Connecting Through Games and Playing Apart Together with Geoff van den Ouden from Total Mayhem Games

Whether you’ve spent the past few months in isolation or are still off to the job every morning, it’s undeniable that COVID-19 is affecting our everyday lives in one way, shape or form. If it’s not work that has changed for you, then you might have cancelled birthday parties, postponed family dinners or felt the ongoing blow of not being able to see your friends as often as you would like – let alone at all.

As we have all come to learn, social distancing isn’t just about staying 1.5 meters or 6 feet away from other people. It’s about not going to social events, meeting new friends or having the ability to do many of the things we love to prevent this virus from spreading. To say the least, it’s been tough.

But, “social distancing” in the 21st century has meant that most of us have turned to one digital channel or the other to connect with our friends and family. From “Zoom parties” to live streamed fitness classes, we have found ways to bridge the divide and find a sense of nearness. That being said, there has been one demographic of folks who were uniquely prepared for this new world long before COVID-19 became a household name. If you didn’t already guess who, it’s gamers.

#Videogames

When we think of people that can isolate themselves really easily from the outside world, it’s not hard to conjure up the stereotypical “gamer”. The cliché image of a pimply teenager, living in his parents’ basement and playing video games all weekend without talking to anyone almost immediately comes to mind. Yet, that cliché image couldn’t be more out-of-date since gaming is likely the most social thing you can do in 2020.

In the 1980s and 90s gaming was a very localized and solitary activity. Of course for some it still is, but the gaming world has evolved drastically since. Especially in the last decade, the community has become very diversified with almost everyone becoming a gamer in some way or another. Inventions like the Nintendo Wii, VR and mobile game apps have made gaming more fun, widely adopted and all around accessible.

There was another fundamental invention back in the 1990s that sealed the deal on adding a social element to gaming forever – multiplayer mode. This was born out of the collective dream many gamers had about being able to experience adventures with their friends without having to be in the same room. As demand for this grew, game companies started experimenting with multiplayer and saw tremendous results.

To provide some context, multiplayer actually means “networked multiplayer”, a process by which computers / consoles are connected to each other via some sort of network. In the early days these computers still needed to be connected locally (LAN), limiting you to playing with your brother in the next room or even the kid across the street if your cable was long enough. It didn’t take long before the first LAN-parties were organised and gamers (sometimes travelling far distances) sat down feet apart from each other behind their own setups to play video games together.

Fast forward to 2020 and connectivity is everywhere. Your fridge, your phone, your car, TV, computer – just name it and it is likely connected to the internet. Just imagine how gamers are using this new infrastructure to play online! And by gamers, we don’t mean the cliché pimply teenager. On the contrary, we are basically talking about… well… almost everyone at this point. Nowadays, gamers are always connected. In fact, most of them are wearing a headset, talking to their friends and creating memorable moments (to them just as memorable as real-life events) together.

#PlayApartTogether

In fact, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has started a new initiative alongside gaming companies called #PlayApartTogether, which encourages healthy physical distancing by playing video games to stay socially active and emotionally present. This sent a broad message that video games are no longer for the isolated and socially awkward. Instead, they can serve as a social lifeline during crises.

In fact, some games actually feel like they are specifically designed for times like these. For example, a game called ‘We Were Here Together’ lets you create memorable moments with a friend by requiring you to work one-on-one to solve puzzles and progress through the game. That’s right, this game isn’t about shooting zombies or killing enemy armies – it’s about human connection and teamwork.

In “We Were Here Together,” you start off as two Antarctic explorers that pick-up a distress signal. This leads you and your partner to a creepy medieval castle where you ultimately get trapped. The only way to escape and survive the evil antics in the house is by using your “walkie-talkies” and communicating with each other through all the puzzles.

“We wanted to make an unique co-op experience where you have memorable moments together and really feel like it’s a story that you experience with your partner”, says Ruud Renting, creative director at Total Mayhem Games, the makers of the “We Were Here” series. “During the game you will go from being in the same room together to being completely separated. And from that moment on, it really gets challenging to communicate and find a way out together.”

One of the aspects that really make this game stand out from the crowd is how it uses the “walkie-talkie” mechanism to have players communicate with each other while being physically separated. It sometimes forces players to discuss funny or awkward things in order to solve a puzzle. “Designing games is like making a recipe. You know all the ingredients, but you just have to come up with the right combination of flavors that create that great unique taste”, says Geoff van den Ouden, producer of the game. “But when creating a “We Were Here” game we actually go a step further. We don’t just come up with a recipe, we actually think about the discussion people will have at the table while eating the dish and take that into account during the design of the game.”

Because voice communication is such an important part of the game, Total Mayhem Games teamed up with Agora.io, a real-time engagement company, to provide the best voice quality and service stability on the market. “Integrating voice and video capabilities into a game like this isn’t easy and it requires a scalable and dedicated network,” said Agora.io SVP of Marketing and Ecosystems, Virginia Liu. “If the players are to be able to successfully communicate with one another to escape the castle, they need to be able to talk through the puzzles without glitches or freezing. That’s where we come in to deliver a seamless and life-like end-user experience that answers the call for meaningful engagement.”

Despite the numerous ways coronavirus is affecting our everyday lives and upending our sense of normalcy, it is in times like these we learn to appreciate interacting with our loved ones in new ways. Gaming, which was once a passive form of entertainment for most, has transformed into a mental health lifeline for many. Be well and game on!


Join Geoff van den Ouden, Producer of Total Mayhem Games and Selcuk Atli, CEO of Bunch at our next virtual fireside chat, V-Chat@AllThingsRTC. We’ll dive deep with these game creators into how live interactive gaming is bringing people together while social distancing. We will also share tips and tricks to increase users and session times with in-game voice and video chat. See you on May 27, 2020 at 10am PST. Register here to save your seat!