Apocalyptic Games Can Be an Escape During Pandemic

Putting things in perspective

Key Takeaways

  • Many gamers are turning to titles that imagine an apocalypse even during the very real coronavirus pandemic.
  • The release of a mod for Fallout: New Vegas, which is set in a world after a nuclear war, is generating buzz.
  • Observers say that playing apocalyptic games is both an escape and a way to connect with a stressful world.
Ellie traveling by horse in The Last of Us Part 2
Naughty Dog / Sony

Even as news headlines grow grimmer during the coronavirus pandemic, many gamers are finding comfort in titles that imagine an apocalypse.

Games that portray horrific events like the aftermath of nuclear war are becoming increasingly popular, anecdotal evidence suggests. For example, a mod of Fallout: New Vegas, set in a world after a nuclear war, recently was released and is being snapped up. The boost in interest in titles like these is no accident, experts say. 

"Apocalyptic games often explore the worst side of humanity and show us a glimpse of what might be if we fail to maintain society and our current way of life," Samuel Franklin, founder and lead editor of gaming website Games Finder, said in an email interview with Lifewire. "I think for the majority of players, though, it's more about the challenging escape and trying to make do with limited resources that remind us that the real world might not be so bad."

Naked and Afraid

Franklin said that with stay-at-home orders across the world, video games are thriving, including the apocalyptic game genre. 

"One standout in this genre is Rust, a game that has a heavy focus on survival elements and literally has players starting naked to survive against the wilderness, weather, and other players," he said. "This growth has been further supported by well-known streamers that have taken the game to double the player base in a single month."

DayZ, which portrays an apocalyptic world in ruin, also has seen its player base double between December 2019 and December 2020, Franklin said. The classic zombie-apocalypse survival horror game Resident Evil made a return in April 2020 with Resident Evil 3. There also was the release of The Last of Us Part II, set in a post-apocalyptic US.

Exterior of the raccoon city police department in Resident Evil 2 Remake

Indie developers also produced a range of games dealing with apocalyptic scenarios during 2020, with titles such as My Friend is a Raven and What's Left Behind, according to research by Currys PC World

"Post-apocalyptic" also has been added as a tag for games on Steam, allowing users to browse games expressly set in end-of-the-world scenarios, the research found. This year is expected to see the launch of more horror-themed post-apocalyptic games, such as Scorn and Ghostwire: Tokyo.

Escaping Reality 

Despite their subject matter, apocalyptic games offer an escape from grim headlines, observers say.

"As a medium, video games offer a very immersive environment due to the user controlling the characters they are playing," Drew Kalinski, founder of gaming hardware website Rigvana, said in an email interview. "They allow the user to act out 'what if' situations, like 'what if I was a mage or a character on a distant planet?'"

Kalinski said the pandemic is making gamers feel closer to titles with downbeat storylines. "Living life in a post-apocalyptic world seems all that more plausible," he said. "It all just feels a little closer to home. So, by escaping into post-apocalyptic video games, we are acting out different 'what-if scenarios' that are similar to what we are experiencing in real life."

Outside of the Goodsprings General Store in Fallout: New Vegas

For same gamers, though, playing through the apocalypse could be a downer, warned Franklin. "Games like this often encourage survival above all else, which can create a harmful mindset and mood if taken outside of the gaming realm," he said.

Cue the finger-wagging that games portraying terrible events encourage violence. Most gamers, however, simply are looking for a way to escape the reality of the pandemic, and don’t want any of the events shown in games to happen. Sometimes, playing a game that’s worse than reality can be comforting.

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