Want to see your friends? If you're bored of Zoom you should consider video games to play together as virtual hangouts: titles that put more of an emphasis on being social than on showcasing skills.
Online gaming can be a great way to connect with friends when you’re stuck at home. But most online games require laser-focus on what you’re doing. A momentary lapse in attention can cost your team victory, and that’s not a great mindset to be in if you just want to hang out and catch up.
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Of course, some friend groups will feel right at home in Overwatch or League of Legends, and power to them. But if you’re not already super-skilled in a competitive online game, using it as a virtual hangout space can be daunting.
Instead, we’ve compiled a list of ten games where hanging out is either the primary goal, or very easy to do alongside regular gameplay. These include sims, RPGs, racing games and even pure social experiences. Each provides a solid alternative to simply using a Zoom background to liven up your next online meetup.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is already one of the chillest games on the market today. While there’s a lot to do in the game, you don’t have to do any of it under a time limit. The game accepts whatever goals you set for yourself, and gives you mild nudges to accomplish them as you go. You can invite up to seven friends to your island at once, and then all of you can pull weeds, hunt bugs and simply explore to your hearts’ content.
What makes Animal Crossing such a good hangout space is that there’s no overarching goal to work toward. The entire crux of the multiplayer mode really is “spend time together.” Best of all, if you can get a group of eight friends together, you can take turns visiting each others’ islands, which will be sure to eat up at least a few evenings. Each player collects items, and if you're in a giving mood, you can even send trinkets to your friends to help them improve their islands.
Final Fantasy XIV
Massively multiplayer online (MMO) game fans have known for years that these titles are often virtual hangout spaces first, and engrossing games second. Just get a group of friends together, pick a nightly time to meet, and work your way through FFXIV’s gripping story and easygoing, quest-based gameplay. Having a ready-made party makes the game feel much more rewarding, particularly since FFXIV requires you to join groups in order to tackle a lot of its story quests. (Compare and contrast to World of Warcraft, which generally doesn’t necessitate forming parties until the endgame content.)
FFXIV is a gorgeous game with a lot of fun classes to play, including Final Fantasy mainstays like Warrior, White Mage, Machinist, Summoner and Dragoon. If you all start at Level 1 and work your way through the game together, you’ll have plenty of time to chat, especially since the game is rarely too challenging. (And yes, WoW would work just as well, but FFXIV is a better game.)
Fortnite: Party Royale
By now, you probably already know if you love or hate Fortnite, and this list probably isn’t going to change your mind. But it is worth pointing out that if you’re at least open to the idea of playing it, the game recently implemented a new, combat-free mode. Fortnite: Party Royale came about after the game’s massively popular Travis Scott concert, and features a similar pitch: Hang out with your friends in a big, virtual world where combat isn’t a factor.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do, though. Fortnite: Party Royale features timed challenges and a bunch of vehicles to play with, so you won’t simply be standing around. There’s also gear to earn and, every so often, concerts to watch. The player cap is much higher in Party Royale than in a traditional Fortnite game, so it might be worth logging in just to see whom you’ll meet.
Forza Horizon 4
Each Forza Horizon 4 multiplayer server supports up to 72 players, so you shouldn’t have any trouble fitting your whole friend group into this digital representation of Great Britain. For those who haven’t played it, Forza Horizon 4 is an open-world racing game where players compete on the streets, racetracks and off-road trails of England and Scotland. It’s very much an “explore and see things at your own pace” experience, which means it’s incredibly well suited to a group of friends hanging out.
Since the player cap is so high, your group doesn’t have to coordinate its actions. One person can cruise across the country while another competes in a race and another adds more cars to his collection. Of course, you can all meet up and race, if you like — and you’ll have more than 450 real-life cars from which to choose, if you do.
The Jackbox Party Pack
By this point in quarantine, I imagine that everybody’s played at least one Jackbox game with friends, and it’s not hard to see why. Jackbox games require no specialized gaming skills or dedicated controllers. You just hop into a server with your phone or computer and let your brain (and often some alcohol) do the rest of the work. Whether you’re coming up with clever lies in Fibbage, testing your smarts in You Don’t Know Jack, penning rhyming diss tracks in Mad Verse City or making incomprehensible images in Drawful, the Jackbox games are exactly the kind of thing you might play at a house party or a bar.
There is a fair question about whether Jackbox really facilitates socializing, since most of the games require your full attention for a good ten minutes at a time. However, I’ve found that playing Jackbox games online is a lot like playing them in person: ten minutes of gaming, followed by ten minutes of shooting the breeze, followed by another ten minutes of gaming, and so on, until someone conks out on a couch.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
While I like a good round of Mario Kart as much as the next Switch owner, I think we can admit to ourselves that it’s not the most hardcore racing series out there. Think about how often Mario Kart 8 Deluxe gets pulled out at a house party. It’s not really about the challenge, or the skill involved; it’s almost always just a way to get people loosened up and having fun. (Granted, there’s always that one guy who takes it way too seriously, but don’t be that guy.)
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is an especially good hangout game if your group has already played it ad nauseum. You know how to navigate your favorite tracks; you know which character you’re going to pick; you know which settings you like. All you have to do is run the races, then let your fingers do the work while you and your friends catch up.
Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition
There are ways to play Dungeons & Dragons online, but they tend to be very involved. If you want a tabletop RPG experience that’s a little more social and a little less technical, Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition is a great option. This re-release of the 2002 classic lets you create your own Dungeons & Dragons modules, then play through them with up to 64 players. (If you actually manage to make a module where 64 players can collaborate in a meaningful way, my hat’s off to you.)
What’s great about Neverwinter Nights is that the game takes care of all the tedious parts of an RPG for you. Rather than consulting your rulebook while you figure out movement speed and special abilities, you just choose the action you want to take (attacking a monster or disarming a trapped treasure chest), and the game engine will take care of the rest. Simple dungeon crawls, rather than story-driven adventures, tend to facilitate the best hangouts.
Sea of Thieves
When you’re stuck at home, nothing could be more alluring than the promise of adventure on the high seas. You and three friends can crew your own pirate ship in Sea of Thieves: an online multiplayer game that gets surprisingly granular about ocean exploration. You don’t just hop on a ship and sail from objective to objective; you actually have to raise anchor, unfurl your sails, man the cannons, bail out water and repair damage with wooden planks as you go. Once you make landfall, you can fight fantastical foes and dig up buried treasure.
Sea of Thieves is almost entirely about the experience of getting lost in a pirate fantasy; it didn’t even have a story campaign until last year. Once you and your crew get in the rhythm of things, Sea of Thieves can be a great alternative to simply sitting around and talking, since everyone’s role is just passive enough to zone out a bit, and just active enough to keep them from getting bored.
I covered Tabletop Simulator in its own article, but it’s impossible to talk about virtual hangouts without it. Tabletop Simulator isn’t a game, per se; it’s more of a physics engine with a lot of game pieces attached. You set out a game on a tabletop, then roll dice, draw cards and move pieces, just like in real life. You can play chess, poker, mahjong and other public domain games right out of the box, as well as collaborate on jigsaw puzzles and run tabletop RPGs. If you want to pay money, you can also get official digital versions of popular board games, or dive into the Steam Workshop to see what other fans have created.
Tabletop Simulator is great for hanging out since there’s nothing in particular you have to do in the game. You could play a round of checkers, then pack it up and play rummy instead. It’s a lot like actually sitting around someone’s game table at home. You’ll play what you came to play, sure, but you’ll also be able to unwind and talk with no objectives hanging over your head.
Ticket to Ride
To be fair, I could have put any good board game adaptation here; Ticket to Ride is just easy to learn and has a stable, widely available digital version. Anyone who’s sat through a board game knows that it’s basically impossible to play one start to finish without stopping to chat and catch up along the way. (Those incredibly complex German strategy games that take a whole afternoon to set up might be an exception — but not always.) Especially if you play a game you all know and love, you don’t need to spend any time explaining the rules, letting you focus on other people instead.
For those who haven’t played it, Ticket to Ride is a lightweight strategy game that challenges players to build train routes across the United States, or Europe, or Asia, depending on which version you pick up. It’s newbie-friendly and feels a bit like traveling, which is a nice touch during a quarantine. But again, any decent digital board game will work just as well.