Christine Kitchens loves the outdoors.
As a research technician with the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research who spends every week during the summer on Lake Erie collecting water samples to monitor harmful algal blooms, it comes with the territory.
So it might come as a surprise to learn Kitchens’ favorite pastimes involve being holed up indoors.
“I always feel a little out of place when I’m talking to people in the environmental field who are like, ‘I like hiking and I like boating,’ and don’t get me wrong, I like those things, too,” she said. “But one of my favorite hobbies when I’m not doing work is to play video games with my friends. Nothing is quite as enjoyable.”
Kitchens and three others share a house, and she said when it’s time to play “Final Fantasy 14” or some other multiplayer, role-playing game, the living room turns into a game room.
“We all love to pile down in the living room, and it looks very much like what you’d expect a gamer den to look like: 2-liters of Mountain Dew, some bags of Doritos, we’re all yelling at each other,” she said with a laugh.
She said they tend to play video games with elaborate storylines, “so in a sense you might even say it’s a lot like reading but with a lot more hands-on involvement.”
Aside from the entertainment value in playing the games, Kitchens said there is a sense of team building that comes with running through a dungeon, dodging monsters and trying to advance a level.
It also provided a welcome diversion and opportunity to connect when the COVID-19 pandemic kept in-person gatherings minimal. Kitchens and friends outside the house would venture onto Steam, a major video game platform that offered the ability to purchase tabletop simulator board games online and gift them to others.
“It was an engaging activity for people to play together that wasn’t just sitting in a Zoom call talking to each other,” she said.
Kitchens and her partners and friends joined the craze that was “Among Us,” a multiplayer game inspired by the game “Mafia” with influences from the movie “The Thing.”
Several players would join a mission, with one or more of them secretly designated imposters and the others as crewmates assigned tasks to complete. The goal of the game was for the crewmates to finish their tasks before the imposters either killed them or caused a disaster.
Through the game, which she played upwards of four times a week during the pandemic, she interacted with friends of her friends and formed bonds with family members who played.
“We were all united by our joy of this game,” she said. “It was actually a really wonderful opportunity to meet and talk to people I would not have talked to because I would have been relying on in-person activities.”
Kitchens said board games are also a big hit at the house. She estimates they have about 150 board games and not just ones like the classic “Monopoly” and “Scrabble.”
They prefer games with more of a “Dungeons and Dragons” storyline. To find games of that nature, they visit Kickstarter and order “very elaborate, campaign-style board games” and set aside Thursday night as “game night.”
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Kitchens traces her love for video games to her childhood. She said when she first played “Sonic the Hedgehog” on the Sega game system at 5 years old, “it was game over.”
One of two children raised by a single mother managing on a meager income in North Carolina, Kitchens appreciated any sort of entertainment that was available and affordable. She would take her stellar report cards to establishments offering free game rentals to students with all A’s.
The family budget would not allow for trips, so video games helped fill the void.
“I did a lot of reading and video games because it was a form of escapism,” she said. “Video games have always been a big part of my life. They have let me see worlds and places I would never see otherwise.”
She said she learned a wide vocabulary from playing video games and distinctly remembers learning the word “theocracy” from one.
Kitchens now would like to create video games of her own that help educate people on the world of science. She is taking classes in the evening at Michigan State University to further that pursuit.
“I have a passion for science and I love it a lot, and I think video games are an interface that a lot of people know,” she said. “It’s a really engaging way to learn things, and I would love to share that with other people and make things a little more accessible and maybe one day teach people cool science through cool video games.”