Gaming is the Island in Our Storm

Even working from home, games fill the vast chasm of stay-at-home time

Gaming during COVID-19
 Lifewire / Julie Bang

Like Zoom, bidets, and bread making, gaming is having a moment right now. I’ve seen it, firsthand.

My wife is not a gamer. Her fingers are not accustomed to a console controller’s nuances and mobile phones and tablets are for email, work, and social media. Over the weekend, however, I found her curled up on the couch playing Candy Crush-like games within the Property Brother’s Home Design App. She spent hours alternating between trying to design her dream kitchen and playing what she called “frustrating” games to earn enough points to access new design options.

Don’t get me wrong, during the COVID-19 Pandemic lockdown, my wife spends most of her days working from home and Marie Kondo-ing one room or drawer at a time. Even so, she’s found that when she might normally go out to lunch and see friends, go shopping, walk the track, she’s staying inside and looking for distractions.

She is not alone.

Video Gaming
Let me know if you're still gaming like this. Carolco Pictures

When I asked on Twitter if people are playing more video games now than before, 54% said yes (37% say they still don’t play).

It’s no great insight that more people than ever before are playing video games on consoles, PCs and mobile phones. We’ve lost the ability to go to the movies, out to dinner, and gather in each other’s homes and backyards. We’re turning to our digital companions for more interactive entertainment than we can get from endless hours of binge television.

Games for Good

In video games’ nearly 40-year history, they’ve never been held up as a pillar of social good. Critics see them as time wasters, devoid of meaning, and something that damages young, impressionable minds, pretty much just as television was considered a generation before.

That’s not, though, the universal view. Many games are full of dense, emotional storytelling. They’re also escapism entertainment that’s just as evocative as a feature film or novel. Many that are geared at children balance entertainment and education. Those who’ve been following the game industry for any length of time know all this.

A few weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic exploded in the U.S., the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) launched its “Game Generation” campaign, which highlights the “positive impact of video games on players’ lives, their families, and across society.”

Obviously, it’s a self-serving campaign launched by the group representing companies that make the games we buy and play. Still, the ESA coupled the campaign with some interesting gaming data points that illuminate how people think about games and, perhaps, why they are playing such an important role in our current social-distancing culture. Among the findings:

By The Numbers

  • 73% of parents surveyed view the experience their children have with video games to be beneficial in their educational development
  • 63% believe video game play helps problem solving skills
  • 52% believe game play helps develop or improve teamwork and collaborative skills
  • 65% of gamers play online with others

What We’re Playing

Just as we were closing ourselves in, a pair of eagerly anticipated (and wildly divergent) games launched, literally, on the same day: Doom Eternal and Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

People lined up at their local GameStop store (a beleaguered chain that may not emerge from the pandemic) to buy the games and, because of early social distancing rules, were allowed into the shop a few at a time. I know this because my son was among those in line. 

Players Unknown Battlegrounds
I've played and won many PUBG rounds, and I am proud of it.  PUBG

Like millions of others, my son’s work was put on hold by COVID-19, which meant he suddenly had all the time in the world to play Doom Eternal on Xbox. 72 hours later, he informed me he’d beaten the game.

Meanwhile, millions of others were now playing Animal Crossing. Unlike Doom, it's more of an open-ended world-building game that encourages you to create a functioning society on your own island. It also includes a significant social aspect. In other words, it’s perfect for a socially distant yet still together existence.

The break that we get from these games and their ability to bring us digitally together while we’re forced to be apart cannot be understated.

Other games people are turning to include Forza HorizonDiablo 3, and Players Unknown Battleground (PUBG). For my part, I’m back to challenging strangers to timed chess games on the app and have played more than a few intense PUBG rounds.

Consumers are rediscovering game offerings on their Apple TVs, including the You Don’t Know Jack trivia game bundle known as Jackbox Party. I bet Apple is also seeing an uptick in $4.99-a-month Apple Arcade subscriptions.

The Weight of Play

There are other signs that more people are playing and even over-taxing some of these online networks. Microsoft Xbox Live has gone down a few times (the company is now prioritizing some cloud-based services, especially for existing customers, but it’s unclear if that will impact Xbox Live stability). Nintendo Switch Services went down earlier this month.

With the prospect of the U.S.’s COVID-19 Social Distancing directives lasting into May, the pressure on these game services, regardless of platform, is unlikely to let up. Tech companies are juggling unprecedented system, services, and server demands, all with constrained work forces (while millions can work from home, there are always industries and roles within them that cannot be handled remotely). It leaves me wondering how well they’ll continue to handle a demand that’s probably growing by the day.

So What

The break that we get from these games and their ability to bring us digitally together while we’re forced to be apart cannot be understated. It’s a release of, sometimes, anger and frustration (those action games), a way to solve real and virtual problems together (capture the flag, build a world), and a reminder that, though separated, we’re not alone.

We are lucky to have this fantastic ecosystem of virtual worlds that let us escape a harsh reality for a few hours a day or week. Eventually, we will beat COVID-19 and the world will go back to normal, but we’ll remember this time and everything we did to survive, stay sane, and stay together while apart.

As for my wife, the virtual kitchen project remains unfinished. She opted out as soon as she learned about in-app purchases.

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