How online gaming has become a social lifeline

“Our entire lives have led up to this,” my friends joked with me in mid-March.

I was sitting in my tiny New York City apartment, panicky and coming to terms with the reality that I’d be trapped inside for weeks, potentially months. But my friends reassured me that as lifelong video game enthusiasts, the prospect of sitting on a sofa in front of a TV for an interminable stretch would be a cakewalk. After all, gamers like me do already spend plenty of time in front of our screens all on our own.

But even sitting alone for hours, gamers aren’t necessarily isolated. In many cases, far from it. With the rise of social media, gamers – particularly in Gen Z – have perfected the art of building communities in and around video games. Gamers don’t just compete with strangers on the internet, but forge genuine, enduring friendships.

In this age of long-haul social distancing and mental-health strains, gamers have long had a tool that’s now bringing some relief to those who’ve never picked up a controller before. The explosive growth of gaming during the pandemic has shown that many have found a new outlet for much-needed connection in isolation.

When shelter-in-place orders came down, millions of people around the world turned to tech-fuelled diversions to stay in touch with family and friends, like Netflix Party film viewings, Zoom chats and video games.

There’s the outer-space saboteur mobile game Among Us (which 100 million people have downloaded); and the Jackbox games that mix video chatting and elements of classics like Pictionary, and that have acted as stand-ins for in-person happy hours. Perhaps the most well known is Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Released in March, Nintendo’s record-breaking Switch game that tripled the company’s profits drops players in a tiny tropical town filled with talking anthropomorphic animal neighbours who help them redecorate their home, catch butterflies and grow fruit trees.

Gaming has skyrocketed during the pandemic, reaching people who’d play every now and then, or even those who had previously snubbed it entirely. In the US alone, four out of five consumers in one survey played video games in the last six months, according to a new study by NPD, an American business-research firm. And at a time in which many industries are in dire straits, sales in gaming are booming. Global revenue is expected to jump 20% this year to $175bn (£130bn).

The explosive growth of gaming during the pandemic has shown that many have found a new outlet for much-need connection in isolation

But although the concept of socialisation in a game is new to many, video game enthusiasts have been using tech like this to build friendships online and stay connected for years.

Mark Griffiths is a professor at Nottingham Trent University who’s written about gaming friendships in the pandemic, and studied socialisation in video games for decades. In 2003, he published a study that showed a quarter of 11,000 players of the online role-playing game Everquest said their favourite part of the game was connecting with other players. He says the study was a direct and early contradiction of the stereotype that video games are isolating, and gamers antisocial (even though those early pandemic memes jokingly played off those stereotypes). In another study from 2007, he looked at 912 players of massively multiplayer online (MMO) role-playing games from 45 countries who played on average around 22 hours a week, concluding that the online game environment was “highly socially interactive”.

He says, “Ten percent of those in the survey actually ended up forming romantic relationships outside of the game... The idea of socialising in a game is not new at all.” Fast forward to 2020, and Griffiths says that when lockdowns began and people had nothing much to do, “maybe they’re gaming for the first time, and they realised this was an outlet you can naturally socialise in”.

For example, in Animal Crossing, players can visit the towns of both real-life friends or strangers who share their village code online. Flying on a virtual seaplane into my brother’s village, filled with friendly koalas, has become our 2020 ritual as he continues to isolate from Washington, DC, and we miss family holidays. I also visit friends scattered all over the world, including one from secondary school whom I haven’t seen since 2000.

Some people have held their birthday parties via Animal Crossing this year, others go on dates and some couples who cancelled their weddings because of Covid-19 have even gotten married in the game. There’s also an online fan-made marketplace where players connect to trade fruits and rare furniture, called Nookazon. The site hosts trivia nights and chat meetups for Animal Crossing players.

The pandemic “really opened a lot of people’s eyes – even non-gamers – to what games can do to bring people together,” says Daniel Luu, the founder of Nookazon, who’s a software developer and an active gamer based in Washington, DC. He says one of his site’s most popular top sellers is a 50-year-old woman who’s “never played video games in her entire life”. “I think the reason Animal Crossing has become so successful is because anyone can play it. There are tons of cute items, tons of fun characters, tons of customisations,” he says. “It really helped show that video games aren’t just all, like, Call of Duty.”

Maybe they’re gaming for the first time, and they realised this was an outlet you can naturally socialise in – Mark Griffiths

Lin Zhu is a graduate student in psychology at the University of Albany in New York. In September, she wrote a paper on Animal Crossing and the pandemic, published in the journal Human Behavior and Emerging Technologies. Zhu says Animal Crossing in particular provides laid-back escapism and soothing feelings of safety in these turbulent times – which has helped bring new gamers into the hobby. “The pandemic has not only reduced face-to-face communication opportunities, but also allowed more people to learn about games as a novel platform to get social interaction.”

Amazon-owned Twitch, where people watch other people play video games in live webcasts, chatting in real time with the streamer and other viewers, clocked five billion hours of viewed content in the second quarter of 2020 alone. The engagement is an 83% increase from last year. It's a new record.

“This is what we have been doing for years,” says Erin Wayne, the company's director of community and creator marketing. She started out as a streamer on the site herself playing the best-selling game of all time, Minecraft. It's he same game in which an elementary school in Japan held a virtual graduation in lieu of an in-person ceremony because of Covid-19. She says the basic model of connecting gamers with streamers “hasn't changed because of Covid”.

Wayne adds as Twitch has become more popular, it’s expanded its platform beyond gamers, especially during social-distancing restrictions in 2020. Book authors are hosting book launches, musicians are holding concerts and even drag queens are putting on shows, all following the gamer-streamer model. There are also new communities of gamers that have formed on the site, including LGBTQ gamers and gamers who’ve served in the armed forces.

Like many communities, gaming has its share of toxicity and hostility. But when Jay-Ann Lopez, a London-based gamer, launched a closed Facebook group in 2015 called Black Girl Gamers as a safe and inclusive space in the face of racism and sexism in the gaming community, she was able to build a vibrant community that’s since grown across platforms like Twitch. This summer, it even hosted a summit of entirely black female professionals in the industry, which has long been dominated by white men.

Lopez says that games have helped old and new players alike “keep connected, social and sane” during the pandemic. “For a long time, people have either looked down on that or called gamers ‘weird’, but now people and companies want to know how to maintain relationships and communities digitally. It's more accessible for people.”

So, although more people staring at a screen may seem like an unhealthy habit, even the World Health Organization believes it could be key in nurturing our bonds with others. Earlier this year, it launched #PlayApartTogether. And as mental health professionals stress the importance of relationships, connections and community in these times, they’re even beginning to find direct psychological and social benefits from gaming across the generations.

As the pandemic rolls on and millions around the world face months of social isolation, gaming continues to be a surprising lifeline. Those new players may keep on gaming even after they’re allowed to socialise in person, too. A Google survey showed that 40% of new gamers say they’re likely to continue playing video games after the pandemic.

“Now it’s just been brought into the mainstream. A lot more people have realised what it can do – gaming bringing communities together has always been there,” says Nookazon’s Luu. “It’s been there for years.”

Online gaming has been on the receiving end of a great amount of criticism in the past few years. Right from the possibility of getting bullied online, identity theft, credit card fraud, to a diversion of focus, online gaming has always traveled on a rocky road. Even social interactions among kids have dipped due to online gaming. 

However, come 2020, the pandemic has changed this narrative in many ways. The online gamers diaspora has a range of different personalities. Whether you play online games while commuting or with your friends over a beer, online gaming has taken different forms. Even a lot of parents have shown considerable interest in online gaming. 

But the main question is that whether online gaming has emerged as a social lifeline. While there was already a sizeable gaming community even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the event has given online gaming an impetus. 

How has the arrival of COVID-19 influenced the online gaming community?

A lot of avid gamers spend great amounts of time tied to their screens. Contrary to popular belief, online gamers are not isolated entirely. In fact, they are far from it. With the rise of social media, online gamers, especially the Gen Z crowd have mastered the art of creating a vibrant and dynamic online gaming community. These gamers do not just compete with strangers on the internet, but also build enthralling friendships. This is why many online gamers are of the opinion that online gaming has become a social lifeline for them. 

For the past few months, long social distancing and lockdown stints have had a negative impact on people’s mental health. Online gaming has emerged as an effective tool that has enabled gamers to overcome their issues associated with mental health. While a lot of industries suffered during the pandemic, the gaming sector witnessed noteworthy growth.

The increasing adoption of gaming is a testament to the fact that it has emerged as a social lifeline during the pandemic. While humanity was confined, gaming was a saving grace for a lot of people. 

The gaming industry in 2021

Regardless of how you want to look at it, the gaming industry has grown from strength to strength in the past decade. As mentioned earlier, the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly played its part in fueling the growth of this industry. In fact, due to the remarkable surge in interest, the global revenue generated by the gaming industry is likely to break records in 2021.

According to multiple experts, the gaming industry is likely to grow by an impressive 23% in 2021 [1]. Even game developers have acknowledged that multiplayer gaming has picked up momentum in recent months. 

Among Us, a game that revolves around finding a traitor in a space crew was streamed by US congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez in October 2020. Her stream amassed a whopping 400,000 concurrent viewers and went on to become one of the watched streams in Twitch’s history [2]. 

When we talk about Nintendo Switch, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is one of the most popular games in 2021. Nintendo’s profits have increased threefold since the launch – for a game that was not tipped to do so well in the market, it has surpassed all expectations. 

Will engagement with games continue beyond the pandemic?

This impressive growth of the gaming industry is expected to continue even when the pandemic is over. A lot of critics of the online gaming industry are gradually recognizing the true value of video games. Today, video games are not meant only for entertainment, but also offer a social lifeline. 

Although a lot of people will also find new ways to spend time away from games, online gaming will have a place in the social space. Online gaming is vogue particularly among the younger generation (Gen-Z) around the world. 

Apart from playing video games online, even watching video games has become mainstream in some parts of the world. The esports live streaming audience is expected to cross the 474 million mark by the end of 2021 [3]. 

Gaming has evolved and gone past just playing games, owning expensive peripherals, and viewing live streams. A lot of gaming aficionados watch their favorites play games on platforms such as YouTube and Twitch. Besides, they are also staying on top of all the recent developments in the gaming world via podcasts, videos, news articles, and more. 

Innovative channels such as Discord, ResetEra, and Reddit encourage gamers to contribute to discussions on various topics related to gaming. A lot of gamers are also having these discussions with their peers, friends, and family. This developing ecosystem is a clear indication of how gaming has become an integral part of the social life of millennials. 

Looking at the unique ways gamers are engaging, even publishers and brands are reaching out to them in different ways. 

Are online games a short-term substitute for real-life play?

By now, we can agree that online gaming is not as bad as it sounds. It has its own share of benefits. Some games also emulate real-life play. Communication and extracurricular activities are as important as academics. Gaming offers a perfect space to unwind and relax. 

Studies show that online gaming facilitates self-regulation, memory, identifying shapes, and oral language. Online gaming promotes social development. There is little doubt that online gaming cannot replace traditional sports. However, there are some aspects associated with gaming that provide the same benefits. 

Having said that, there is no real substitute for physical exercise and sweating it out in the gym. Although online gaming stimulates areas of the brain similar to physical activity, they cannot be long-term substitutes for each other. 

Final words

Online gaming is a boon for some and a bane for others. It is all about finding the balance between real and virtual life. The arrival of the pandemic compelled the human race to stay indoors for a major part of 2020 – fueling the growth of online gaming. Online gaming has offered a helping hand to people who were looking to interact with other human beings during the pandemic. In addition, it has also contributed to the overall well-being of millions of people around the world, particularly the millennials. 

While there are downsides to online gaming, the pros outweigh the cons. As online gaming continues to gain mainstream popularity, it is safe to say that it has emerged as a social lifeline especially during the ongoing pandemic. 

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