Socializing while social distancing: Tech can help you get creative

From Animal Crossing to pub quizzes to VR table tennis, join us in pooling ideas about how to interact with our friends during the coronavirus pandemic.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
7 min read

Hanging out in Animal Crossing is just one way to be with your friends.

Katie Collins/CNET

Many of us around the world just survived our first weekend of proper social distancing -- staying in our homes to avoid spreading coronavirus without venturing out for more than groceries or maybe a jog.

How did it go for you? I ask because I'm genuinely curious. The UK, where I live, is now on lockdown for at least three weeks, but realistically longer. As stay-at-home weekends become the norm, we're going to have to adopt new behaviors and rethink how we interact with our loved ones in order to keep socializing.

Sure, you can FaceTime, Skype, Zoom and Houseparty with your friends and family -- that's the beauty of living in this hyperconnected world. But moaning about toilet paper rolls and discussing the weather could grow old quickly (even in the UK), and the likelihood is that we'll not just miss seeing people's faces in person, but also crave those social activities that are so important for human bonding.

For inspiration, we all -- CNET staff and readers -- need to pool our intel. Finding workarounds for our favorite activities isn't always going to be straightforward so it might also be time to take up new social hobbies. Tech can provide a whole array of solutions here -- you just need to get a little creative.

Watch this: Coronavirus lockdown: Why social distancing saves lives

Time to play

My main social activity so far has been Animal Crossing, which turned out to be an absolute godsend when it landed last Friday. On both Saturday and Sunday night, my partner and I called our best friends on WhatsApp while we all hung out together on our islands. We fished and caught bugs and shared our tips for the game while we drank real-life cocktails.

It felt incredibly chilled, and we weren't the only ones to enjoy socializing within the Animal Crossing world. "The [Nintendo] Switch's iPhone app makes it easy to message in-game while playing," says Roadshow Social Media Editor Daniel Golson.

If Animal Crossing isn't for you, other games can work similarly well. CNET Senior Associate Editor Andrew Gebhart is playing Borderlands 3 and Divinity Original Sin 2. "I've long used online gaming as a way to keep up with my out-of-town buddies," he says. "Now it's a way to stay social."

Your options for remotely hanging out are even greater if, like CNET editor-at-large Scott Stein, you have an at-home VR setup. "I played virtual table tennis with someone from Connecticut who beat me badly, but we had fun, and chatted a bit," he says. "Didn't expect audio chat ... it was fun!"

Dungeons and Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons can easily be played online.

Andy Cross

Don't worry  if video games aren't your thing -- there are board game and tabletop options, as well. Co-founder of XR-focused studio Draw & Code Andy Cooper described playing Dungeons and Dragons over Google Hangouts with friends. The only limitation? "Digital dice isn't quite the same as the real thing." 

Callum Madge, a theater producer and engagement manager from Glasgow, Scotland, did the whole world a massive favor by creating a digital version of popular board game Cranium that's playable in a shared Google Sheet. If you want to play with your own friends, just be sure to make a copy of the document before you begin so you're not playing in Madge's original.

Other games recommendations from the CNET team include Uno, Mafia and the Jackbox TV game pack. Also be sure to check out this list from board games site Dicebreaker.

Drinking, dining and the classic pub quiz

If you're looking for something a little less playful, but equally as social, one option multiple people have mentioned is a virtual dinner party. Public safety turned tech executive Gordon Scobbie from Perth Scotland, says he and his friends went all out to share a three-course meal over Skype -- an activity that lasted almost four hours.

"We discussed inviting more friends next time (this was a test). We could all have the same menu or we have a budget and see who produces the best most imaginative meal in budget," he says. "Lots of ideas to make it fun. We didn't stop talking the whole night and took the laptop between the table and kitchen to keep things going."

If you're not up for cooking, then maybe you're thirsty. Many people have combined scheduled video calls with cocktail parties, even creating happy hours as though they're meeting up at a bar. But take care if you're joining British friends from across the Atlantic -- we can take alcohol consumption to the next level.

One popular social distancing activity here has been the re-creation of the classic pub quiz. If you're not familiar with the particular British pastime, well, it is exactly as it sounds: an often-boozy trivia night that takes place in a pub (usually the prize for the winning team is either cold hard cash or having your bar tab paid).

London-based journalist Kate Solomon says her Google Hangouts pub quiz last Friday night involved nine "teams" of either one or two people. Each team wrote a round (categories included geography, penguin jokes, shapes and sizes, memes, music, emojis and sport, a picture round and quotes from the group chat). 

"It got increasingly shambolic," she says. "But it was very fun and we had a little dance party between every other round."

The same group is reconvening this Friday, she adds, to play "Desert Isolation Discs," a riff on the famous BBC radio show Desert Island Discs. It will involve each participant playing four meaningful songs and telling a story ("ideally funny") about each of them.

Get moving

Staying healthy during this period is more than just about avoiding coronavirus . Even during lockdowns, most people are allowed to take one form of physical activity per day. Some exercisers are used to working out alone, but for many, sports are a team activity -- and they can remain so. Calum Cameron, a communications manager from London, says he's set up a virtual running/sports club.

They check in at 7:50 a.m. on WhatsApp, then head out to do their thing and post a picture afterward. It creates "positive vibes and peer accountability," he says. "We have runners, cyclists and one fellow who's quarantined on a cross trainer on his mother-in-law's balcony in Spain."

If you're more of an indoors exercise fan, you can always do like CNET Senior Editor Lexy Savvides. She describes how she did "Sunday morning yoga with my friend by picking the same class on the Peloton app and syncing our streams so we were doing it as close to the same time as possible."

Social exercise can also be less structured. Why not follow the example of CNET Senior Communications Director Lizzie Garlinghouse and have a dance party over Zoom by all tuning into DJ DNice on Instagram at the same time? Or you could finally learn those TikTok dances all the kids are doing these days.

Read more: Gym closed? Here are the best home workout options

Take a class, make a thing, get cultured

Both CNET Editor-in-Chief Connie Guglielmo and Senior Editor Natalie Weinstein have been enjoying virtual piano lessons. "[I] had my iPhone set up on a tripod so she could watch my hands and call out instructions as I played," says Connie. "She also scanned and emailed me new sheet music to learn this week and I'm supposed to record it ahead of our next lesson on Saturday."

You can also share your own skills with loved ones, as CNET Movie Editor Rich Trenholm did by making an adorable video for his nieces and nephews teaching them how to draw a Pikachu, inspired by illustrator Draw with Rob. Lexy Savvides meanwhile has been hosting a nightly cooking show on her Instagram Stories in which her friends have joined to cook along.

CNET reporter Laura Hautala describes how "[one] friend in Oregon who does voice overs is reading two chapters a night of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, from his home studio on Facebook Live, so I listened to that last night."

If you're looking to get artsy, you can always join in with one of the many Instagram challenges circling on the platform, which often involve drawing something, posting it to your stories and challenging others to do the same by tagging them. (Side note: is it time to bring back Draw Something? Maybe so.)

Finally, if you're determined to stick with the classics of simultaneous movie streaming and Zoom calls, don't forget to change up your Zoom background and learn how to make good use of Netflix Party.  

CNET Culture Editor Leslie Katz held a virtual film festival with friends last weekend using Netflix Party. Meanwhile Senior Editor Alison DeNisco recommends the Scener extension as an alternative, as it has video chat built in. Or you could follow the lead of Senior Editor Patricia Puentes and hold your book group over Google Hangouts. 

"It wasn't a book club per se because we hadn't actually finished (and some of us hadn't even started) the book we're reading," she says. "But it was great to talk about books, movies, TV shows and what we were doing to keep our minds occupied."

I hope these ideas help, and I have to hear how you're staying social. Drop your recommendations and experiences in the comments or send us a tweet. As a final piece of inspiration, I'll leave you with this video, which shows one guy using his drone to take socially distant socializing to a whole new level.

Our new reality now that coronavirus has sent the world online

See all photos