Amidst the COVID-19 hysteria, most countries now have some type of lockdown measure in place, and rightly so. Singapore is no different. In the early days of the pandemic, the country earned widespread commendation for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak, but in recent weeks, the government has stepped up measures after a sharp rise in cases. Some of the new restrictions include a ban on gatherings of any size, whether in public or in private. This means if you wanted to pop off and see your significant other for a wee kiss goodnight, you could be liable for a fine and even jail time. On top of that, all non essential businesses have been shut down, public spaces are closed, and most of the population is now confined to their houses.
For someone like me, who fancies the odd pint with the gang (odd, as in, on every odd numbered day of the week), the shutdown has spelt certain doom for myself and my usually inebriated allies. When one’s favourite pastime has been yeeted out of existence by an act of god, you have no choice but to deal with the fallout and pray to said god for better days.
After hearing whispers through the vine about fun, family-friendly activities that you can get up to with friends online, I decided to give them a shot. My friends were on the same page — it had already been a solid 24 hours since we had last seen each other — and like a baby torn from its mother's breast, we were all clamoring for the warmth of each other's company.
The first embarkation of our social life in the new normal came in the form of a Google Hangouts session. Some of us, in keeping with the theme, had beer cozied up beside us. My beverage of choice was a tall can of Guinness draft, none of that Foreign Extra Stout nonsense. The session started out fine at first, with all of us just happy to see each other, catching up on our lives one at a time.
It’s not that the conversations weren’t great. It’s just that unlike an actual conversation, a lot of the nuance gets lost in translation somewhere in the proverbial cloud hanging over our heads. And for a group of people who know each other so well, the nuance is what we were all looking forward to. The innocuous quip or jab at the expense of a friend took a little longer to land. The winning smile that punctuates a well-timed joke often got lost in a muddle of pixels. Overlapping voices as individual conversations broke out, usually commonplace in real life, were now faux pas’, and if I wanted to find out how Nick was doing, I better wait for Harith to finish describing his day. I think all of us felt the weight of the coming weeks or months that night. The consequences didn’t seem that real before, they came across more like passive inconveniences. But we realised that we were dealing with active disruption that required affirmative action.
After a while, the buzzing delay and echoing feedback resonating off of everyone's speakers proved a bit too much. Our heads ringing with digitised doldrums, one by one, we each called it a night.
It was a sobering feeling, one minute being surrounded by all the people you hold close, the next, completely alone in a dark room.
Seeing the last window of light from a friend's webcam flicker out into darkness, the half full glass of Guinness in front of me suddenly seemed half empty, flat, and pointless.
Another activity that my friends and I regularly got up to before the pandemic, was exercising. Every Wednesday and Saturday, a group of us would meet at a track or at curated running spots, and get some cardio and statics in. I would have pushed a little harder on Track Wednesdays if I knew it was going to be the last one. To work around our new predicament, a few of us got on Google Hangouts in an attempt to stay fit.
The workout dished out to us consisted of ten sets and ten reps of three different exercises. By the end of it, my arms felt like spaghetti and my will, like a good marinara sauce, was heavily reduced. But I was feeling great that I had a day of exercise in, high off of the endorphins and prancing around the room like a pompous peacock. When you’re confined in your house for a week, doing a bit of exercise is sometimes the most productive you can be.
The enthusiasm proved to be short lived.
Whether it was conflicting schedules, or staggering motivation, each person opted to do their own workout, at their own convenience. Which is brilliant no doubt, but for someone like me who lacks discipline to a fault, sometimes, a big incentive was the joy of being surrounded by friends, especially through a shared discomfort. That, if anything, was worth a few extra push ups. More than that, the shame and indignation that usually welled up within me at the thought of quitting lost its tangibility. If I wanted to give up, I could now just walk out of frame, while pretending to get a glass of water. There was no accountability. But back when we were all planking in a circle grimace to grimace, the very thought of giving up was dismissed. What was that last commandment, “He whomst belly toucheth the floor first must also buy a round of ale for the boys?” Something like that.
I realised that both of these activities held a certain bias. They were activities I had grown used to while life outside the window was still business as usual. And because of that, I was constantly comparing them for what they could be, not what they actually were. I realised then that if I wanted to enjoy anything the way that I had, it had to be something that I was somewhat unfamiliar with.
So I turned to the one activity which was most in line with that definition. Throughout my life, gaming took up that awkward space between my interests. An activity that tided over the state of transition, between the things I had grown to love, and things I had grown out of. It was like the room of requirement, except with flashy lights and a lower kill-death ratio. It was only natural that gaming would fill up this extremely awkward unprecedented space in my life. And luckily, I had some eager fools for friends who were willing to venture unto the breach with me.
The first world we stumbled into was a free-to-play, shoot-em-up, battle royale, first-person shooter called Call of Duty: Warzone. Within the first few games, I realised that I was being severely out skilled. No doubt in part due to my inconsistent relationship with gaming. The mechanics felt too demanding, and the buttons seemed a lot further apart than I remembered. God, I thought to myself, is this what aging feels like?
Once I got my first kill, though, the melodrama took a back seat and I managed to get the hang of it. I was still being outclassed at every turn, but I made sure to take some suckers down with me.Noticing me toddling around, my friends definitely had some second thoughts about having me on their team. Death after death, though, it kind of got boring for us. We decided to call it quits for the night, but I struggled to find that same enthusiasm to get good at it. I needed to find a game that allowed us to interact more.
Enter Skribbl.io. Basically an online Pictionary, one player has to draw a word that other players have to guess within a time limit. Right off the bat, it was already miles more fun than the blood and guts shooting extravaganza we were playing in the days prior. None of us were serious gamers, but then again, we weren't playing serious games. Skribbl.io allowed for more interaction, more drama, and more nuance. For example, a friend of mine, Fahim, would draw stick figures doing the dirty every round, only to slip in a drawing of the actual word in the last ten seconds. A class act.
The next few days consisted of trial and error, where we would try game after game until we settled on a handful that were decent fun. It seemed that, above all, games centred around trivia, drawing, and education were where the fun was really at. Which, in hindsight, made a ton of sense. Those were the games that lacked any overbearing story or structure, which meant we could let our own personalities shine through. And with the help of apps like Houseparty and Discord, which allowed for crystal clear communication, we may as well have been in the same room.
The past two weeks of lockdown have made me realise that although we’re not seeing each other in person, we are accessing incredibly personal parts of each other's lives. Perhaps more personal than ever before. When we talk to someone over an app, whether Zoom, Google Hangouts, Houseparty, or Discord, we take a glimpse into our friends’ lives at their most intimate. When we’re online with a friend now, we’re taking a seat at their table. We can hear their parents nagging in the background, we can see what they’re wearing when they have no one to impress, we bear witness to their routines and their schedules — information that would have been unprecedented before this.
In a strange and almost poetic way, it seems now more than ever, we’re all a little closer to our friends than we have ever been.
The space between us is now smaller than ever. Our relationships are now transcending space, no longer at the mercy and whim of distance. Because although we’re all miles a part, we’re seconds away from being in each other's homes.