Katie Parker usually reads to her 10-year-old son, Declan, to unwind at night.
But weeks into being quarantined in their Fairfield, Connecticut, home, they now sit in front of her computer for a few minutes a day and navigate to a Facebook group with more than a million members.
There, they pretend to be ants.
"For some reason, we get a big kick out of it," Parker, 40, and a mother of three, said.
Since the beginning of March, a "group where we all pretend to be ants in an ant colony" has grown from 100,000 members to more than 1.7 million, according to its creator, Tyrese Childs. And the number of people vying to join keeps rising.
The concept is simple: Members of the ant group post photos and videos about being ants. They live to serve their fictional queen and find her food such as crumbles, candy and ice cream. Members write comments like, "LIFT," "MUNCH" and "LINK," as they pretend to be ants.
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In one post, a group member shared a photo of pink ice cream with ants crawling on top of it. The poster asked other members to "munch" with them and take some of the frosty treat to the queen. More than 18,000 Facebook users responded to the post while pretending to be ants, writing comments like, "NOM," "SLURP" and "LIFT.TO.THE.QUEEN."
The ant group has become so active that Childs, 20, and his team of college-age administrators have had to institute a set of rules in order to keep the colony stabilized. Some of those rules include being respectful, always serving the queen, and never discussing politics or human issues.
"We have filtered out all the COVID-19 posts so it's like an escape," said Childs, a college student living in Fargo, North Dakota, with his family during the pandemic.
Childs' group is one of more than 70 role-playing Facebook groups in which people pretend to be a range of characters, from ghosts haunting the same mansion to employees working in the same office. The sizes of these groups vary from a couple hundred members to more than a million.
Dozens of these groups were started in the spring of 2019, but since global lockdowns took effect in March, these role-playing groups have become increasingly active.
"We have so many user requests and pending posts that this has become a job for me," Childs said. He's also taking classes online for the spring semester. "I think people are searching for something to do right now. You can only scroll so much on social media."
This rise of online role-playing during a time of crisis doesn't come as a surprise to Andreas Lieberoth, an assistant professor of media psychology at Aarhus University in Denmark. It's normal for people to crave social interaction and often they will turn to social media and games to have those needs met, he said.
"The ant group sounds like a psychologically safe space to meander with nothing scary and nothing political and nothing coronavirus related," he said. "I don't know if ants get COVID, but in this colony, they don't."
Lieberoth is researching how people are managing stress during the global pandemic. Through his work, he's finding that people are worried about overall societal impact and what will happen to their families, their jobs and their communities.
Ants have no such worries.
"As more of the world seems like something you can't predict, we try to ignore things that we can't control, and we try to find spaces where things are relaxing, like gardening or hiking or playing games," he said.
Sarah Lynne Bowman, a professor at Austin Community College in Texas, researches social conflict within role-playing communities and has been participating in role-playing games since she was 15 years old. She said these role-playing Facebook groups could help people cope with uncertain times and provide added benefits, too.
"Role playing can help with emotional regulation and resiliency," she said.
People participate in more role-playing activities than they even realize, Bowman said. From watching movies to playing tabletop games, when people identify with someone else's story for a short period of time, it can help them build empathy and develop problem-solving skills.
"We are learning right now that the Western ideals of self-sufficiency won't be able to serve us, especially with challenges in a health pandemic and climate change," she said. "So, I find it interesting that a whole bunch of people want to be in a group with a hive mind."
It's not just role-playing Facebook groups that are growing in popularity during the pandemic. W.A. Hawkes-Robinson, who runs a role-playing business and a free role-playing nonprofit, said that his free role-playing nonprofit, RPG Research, has seen an uptick in online users. There has been a 300 percent increase, about new 500 players, on his platform during the global lockdowns.
Binge watching videos during self-isolation is a passive experience, he said, and it can raise people's stress levels instead of leaving them feeling recharged.
"When we are under times of stress, we need time to decompress," he said.
"Role-playing games are a healthy escape. Your life is better because you're playing games. Your brain likes to be active, just like your body likes exercise."
With the massive growth of and participation in the ant Facebook group, John Kennedy, one of the administrators for the group, said he wanted to harness the enthusiasm of the participants to do something positive in the physical world too.
"I was thinking, 'how do we make this a good thing?'" Kennedy said. "I've seen things get really big, and then I see things die very fast."
The group started selling "ant-spired" merchandise like T-shirts, hoodies and other memorabilia, and 50 percent of the proceeds will be donated to a nature conservancy.
Parker, who participates in the group with her son, said she's excited to see the group is planning to donate its earnings to charity. It helps people feel like they are making some sort of impact, she said.
"Everyone is having a hard time. It sort of feels like we're ants right now, we're all stuck inside," she said. "I think the reason we like this is because it's mindless relief. It is silly. I love knowing that there are about two million people out there who get a kick out of this too."