Computer games: More than a lockdown distraction
Games like Animal Crossing have a strong social element
Chris Conway had organized a surprise birthday party for a roommate, and that was the plan until March 20, when the Oregon governor told all the residents to stay home.
Nobody had to go out unless absolutely necessary because of the Covid-19 pandemic, so Mx Conway and their friends had to be creative.
Instead, they decided to throw a party in an online video game, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which was released by chance for Nintendo Switch on the same day as the Oregon residence order.
Meeting instead on a Sunday evening as colorful characters in the game, the friends went out, chatted with each other and explored the virtual world. A coronavirus-free world.
“It was really nice to go to the game and spend time together,” says Mx Conway. In Animal Crossing, players can participate in a variety of activities, from fishing to playing musical instruments.
This is far from the only social event that has taken place in Animal Crossing since it was released. Some even met for game dates.
With restaurants, bars, recreation centers and other closed facilities across much of the world, people need to find creative ways to maintain social connections and have fun despite being stuck at home.
Congregation in games is an option for friends during the blockade
Weekly game sales increased between 40% and 60%, according to Futuresource analysts. Much of this has been helped by the release of Animal Crossing and other new titles such as Call of Duty: Warzone, which allow people to meet each other in the game.
Players also spend more time in virtual worlds and use more Internet bandwidth to connect.
For many, the games not only provide a way to connect with friends in quarantine, but they are also alternative universes in which the reality of the pandemic can be momentarily forgotten.
By day, Mx Conway is a delivery driver for a wine distributor.
“We’ve been classified as essential stores, so we’re still open,” they said.
Although bars and restaurants no longer buy stocks, stores that sell alcohol to the public have placed much larger orders than usual. After a long day at work, an online holiday in Animal Crossing beckons.
“It was really wonderful just to give my time after work a little more structure,” says Mx Conway.
Today there are hundreds of games with gigantic worlds that allow people to meet online. Eve Online, for example, contains 7,800 star systems in which players cooperate or fight each other.
Hilmar Pétursson, CEO of CCP Games, owner of Eve Online, told the BBC that the company had previously registered around 7,000 new accounts per day, and then jumped to 11,000 on March 14th.
The wave coincided with the announcement of a blockade in Spain and followed the blockade nationwide in Italy on 9 March.
“Our game is famous for being a very social game,” he says. “Netflix is all that’s good for spending time, but that doesn’t really give you a social context. And people crave a social context.”
Eve Online is a challenging game, he adds, which forces people to work together to overcome various challenges in social groups, which helps players make friends.
At a time when there are so many restrictions on everyday life, people are turning to games to satisfy certain basic psychological needs, says prof. Andrew Przybylski at the Internet Internet Institute.
Socializing is one of these needs, but so are the feelings of being in control and having a choice about what you do. Games offer this, although the physical spaces around us may not be at present.
Professor Przybylski himself enjoyed returning to the games he learned when he was still in school, including Starcraft and Age of Empires II.
He can still remember how to win when playing against the computer, and it’s that familiarity that makes them comforting distractions.
“That sense of effectiveness, that sense of control over my environment, is something that this crisis has basically robbed me of,” says Professor Przybylski.
Games, he notes, aren’t designed to meet all our needs. They are not perfect substitutes for meeting face to face, for example. Furthermore, they may not be available for people who cannot afford it easily. But for those who can and make them play, the games offer some respite.
“It’s about meeting people where they are,” says Professor Przybylski. “It’s not a panacea.”
Another player who has tried to distract himself in the virtual worlds is Sarisha Goodman, an education and sociology student from the University of Birmingham, who currently lives at home in London.
“When I was a teenager I always went to play when I was really overwhelmed, so that’s a bit of what I did,” he explains.
His favorite games are The Sims 4 and Animal Crossing. He says he could play The Sims until 03:00 most days if he wishes. It is a simulation game that allows the player to create characters and decorate their homes. It is therefore possible to observe how these characters interact with each other.
“We don’t have a normal life anymore, it’s nice to see it even if it’s in a game form,” says Goodman. Sometimes use the House Party smartphone app to simultaneously talk to friends online while playing.
As a third year student, Goodman hasn’t had time to play for months. Now she is happy with them. He has followed some online lessons for his course and is starting to work on his degree thesis. But beyond that, university life has been more or less put on hold.
There has been a significant increase in games since Covid-19 started to spread, says Morris Garrard, at the Futuresource market analysis firm.
“We are seeing a particularly strong absorption in social games, games like Fortnite and Call of Duty: Warzone,” he says.
The volume of games sold every week has increased between 40% and 60% and players are expected to spend much more time in games than last year, due to their stay at home requirements.
Similar trends have been spotted in China, where Covid-19 was first detected. For example, the mobile game Honor of Kings saw a 20% increase in revenue from in-game purchases in February, adds Garrard.
Steam, a PC game distribution service, recently counted 23.8 million players simultaneously playing various games around the world, the highest in Steam’s 17-year history.
That’s about 15% growth in two weeks, says Tomas Otterbeck at Redeye AB, an investment bank.
Games played online also use more broadband data. The US network Verizon saw a 75% increase in game traffic in mid-March.
“We can expect a 100% increase, compared to pre-Covid-19, in the use of data from that relationship,” says Otterbeck.
But Professor Przybylski warns that, in such distressing times, people may need help beyond what virtual worlds can offer. Gaming companies should, he suggests, make it easy for players in difficulty to contact support services if necessary.
“They have to put contact information for people in crisis on their platforms,” he explains. “So when people need something other than Animal Crossing, they can get there.”