy jokes and we laugh, forgetting for a couple of hours that the world seems to be coming apart around us. It’s a taste of those human connections that the pandemic has robbed from us.
My regular group is made up of two therapists, an emergency room nurse, a community college instructor, a caregiver and a sales account manager, among others. On the game website, we give ourselves less-professional-sounding monikers like JoJo Rabbit, Gale Wild, Mr. Ed and Cactus Carlos.
Players take turns reading prompts, which are structured as fill-in-the-blank sentences. Each other player looks at the response options on the virtual cards in their hand and picks one they think fills in the blank in a funny way. The prompt reader’s favorite wins the round.
The prompts are usually very staid. One example: “I love ____, it gives me such comfort.”
But the potential responses can be hilarious. Some of the more family-friendly options:
◆ “a turtle in a turtleneck”
◆ “Ted Bundy’s sweet side”
◆ “a messy colonoscopy”
◆ “clapping when the plane lands”
To win on a regular basis you need to gauge the sense of humor of the person reading the prompt. Are they crass and vulgar or highbrow and dry?
Lauer said writing the prompts was more difficult than writing the responses because the prompts have to make sense when a verb, noun or a plural noun is dropped into the blank.
“One of my favorite cards I wrote is just the word “moo,” which doesn’t make any grammatical sense with the prompts, but it always gets a big laugh,” he said.
What’s going to happen to such games once the pandemic ends? Experts agree that Americans will probably continue to connect with one another via online games and video chats because the technology has made it so much more convenient and faster than it used to be.
“If connection is the goal, now we also have other tools where we can connect with people we care about in other ways,” Rutledge said. “In the end, they make our relationships richer.”
For my group of “All Bad Cards” friends, that could be one of the only silver linings to come out of this pandemic.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.