This post is part of Geek Takeover Week 2014.

This is a guest post by Alex Berger, a former mergers & acquisitions professional from Arizona who’s now based in Copenhagen, Denmark. Alex writes VirtualWayfarer, a travel blog with a focus on sharing stories, musings, and advice through a visually and narrative rich format.

scotland highlands

It was 2010 and if someone had dared brave the 110 degree Phoenix weather for a stroll, they might have glimpsed three faces caught in the depths of intense concentration lit by the glow of computer screens. If they lingered a moment to glance through an open window, they’d have smelled the distinct aroma of cigar smoke and heard the sounds of medieval battle – the clank of swords, the harrumph of horses, and the twang of ballista. All accompanied by friendly banter, strategic exchanges such as, “You take the seas” or “Hurry, counter his cavalry” dramatically said between the long intense exhales that go with pro-longed focus.

The occasion? A guys’ night out where two friends and I came together to relax, drink some beers, smoke cigars, chat, catch up, and play the iconic video game Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings. We were having a mini-LAN party. Hunkered down in a friend’s living room, we’d taken over the kitchen table which quickly transformed into a warren of cables, electronic devices, and beer bottles.

age of empires II

These guys’ nights were something we all treasured. They were relaxed fun and a chance to catch up over multi-hour games that tested our strategy, our ability to respond to crises, and served as an inclusive and active evening. They were something more engaging and social than heading out to the bars or catching a movie and they allowed us to deepen our bonds and friendship. These weren’t just evenings spent massacring each others armies, they were evenings spent talking about life, our girlfriends/wives, work, politics, fears, dreams, and current affairs.

A lot has changed over the last four years. We’ve all moved to different cities (and in my case a different country). One of the guys is not only married, he’s now expecting his first child. Our daily lives look vastly different and the opportunities to sit down face-to-face are often rare and rushed. Yet, from time to time, we still manage to boot up our machines, rally our troops, and re-join the field of battle for a few hours of concentrated connection. The result is the maintenance of our friendship, despite a plethora of obstacles that would otherwise very easily gradually erode it until the richness and depth faded away.

Facebook and iMessage Aren’t Enough

Even in the modern digital landscape where Facebook, iMessage, and E-mail are ever-present it is difficult to maintain long-distance friendships.  Especially among guys who far too often are hesitant to call each other  up for a chat, let alone hours on the phone. I’m sure some guys do it and I’m sure it would be nice – but for most of us it just isn’t something we do. Hell, it would just feel weird unless there was some reason, some purpose, some muse to justify the call. And of course, the longer you spend disconnected the harder it is to learn about the day-to-day goings on in each others lives which make for long conversations, serve as a platform for good advice, and allow us to read each other.

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alex berger

So, even while it gets harder to do when moving away, maintaining a good friendship is often dependent on having those long conversations where you just talk about everything and nothing. Those moments where you can share the things that you need to in a safe setting, or just blow off steam and relax with some lighthearted about silly trivialities or the latest news article that left your mental gears turning.

Over the past two years we’ve developed a new tradition. Once or twice a month a text message lights up one of our screens. It’s a simple thing, often just five characters, “Game?” With an 8-hour time difference, it’s often challenging to find times when we can both connect. It means that games have to happen early in the morning or late at night for one (or both) of us. When we finally figure out a window where our schedules align the obnoxious sound of Skype or Facetime echoes through our headsets as packets of data whiz the 4,895 miles from Denmark to Colorado and back again.

It’s a surreal experience chatting away while gaming together for several hours per-go. In some ways it melts away the distance between us and leaves us feeling as though we’re just on opposite sides of the room or still living a five-minute drive down the road. It embodies the kind of weird third-space hangouts which are starting to emerge as a result of ever more-powerful technologies that enable increased co-presence and more seamless communication.

age of empires II

But, it’s not just about a long Skype call. The game itself adds to the depth of the experience by creating a common space where we can both interact and engage which has a vast and inclusive coherence to it that a traditional video call can at-best only maintain for a few minutes. All the while, as the game is its own distraction, it is also something that focuses us both and keeps us engaged in the moment and completely co-present without the pitfalls of wandering attention or failed multitasking which so often undermines the richness of long-distance conversations.

During our games the conversation often follows the progression of the game itself. In the early stages as we build our economies and nurture our civilizations we catch up on the day-to-day stuff, general chit chat, life events, and the latest in what we’re pondering. Then, as battle nears and our trained armies are prepared to attack each other, the conversation moves more to the game, challenges we’ve been working to overcome, or the lull of subdued conversational co-presence that culminates in the start of our in-game military conflict. As we explore mixed strategies, switch tactics, employ counters, and the battle rages back and forth, our conversation transitions completely to the game.

alex bergerOne of the beauties of Age of Kings is that it allows you to maintain a civilization of up to 500 units at any given time. All the while you’re responsible for gathering four core resources (food, wood, gold, and  stone) which you can then use to build units, buildings, or research technologies. Each of the city’s historically based civilizations have their own special units and skill trees which include particularly strong units such as the Frank’s mounted Paladins with a 20% added life bonus or the Byzantine’s advanced Pikemen which are not only cheaper than normal Pikemen but have a direct bonus against Calvary units such as Paladins. In a particularly good game an economy usually consists of 100-200 of your 500 total units, while the remainder are military units to be deployed on an evolving field of battle. It is the embodiment of chess, but chess in a much more dynamic and complex context.

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The adrenaline of the battles, the stress of watching your army flanked, falling victim to a surprise attack, or realizing that your economy is in tatters has a very real impact on how you feel. It brings out the same chemical responses in the body that playing a sport together would, and in a way, I think that’s also part of what makes it a much richer and better way to keep a friendship alive than just simply chatting over FB or a brief phone-call.

Then, an hour later – sometimes two – a victor emerges. With the game screen frozen and the final stats on-screen we each take turns lamenting our loss or celebrating our victory.  Spilling the beans on the thoughts we had, where we thought we’d lost the game – but then salvaged it – or made fatal missteps.  We collectively explore the final results – who had more resources? Did it make a difference?  Before returning to our conversations about the day’s nagging topics. Things we’ve read, the wars raging around the world, cultural differences between Denmark, Arizona, New York, and Colorado as well as talks or projects we’re excited about sharing and debating.

It Makes A Difference

I realize we are much more engaged and up-to-date on each others lives than I am with my other equally close friends from back home (those who don’t play Age of Kings). I’m always amazed that something so simple and seemingly irrelevant can be such a powerful enabler of ongoing friendship. We’ve also come to realize that the act of playing a strategic game like Age of Kings has its own wealth of benefits. For those who haven’t gamed it may sound silly or hard to believe, but the game also makes our thinking more flexible, our ability to push through the paralysis that comes in times of crisis more effortless, and our decision-making more fluid. All of which are skills that have served us well in the business world and made us more proficient career professionals.

austrian alps

Of course, all things require moderation. Our games are relatively few and far between, which gives us both ample time to invest heavily in our daily lives. We’re also active across social media, but even those interactions are deepened because of the extended conversations we work in a few times a month in-game.

I’d love to know if you have similar experiences of your own (gaming or other tools that fill a similar purpose) which have helped you keep in touch with friends while traveling or living abroad. Have a story? Let’s hear it in a comment below.

Anil Polat: Thank you very much Alex for sharing your adventures virtual and physical with us through this story. All photos in this post are courtesy Alex Berger who you can find on his blog VirtualWayfarer, Twitter @AlexBerger, and the VirtualWayfarer Facebook page.