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Families are moving weddings, birthday parties, and phone nights into online games

Birthday parties, weddings, and more — all online

Two children load up Roblox on a laptop, for a virtual birthday party
Siblings Robby and Aubrina playing with friends during Robby’s Roblox birthday party.
Photo: Mark Scianna, father

Between grad school and a health scare, the last four years had been hard for Madeline. Her April 2020 wedding was meant to be a reset button. Family was flying in from Portugal and Ireland, including Madeline’s grandparents, who she hadn’t seen in years. The couple had scraped together everything for a big wedding and a road trip honeymoon. Then, COVID-19 hit — and excitement turned to panic.

With social distancing measures in place, Madeline pivoted from planning an event to trying to get deposits back. To support her husband and his mother’s household through the pandemic, she needed to minimize how much money she’d lose from canceling the wedding.

Stories like these are common now; lives have been disrupted by the global outbreak. Madeline counts herself lucky compared to the impact on many other families. “We got most of our deposits back, but it was watching the date approach that was really hard,” Madeline says in an interview over Discord. But the couple didn’t give up on celebrating the special occasion. “Finally, we decided to just try and come up with something our friends and family could attend.”

Azeroth awaits

Madeline originally met her groom in World of Warcraft’s famous Icecrown Citadel raid. Madeline, a druid who healed the group, and her groom, a hunter obsessed with topping the raid’s DPS charts, formed a connection. They eventually met in person during a guild event in Las Vegas, and fell in love. Having a wedding tour in Azeroth seemed like a good fallback plan.

They met with friends and guildies in a Tolkien-esque stone and metal bar that is staffed by dwarves, then collectively took the tram down to the white spires of Stormwind. Here, everyone changed out of plate armor and enchanted leather and into gowns and tuxedos. They all reconvened on the steps of Stormwind Chapel — a building that, in the lore of World of Warcraft, holds all of the priests and paladins. The locale often draws roleplayers due to its photogenic nature; it’s much like a real-life European church. For Madeline, it served as the perfect place for a ceremony.

COVID-19 continues to be a widespread issue, with communities around the world under lockdown as folks try to prevent further virus transmission. Luckily, online games and communities are rising to the occasion. As families wrangle each other online, they’re finding that social barriers are smaller than they think — even when it comes to folks who don’t consider themselves “gamers.”

Madeline was able to wrangle a surprise guest for the occasion: her sister, who had previously mocked Madeline for her MMO obsession. “When I told Addie that this was the one chance she had to see me get married for God knows who long, she agreed to make a character,” she says.

World of Warcraft is free, but limited, until level 20. Madeline set her sister up with an account, bought her game time, and gave her items to wear. “I helped her run up from Northshire Abbey and figure out a tailored dress and everything,” she says.

“The hardest part was getting her to try the ‘nerd game,’” Madeline says with a laugh. “I mean, to be fair, it is. But it’s not super hard and runs on any computer since it’s old.”

The gambit worked for more than just the wedding. “We’re playing a little on weeknights now, after her son is in bed, and I’m hoping that I can get her to max level so we can play the next big expansion together,” Madeline says. “It’s not the easiest thing in the world — we end up spending a lot of time going over how Discord works, or whatever — but I’m spending time with my sister again.”

World of Warcraft - a character in a wedding dress stands before Stormwind Cathedral
The bride experimented with hairstyles and dresses before the big event.
Image: Blizzard Entertainment

Coming together

Elsewhere, Mark had to reschedule things now that his son’s birthday was approaching. Robby was turning 10, and the plan had been to go to an escape room — but that wasn’t an option anymore. Mark wondered if they could do something virtual instead. Robby and his sister came up with a solution: The party would now be held on Roblox, a MMO-style platform where users can upload their own games.

The family is made up of Roblox veterans; daughter Aubrina first heard about the game from a friend at school. She downloaded it at home, and her brother took to it as well. Robbie’s favorite game is “Build a Boat,” where you have to create a boat and then take it through a wild obstacle course … but his dad acknowledges that his favorite game changes every week. Aubrina’s favorite games are all about adopting and customizing pretty neon pets.

Mark sent out an email to parents beforehand, explaining the concept while also sharing access to a Google Hangout where folks could connect. Many of the decisions he made were based on the potential ease for parents who would be unfamiliar with more complicated platforms, like Discord. Fortunately, everyone was about to log in to both Hangouts and Roblox.

Two children play Roblox on mobile devices, while a laptop connects them to a Hangout call with their friends Photo: Mark Scianna, father

The kids played an ice-breaker where everyone shared their favorite kind of ice cream, which they promised each other they’d actually get once the ordeal was over. Then, Robbie set up the game — Epic Minigames, a Mario Party-style series of fast-paced competitive games.

“We wanted to choose Minecraft or Roblox, but we chose Roblox, because it was easier to interact with your friends than Minecraft is,” says Robbie in an interview Polygon held with his family. Roblox didn’t have an entry fee like Minecraft does, and it was more accessible for a large group of players for a structured activity.

The kids took a break to do a workout on camera, and sang “Happy Birthday” over Hangouts. It was an oasis of normalcy in a very weird time.

The birthday party proved to be such a success that it’s become a regular occurrence. “They’ve done similar [play dates] with their friends since, and it’s worked out pretty cool,” says Mark. “You take it for granted that with recess time, they can catch up on how you’re feeling or what you’re doing, and stay in touch. But now we have to be more thoughtful on how we can maintain those connections.”

A child plays Roblox on his tablet; next to him, a laptop shows the camera of his two friends.
Conrad, Robby’s friend joining his Roblox birthday party.
Photo: Mike Kaspar, father

Bittersweet success

While gaming makes staying connected possible, there’s still a potentially prohibitive learning curve.

“None of [the groom]’s siblings could figure out how to log on,” says Madeline. “We don’t blame them, obviously, but of course we’re a little sad. We had a lot of relatives planning on coming out, people we haven’t seen in years, people we might not see again for years. It’s hard.”

Some platforms are already adapting to try to ease these problems. Discord has been preparing a series of templates and help articles for groups who are looking to connect online — like book clubs or classrooms. Online games are setting up bonuses or free-to-play trials to encourage players to log on and stay connected. It’s likely that many online ecosystems are seeing a flood of new users and players who need a place to congregate and share the big moments of life. And with social distancing measures potentially lasting months, these curious forays may turn into more longer-term investments.

“Honestly, the wedding was nice, but the best part is getting to talk to my sister every day again,” says Madeline, who notes that the game is allowing the siblings to talk more than ever before.

WoW is just a background to that. And she’ll keep logging on if I keep giving her dresses.”