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.
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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.”
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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.