How the Pandemic May Influence Video Games

Mask-wearing characters may become the norm

Key Takeaways

  • New video games are starting to look anachronistic without masks and social distancing. 
  • Some gamers are already customizing characters in their games to reflect the coronavirus. 
  • Games developed in the post-pandemic era are likely to emphasize interacting with other people, one analyst says.
A pair of hands holding a PlayStation 4 controller
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Video games may soon need to reflect the realities of the coronavirus pandemic with characters wearing masks and practicing social distancing, experts say.

Dozens of new games representing hundreds of millions of dollars in development costs are expected to be released soon for Sony and Microsoft’s new consoles. But the gameplay itself, years in development, already looks curiously antiquated. Characters cluster together and go bare-faced in ways that already seem like an ancient, pre-pandemic past. 

"If a game like Grand Theft Auto comes out and it's clearly set during a period when COVID was a big deal, then the characters would have to have masks or it would not be credible," Joost van Dreunen, a professor at NYU Stern School of Business and author of the upcoming book One Up: Creativity, Competition, and the Global Business of Video Games, said in a phone interview. "Open world games that try to describe a particular timeframe have to be consistent and also historically accurate."

Masking Up in Character

Some gamers are already customizing characters to reflect these mask-wearing times. Animal Crossing, for example, is reportedly seeing record-breaking sales and many players are wearing medical masks. "There’s a certain positive feeling invoked by the sight of [medical masks], as a person out working in the thick of it, I can’t really not be thinking about it constantly," gamer Greg LeClair told Polygon. "So, when I see someone wearing one, I know they’re at least aware of the role they can play in this mess."

"People want to reflect the world they're seeing."

Some older games already show characters wearing masks, even if they weren’t designed to protect against viruses. One gamer made a list of mask-wearing characters, including those in Mortal Kombat, Ibuki from the Street Fighter series, and Soldier 76 from Overwatch

But games that aren’t intended to be realistic don’t have to reflect COVID. "If it's some kind of post-apocalyptic parallel universe where zombies have wings, I don't think the coronavirus would be relevant there," van Dreunen said.

Pandemic Spending

With so many people spending more time indoors, the pandemic is giving the gaming industry a boost, Morris Garrard, an analyst with market research firm Futuresource Consulting, said in an email interview.

"Covid-19 has had a huge impact on gaming and it’s one of the few industries to actually benefit from social distancing measures and enforced lockdowns," he said. "What we saw was that gaming engagement, as well as engagement with streamed gameplay content consumption on websites such as Twitch, spiked during the second quarter of 2020."

A series of graphs showing Twitch's growth, reaching it's peak in 2020

If another wave of coronavirus cases arrive, as many experts predict, "growth in 2021 could be even stronger than 2020," added Garrard, "with consumers afforded more disposable time to spend gaming alongside the launch of the PS5 and Xbox Series X/S, which will encourage further growth in gaming spend."

A flood of new games will be arriving in the coming months for those who need a break from grim headlines, too. One new title for the PlayStation 5 will be Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales. Set in New York City, previews show the city in the game shows no sign of the coronavirus.

But the coronavirus is giving new life to old hits as well. Since the start of the pandemic there’s been a surge in popularity of virus-themed games, pointed out Aidan McGrath, managing director of video game marketing agency Aevry Media, in a phone interview. "People want to reflect the world they're seeing," he added. 

Plague, Inc., for example, allows players to create and evolve a pathogen in an effort to annihilate the human population. In Pathologic, a 2005 role-playing and survival game, characters try to uncover the source of a strange lethal sickness known as the "sand plague" that has befallen a small town.

Pandemic Development

While the pandemic has delayed the release of some games, it’s also led to a burst of development activity. "Because of the lockdown, we've seen many amateur game developers who were previously professional and have sadly lost their jobs," said McGrath. "They are starting their own game companies and creating their own games, and there's been a huge burst in that area."

Young man sitting at his PC, playing computer games
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The coronavirus is likely to change the content of new games that are developed, observers say. "It is common for publishers to create characters or secondary characters that reflect certain time periods or certain cultures," Paige Funk, Senior Director of Marketing at Nerd Street Gamers, said in a phone interview. "So I could see them eventually having characters, as well as complimentary characters, reflecting the times right now with masks." 

Games developed in the post-pandemic era are also likely to emphasize interacting with other people to create a sense of community, gaming analyst Agnieszka Cejrowska said in an email interview. "There will be different subjects, different gameplays, but a lot of interactions with other people, real people, and not non-playable characters," she said.

Seeking Escape and Realism

Games are meant to provide escape from the real world, but must also provide a degree of realism, observers say. "I think primarily for a lot of people, games take them away from the situation and put them in another world, but they still allow them to interact with their friends and to make those human connections that they need," McGrath said.

But the fact that so many people affected by the pandemic are forced to stay inside is encouraging interest in reality-based games like Microsoft’s Flight Simulator, McGrath said. "People are using those games to simulate the situation they're in and take some control of the world," he added.

"Covid-19 has had a huge impact on gaming and it’s one of the few industries to actually benefit from social distancing measures and enforced lockdowns."

In the real world, coronavirus is already jolting professional gaming as well. Many esports events are going remote while viewership soars, explained Funk.

The events taking place in person "now have limited capacity, they require masks, they follow FDA advisories and government restrictions," she said. "Moving forward, I think esports, as well as the US in general, and across the world, we're going to be [see masks] be a lot more normalized."

Whatever the outcome of the pandemic, gamers will continue to turn to their consoles for both an escape and a taste of the world outside. Developers will have to walk a fine line between fantasy and reality.

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