As millions of us adapt to new lives in relative isolation, we're being forced to find increasingly creative ways to keep ourselves entertained. Luckily, social distancing doesn't mean we have to be lonely. And hanging out with friends doesn't have to be limited to phone calls and FaceTime. Hosting a remote game night or movie marathon is not only do-able, but easier than you might expect. With the right planning and a bit of creativity, you can have almost as much fun as the real deal.
While virtual hangouts shouldn't require much more planning than IRL get-togethers, they do require a different type of prep. Instead of loading up on snacks for your guests, you'll need to make sure you have the right gear at the ready.
It sounds obvious, but double check that everyone knows when you plan on starting, and what apps they need ahead of time. You don't want to keep the whole group waiting because you forgot your Zoom login, or didn't realize one of your green-bubble friends doesn't have FaceTime. If you can, send out calendar invites with relevant links and detailed instructions ahead of time.
You'll also want to think about lighting and how you're going to set up your camera. Your friends likely aren't expecting a professional-level setup, but everyone will have a better time if they can actually see you. It's worth taking a few minutes before your virtual hangout sesh to scope out where you'll place your laptop or tablet so that you're in the frame as much as possible. If you'll be using a phone, make sure you have somewhere stable to prop it up. If you plan on sitting more than a few inches away from your camera, try to use a headset with a mic.
Also consider whether you'll need more than one device. For example, if you're going to be sharing your screen, you'll likely need a separate laptop or a phone if you want people to be able to see your face (just don't forget to mute one of them).
Finally, don't forget to stay charged. Lengthy video calls will drain your battery very, very quickly so if you can't keep your device plugged in for the whole call, at least have a charger handy.
Remote movie nights
In some ways, movie nights are the simplest kind of remote gathering to set up. Netflix and other streaming services are basically ubiquitous, so most of us already have the basics in place. The downside is that Netflix and most other major streaming platforms don't have their built-in multi-person viewing features, so arranging remote viewing parties does take a few extra steps.
Enter Netflix Party, a new Chrome extension that helps groups of friends sync up a Netflix stream. It's pretty simple – at least in theory. You install the extension, and send a link to your friends and Netflix Party will keep everyone's streams timed up. There's also a chat feature, so you and your friends can swap messages while you watch. But, since Netflix Party only works with Chrome, you'll either be stuck watching on your laptop, or you'll need to cast your screen or connect to your TV with an HDMI cable.
Netflix Party has recently had some technical issues, though, so you might need a backup plan just in case. And, the extension only works for Netflix, so if you want to watch something on another service, you'll have to find another workaround.
If that's the case, you can try the workaround a friend and I came up with while improvising a movie night with our partners, when we opted to manually sync up our feeds based on the timestamp. This takes a little more finessing, so it might not be ideal for larger groups, but it's totally doable, and doesn't require you to connect your laptop to your TV.
Once synced, we used an iPad with Google Hangouts open with the camera pointed at me and my partner on the couch and our friends did the same. This way, we were able to watch the movie and also chat with each other. This setup may not be ideal if you're watching a plot-heavy movie that requires you to follow along closely, but it was a lot of fun while watching 47 Meters Down.
Pulling off a game night can take a bit more planning and setup, but the extra effort is worth the payoff.
If you're mainly looking for a low-key way to kill some time with a few friends with minimal effort, Houseparty, the group video chat app popular with teens, might be the best option. It has several games built-in, including Heads Up, trivia, a Pictionary-like drawing game, and something called Chips and Guac, a word-association game similar to Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity.
Houseparty works with groups of up to eight, and the games tend to be a bit more fun with slightly larger groups. The downside is that the app's interface can be a bit confusing, and the game selection is limited. Heads Up only has one deck available for free (you can pay for additional decks), and the trivia questions are only okay. The drawing game, called Quick Draw!, is basic but fun, especially if you're willing to get a little creative. Chips and Guac is amusing, but you might be a bit lost if you're outside the app's core tween/teen demographic.
If you want casual games that will keep you entertained for hours at a time, some of the best I've found so far are from Jackbox, which adapt very easily to remote play. One of its more popular games, the pictionary-like, Drawful 2, is especially fun (and is temporarily free). The company also offers several "party packs" with a variety of games.
Though each is slightly different, they are well suited to multi-person remote play. One player "hosts" the game — the host is the only person who needs to purchase the game — and others join in via their smartphone browsers. (Again, you'll want to use a separate device, like a laptop or tablet, in order to play while on a video call. Jackbox has also published a detailed guide on how to play its games remotely on various platforms, including Steam, Discord, and video conferencing services.)
And, if you're already tired of these options, you shouldn't be afraid to try something totally different. Friends have also reported joining remote poker nights and elaborate pub quiz-style trivia tournaments. One Twitter user told me she arranged an impromptu game night with a few friends around the New York Times crossword puzzle. Someone else rigged a game of Scattergories.
If you're willing to get creative — and be flexible with rules — very few games should be off limits entirely.
Hosting a dinner party
Eating with friends is always better than eating alone, and another option is to get a group of friends together for a virtual dinner party. The great thing about this is you can put as much or as little effort into it as you want. At the extremely low-effort end, simply agree on a time and video chat platform (again, calendar invites go a long way), and everyone can eat dinner together in front of their cameras.
If you're feeling ambitious, you can get everyone more involved in the process. Ask your friends for help planning menus — a shared Google Doc or Pinterest board is a good place to start — and each participant can volunteer to cook a dish of their choice. Or, group members can "assign" each other recipes for an extra challenge.
After everyone's cooked their meal, fire up the video chat* to show off your dish. Even though you won't be able to physically share your food, you'll still be able to see how each turned out, and watch as everyone digs in. And the fact that everyone took a role in the meal prep will immediately liven things up.
A friend who recently gathered a group of friends together for a dinner party recommended Zoom, rather than FaceTime or Hangouts, as Zoom's gallery view was easier to manage with a larger group than Hangouts or FaceTime.
When you just want to jam
If your hangouts usually involve listening to a lot of music, then you'll need something a little different than the typical video chat setup.
One of the simplest ways to get started is with Watch2gether, a free service that enables you to sync up videos in a chat room with your friends. Anyone can make a room — no account required — and the service supports YouTube, Vimeo, Twitch, Instagram and Soundcloud and there's also a Chrome extension if you want to play music from a non-supported site.
Anyone who joins the room can add videos to the room's queue, and there's a built-in chat feature, with webcam support. It's not the slickest interface, but it's extremely easy to set up and your friends won't need to fuss with an account in order to join.
If Spotify is your music platform of choice, JQBX is one of the best tools for building collaborative playlists with your friends. The app allows you to create "rooms" where you and your friends can build playlists and listen to songs together in real time. There's also a built-in chat feature and room members can vote on which songs they like.
However, since it's a Spotify-powered service, your friends will need an account to join. And if they don't pay for a premium membership, they won't be able to listen along, though they can still contribute tracks to the playlist. And, as my colleague Aaron Souppouris pointed out, listening to a lot of new music through JQBX could mess with your personalized Spotify recommendations.
Unlike Watch2gether, there's no support for video, so you won't be able to actually see your friends while you listen, though the chat and voting features make it feel interactive.
Images: NetflixParty (Chrome tab); Houseparty (group video chat); Jackbox Games (Drawful 2); JQBX (Spotify)