Online role-playing has taken a turn for the downright mundane.
“Has anyone seen my friend Josh?” a man at a crowded concert asked last week. “I went to the bar for beers and now I can’t find him.” “Josh? Where are youuu,” a woman chimed in. “I brought enough earplugs for everyone! I know it seems lame, but you’ll hear the show a lot better and undistorted,” another attendee offered shortly after.
Losing track of a friend in a packed bar or screaming to be heard over a live band is not something that’s happening much in the real world at the moment, but it happens all the time in the 2,100-person Facebook group “a group where we all pretend we’re in the same venue.” So does losing shoes and Juul pods, and shouting matches over which bands are the saddest, and therefore the greatest. Even the awkwardness of daily life is re-created in the virtual music venue, through posts such as “holds an empty cup the whole show because I don't know what else to do with my hands” and the riffing comments beneath them.
The group was created in May by Natalie Miller, a 20-year-old fast-food worker from South Carolina who says she’s been missing live music more than any other aspect of pre-pandemic life. She now spends three to five hours a day there, volunteering to hold a broken bathroom-stall door for someone just trying to pee real quick, or handing out moderation privileges to whoever can most quickly get some water to her in the center of the mosh pit.
“I want to feel dirty again,” she told me, speaking dreamily of grotesqueries like sweaty bodies and sticky floors—all the things “you don’t really think about or acknowledge until they’re taken away from you.”
Role-playing in various forms has been a staple of the internet since its birth, and Facebook groups dedicated to the activity are not exactly new, either. Last summer, when Facebook redesigned its site and app around groups and started actively promoting them to users, absurdist groups started popping up in which members pretended to be farmers and cows, or middle-aged soccer moms, or participants in a multilevel-marketing scheme, or frogs in a pond. One group in which every person role-plays a member of an ant colony at all times has nearly 2 million members.
But over the past few months, as the coronavirus has shut down much of the world and now U.S. cities have erupted in protests, the make-believe spaces on Facebook have taken a turn for the pleasantly boring. Rather than assuming the character of a farm animal or a resident of Twin Peaks, people simply stay in character as themselves. They do any assortment of not-that-interesting things that they would have done on an ordinary day a year ago and possibly resented, only this time they’re writing it out on Facebook with a tinge of longing. These groups provide escapism of a different and specific sort: a brief getaway to your pre-pandemic life, with all of its flaws and mundanities.
In “A group where we all pretend to be running late or have to cancel plans,” Facebook users who are mostly not actually making plans or going much of anywhere post polite apologies and cloying excuses, one after the other, all day long. “I’m so sorry guys, I accidentally fell asleep and now it’s suuuper late,” one post reads, alongside a series of sad and sleepy emoji. “Next time?” Gracefully, everyone in the comments accepts the rain check. Next time, of course. No worries, obviously. Take care of you!
The group was created in early May by three friends, Sarah Mowrey, Sarah Kennedy, and Genevieve Garcia de Mueller, comedians who met through the stand-up scene in Albuquerque, New Mexico. No one ever explicitly mentions the pandemic, and as a rule, the moderators take down anything that doesn’t adhere to the internal logic of the joke. You are canceling plans not because of public-health reasons; you are doing it because you’re poorly organized or generally kind of flaky. “It gives us a chance to escape, which is what us comedians are always trying to do,” Kennedy told me. “Since we can’t do it on stage, we’re really happy to get to provide it to people in a new way.”
Dozens of these groups exist, most with memberships in the thousands, and all with the same basic naming format and rules. (You can’t talk about the pandemic, but in most groups the protests aren’t off-limits.) There’s a group where people all pretend to be in high-school band, a group where people all pretend to be part of the crew on a movie set, a group where people all pretend to work in a restaurant, and a group where people all pretend to be at a Phish show.
Staying in character is paramount. When I tried to interview members of “A group where we all pretend to work in the same RESTAURANT,” I was told to make a reservation, come back when it was not rush hour, or go ask a host to see a manager. “We all take our roles seriously” Stephanie Illetschko, a group member, emailed me. “We aren’t allowed to get out of character. At. All. Which means by being in that group you now officially work at our restaurant.”
Many people join these Facebook groups just to look at them a few times and laugh at the general joke, but some become sincerely invested. Evan Mayone, a 16-year-old student from Portland, Maine, told me in an email that the restaurant was just one of about 100 Facebook role-playing groups he’d joined since the start of the pandemic, including a slightly morbid one in which members pretend to work in a hospital, but are forbidden from referencing COVID-19 or implying that any of their imaginary patients have it. “At the start of quarantine where I live, I had no clue what I would do for the next few months,” he told me. “So I turned to Facebook and found the right people for me to express my real humor. This has been one of the best social experiences of my life.”
Role-playing the mundane is interesting when the mundane exists only in our imagination, says Aubrie Adams, a communications professor at California Polytechnic State University who has studied role-playing games. “It might seem like simple make-believe on the surface, but the emotions and opportunities for social engagement are real,” she told me. Role-playing groups provide entertainment, companionship, and social interaction during a time when those are sorely lacking for many people.
Like many of the new types of online social activity that have emerged during the pandemic, Facebook role-playing groups can throw members into bizarrely intimate situations with strangers—the same sort someone might normally happen upon by accident in a restaurant or a subway car. On Saturday night, as a police helicopter hovered over my New York City neighborhood, I dialed into a conference call organized by the members of a group in which people pretend to be at a Rainbow Gathering—a Burning Man-style communal-living experiment that happens deep in the woods in a different state each year. I expected to hear inside jokes about camping and cast-iron skillets, but instead I ended up listening to people break character to talk about the protests in their various cities.
Even if they’re not breaking character, nobody is totally ignoring the real world when they enter into a fantasy. Many posts in “a group where we all pretend we’re in the same venue” are studded with comments of “ACAB,” an initialism for the phrase “all cops are bastards.” Although people don’t talk about the pandemic, and the protests come up only rarely, expressions of sadness and fear are common in the groups. These feelings are “looming, and part of the premise,” Sarah Kennedy said. You can’t openly discuss masks and quarantine and unemployment, but these things are precisely what brings someone to a random Facebook group filled with strangers in the first place.
While news coverage of the pandemic is preoccupied with the big questions about how we’ll eventually come out of the crisis, these groups ask the smallest and yet maybe also the most pressing questions people have about their lives: Will we ever again be sweated on in a crowd? Will we be frustrated by the length of a bathroom line? Will we hate the way someone prepared the break-room coffee? Yes, eventually, and then those things will be boring again.