While impossible to categorise, Project Perfect Stranger experienced on WhatsApp and its grand finale, PlagueRound, a game show on Zoom, prove the old saying true, that there is kindness to be found in strangers. In real life we’re warned to keep two metres away from everybody, but here in this digital utopia, it’s worth the risk to stretch out your arm in friendship.
Project Perfect Stranger, the more thoughtful half of ZU-UK’s ambitious enterprise, links one player to another over WhatsApp. Before the experience begins, texts arrive telling you how to remove the picture from your WhatsApp profile. You delete your name and type instead the words ‘A Perfect Stranger’. While your other contacts won’t see this name-change, to your perfect stranger your identity remains a mystery. As you begin to make tentative communication, you’re encouraged to keep your gender, age and location secret. No texting ‘asl?’ here.
The instructions suggest that you will be completing tasks over WhatsApp with your stranger for five days, but, without giving too much away, these tasks are more like gentle exercises, which slowly reveal parts of your life to your stranger. ZU-UK suggests that you spend around 15 minutes a day interacting with your stranger, but you may find, if you have the time, that you spend longer than this, as you gradually begin to become friends.
And, if you play the game by its rules, this friend comes with no expectations and no preconceived judgements unlike our existing friends who, during the series of lockdowns, may have been supportive and annoying in equal measures. By the end of the five days, if you’re lucky, you may have made a real connection with your stranger, and agree to continue the friendship in some way. But ZU-UK also points out that you and your stranger may decide not to continue the communication, and that, too, is fine.
As Project Perfect Stranger is quiet and intimate, it comes as a surprise that its follow up show, PlagueRound is loud and brash. Selected participants of the week’s Project Perfect Stranger are invited to play a game show on Zoom, available for friends and family to watch on YouTube. This is also the first time that you will see the face of your new WhatsApp pal, though you might scour the online boxes to work out exactly who you were paired with.
PlagueRound may take some getting used to, although everyone seems to be up for it, some even dressing for the occasion. Some warm up games – who would have thought that we would still be playing the first lockdown’s Go and Fetch an Item deep into the third lockdown – certainly do help to break the ice. There are two main events within the game show; the first is meeting, in a break out room, your stranger and this can be quite a poignant moment, and the second is a collaborative task with other players. ZU –UK hopes that these micro acts of kindness and collaboration could help change the world in what presenter and writer Persis Jadé Maravala terms the Post-Normal. While these games won’t probably change anything, you have to admire ZU-UK’s optimism.
The two hours of PlagueRound go surprisingly quickly and it could even be quite sad when people wave goodbye before signing off. Teachers, theatres and musicians have struggled to form online communities, but ZU-UK has managed it, even if the community only lasts an afternoon. We can be heroes just for one day.