Each morning over the past month, Evan Wan has been regularly setting up meetings with his friends. But these aren’t your usual catch-ups.
Wan, like millions of others in China, has found himself quarantined at home because of the coronavirus outbreak. To continue having some semblance of a social life, he has been catching up with friends, meeting new people and even networking with potential business contacts by playing party games online.
Wan and his friends are hardly the only ones. A new report from AppAnnie shows that old-school social and puzzle games with a virtual twist have risen in popularity during the epidemic.
Five of these games shot up to the top 100 in Apple’s mainland China iOS App Store in the three weeks after January 20, the day Chinese health authorities confirmed the Covid-19 disease could be transmitted person-to-person. One “draw and guess game,” a type of virtual Pictionary, ranked among the top 20 apps with a tenfold increase in downloads over the previous month.
The games themselves can be as simple as guessing the name of a song or as complex as Werewolf, a social detective card game first created under the name Mafia. In recent years, these kinds of games have exploded in popularity in China, inspiring the rise of so-called jubensha (“script murder”) games, complex murder mystery role-playing games.
The popularity of these games has slowly spread away from real-world social gatherings to the internet, sparking a wave of game apps and live-streaming video sessions for people interested in following the plot.
Enzo Li, who was a fan of the games before the epidemic, noticed the number of online players swelling over the past few weeks.
“I think if you’re playing it together with friends, it would be easier to communicate with each other and foster an emotional connection,” said Li. He added that having a topic to talk about makes it easier for people to show who they really are.
These kinds of games are often little more than a chat room. For games like Werewolf or jubensha, users are assigned a character and then spend their time texting, sending voice-recorded messages or tuning in through a video call. Throughout the game, players try to find out the assigned roles of other players by asking cunning questions.
Wan said he usually plays two rounds of a game per night with each round lasting two hours. His generation has grown up playing all kinds of games, from China’s popular pastime mahjong to hit mainstream video game titles. Party games have struck a particular chord, though, because they serve as relief from the harrowing news of Covid-19 deaths and infections. Wan contrasted these with other online games in China like PUBG Mobile and Honor of Kings.
“These games can be very confrontational, which is not preferred during such a difficult time,” Wan said. “We need to talk to our friends and play as other characters to escape from the disease.”
Hanging out online is also more convenient than organizing a party and inviting people to a physical place. But socializing virtually does have its limits.
“Sometimes it’s harder to play online because it’s more difficult to tell who the killer is because you can’t see their faces,” said Adam Liang, a Werewolf and jubensha player.
Li added that newcomers also might have problems catching up with more experienced players and their jargon. And not everyone can stay focused: Staying at home means you have plenty of distractions to draw you away from the virtual party.
Despite that, the games seem to have provided a brief refuge for people stuck indoors. They are part of a bigger trend of people moving large parts of their lives online while the Covid-19 epidemic stifles physical meetups.
Since the outbreak began, many cities in China have nearly shut down completely, leaving only the bare minimum of businesses open. Schools have moved classes online while workers everywhere were told to stay home, leading to a surge in downloads of remote work apps.
Thanks to all the bored people stuck at home, video games have also seen a huge boost in popularity during the epidemic — so much so that gamers had trouble with popular local versions of PUBG Mobile and Arena of Valor as servers were strained by demand. AppAnnie’s numbers show that app downloads in general have surged since the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, but gaming apps are the most downloaded category.
Wan, who works for a tech company in Shenzhen, said that the online versions of these games have not only shortened the long hours at home but inadvertently turned these apps into a networking platform. Many of them are popular among students and white-collar workers, he said, and their social value outweighs their entertainment value.
But like many tech trends that have taken hold in China because of the deadly disease — including online school, remote work, and virtual fitness classes — it may not last long.
“When the virus gets controlled, such apps will return to silence,” Wan said.
This article first appeared in Abacus News.