In the time before the pandemic, the act of postponing, side-stepping or outright bailing on happy hour was a practice as familiar as the ritual itself. Now, more than a month into this indefinite shelter-in-place, I’m not the only one mourning the unassailable pleasure of whiling away time at a bar—any bar. Drinks with friends, the sanity-sustaining tradition we so naïvely took for granted, is suddenly the exclusive domain of private homes and WiFi networks. With so much energy and anxiety to displace, however, it was only a matter of time before the drinking game, the most sophomoric of our intoxicating pastimes, found new function in quarantine, too.
Drinking games, by their fundamental nature, should not work remotely. Aside from the obvious camaraderie inherent to the exercise of collective stupidity, the shots doled out to the losers are most satisfying when inflicted in person. But now that apps like FaceTime, Hangouts, Houseparty and Zoom have provided the framework for our virtual social lives, gamemasters and players are adapting.
Mark Prinzinger, like many, has found himself working from home with ample time to tune into TV news, including President Donald Trump’s surreal pandemic press conferences. Known in his circle for creating drinking games for political debates (“chug any time a candidate says ‘Obamacare’”), Prinzinger soon realized these briefings held similar potential. “Trump is a really predictable guy,” he says. “Every day he’s going to hit on certain words.” In a beta version of his “Coronavirus Briefing Drinking Game” circulated among friends around the country, he assigned varying liquid tolls to each of Trump’s pet sayings—a single sip for any mention of “Sleepy Joe,” up to a full shot for “fake news,” for example.
The game, which Prinzinger tested with a group of friends on Houseparty, was a hit. After multiple requests for a way to share it more widely, he purchased the domain tvdrinking.com and listed the rules on the site. He updates it nearly daily to reflect the freshest talking points. But Trump’s core vocabulary still does the most damage. “You’re going to get very drunk off ‘ventilators,’” says Prinzinger, who prefers to play with vodka-soda and Tullamore Dew.
Drinking along to the tune of a static asset like a press conference is a logical rubric for these times; some have even weaponized tools like Netflix Party, which allows groups to interact while streaming, to do the same with movies. Things get trickier, however, in the area of digitizing nostalgic drinking games that call for a deck of cards.
Launched March 28, Drink Virtually is the handiwork of a homebound Connecticut software engineer named Jeff (he prefers the mononym, “for the mystery”). He cobbled together the functional, no-frills site after he and his friends couldn’t find a way to play card games like Kings or Ride the Bus together online.
The site is geared toward platforms like Hangouts or Zoom, which allow screen-sharing. A single friend in the chat acts as the casino dealer, driving the action from their device for all other players. According to Jeff, the site, which does not host ads but does feature a tip button (average gratuity: $3), has attracted upward of 21,000 unique visitors from 89 countries. “You can probably imagine the sort of feedback [I] get at 3 a.m.,” he says. I can’t imagine a world without you now, one user wrote. Until this quarantine is over, at which point I’ll forget all about you.
Built in a similar spirit is a site whose popularity predates COVID-19 by several years: Drunk Pirate, a standard-bearer in the field of Internet debauchery. “CLICK HERE TO GET DRUNK,” beckons the landing page of the game, which was launched in 2015 by a now-22-year-old U.K. programmer who goes by The Captain. Drunk Pirate’s “deck” ranges from simple “name an X” games to physical challenges (“take a drink without using your hands”). While it was not intended to be played remotely—directives to kiss or swap clothes with other players pre-date the era of social distancing—it’s largely adaptable. “At my job we usually have a few drinks on a Friday, [and] this has turned into a virtual pub outing to ‘The Covid Arms,’” says The Captain, whose site is on track to tally more than a million visitors by the end of 2020.
Perhaps no one game captures the uncertain zeitgeist of the moment, however, quite as acutely as Stay the Fuck Inside, introduced by Seattle entrepreneur John Lim earlier this month. “We just had an expectation that people would be bored,” says Lim. “It felt like a natural extension of our abilities.”
The game culls together elements of trivia, Truth or Dare and other familiar formats into an e-deck of 150-plus “cards” sprinkled with dark pandemic humor (“If you’ve been suppressing your sneezes and coughs in public lately, take 4 sips”). It’s priced on a sliding scale topping out at $9.99, and Lim has committed to donating 100 percent of profits to Meals on Wheels. So far, he says he’s attracted more than 20,000 orders from more than 10 countries.
No one knows when we’ll arrive at the finish line of this mess, but for right now, turning a virtual catchup into an alcohol-fueled competition has become an acceptable coping mechanism. “I’m not going to say that we all run out of things to talk about, but after three, four, five weeks of quarantining … no one really has anything new to say,” says Drink Virtually’s Jeff. “But we still need an outlet.”