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  • Rebecca Ferman

Video Games and the Pandemic

It was just about one year ago that the world changed due to the still-ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “Social distancing” became a household phrase as everyone across the globe struggled to maintain a livelihood while trying to remain healthy. Life as we knew it changed as face-to-face contact and going out to public places became harder.

So, we turned to the arts.

With so much free time suddenly on our hands, we turned to the stuff that entertains us while we tried to not think about the real-life horror outside. There was a huge surge of people subscribing to or watching streaming services, including Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, Amazon Prime, YouTube, and Twitch. HBO Max launched during the pandemic in May 2020, bringing even more options to the already overflowing table.

But while many of us watched films or television shows to distract us from COVID-19, there were just as many that turned to another source of entertainment: video games.

In a yearly review released by the Nielsen company SuperData, over half of Americans turned to playing video games during the pandemic in 2020, with people purchasing many games online rather than in person. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare made over 1.91 billion dollars, earning its spot as the highest earning game of the year. People were able to connect at least online, if not with each other in person, through multiplayer games. Such examples of this would include the hit games Fortnite, Minecraft, or Apex Legends. The social networking opportunities within games helped us still connect one another – at least, from afar.

On March 20, 2020 – near the beginning of the pandemic – the game Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released for the Nintendo Switch gaming console. In the game, the player moves to an island with anthropomorphic animals and helps create a community by crafting and collecting items. The world is open-ended and moves in real time; the seasons on the island reflect the hemisphere the character lives in. Players also have the option to visit other players on their islands. Overall, the game was a smashing critical and commercial success, smashing records by selling 31 million copies globally and becoming the 15th best-selling video game in history. Celebrities such as Brie Larson, Elijah Wood, and even Danny Trejo expressed their love for the game on social media.

Part of the success of New Horizons could be attributed to the pandemic. Here, we got to live out a tropical island adventure with adorable talking animals. We got to create a world that we designed, be it incredibly intricate or incredibly silly. In a time where we couldn’t leave our houses, this game brought us a much-needed mental vacation. Every game character we got to meet was positive and cheered the accomplishments made. Plus, we got to see the creativity of our friends or other players when we visited their islands.

The online multiplayer game Among Us also became a cultural phenomenon during COVID-19, in which the player attempts to either thwart an imposter on a spaceship or take down that spaceship as the imposter themselves. The game itself wasn’t new – it originally came out in 2018. But thanks to well-known Twitch streamers and YouTubers playing it on their respective platforms, Among Us had nearly 100 million downloads by September 2020. It’s even extended to public figures – United States representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar hosted livestreams of the game in October 2020 as a way to reach out and encourage their audience members to vote before the election.

For those who may not have been able to play a video game they wanted to, Twitch was another option. Twitch is an online platform that people use to livestream content with an audience watching. While many users play video games live, others use it to showcase art, music, crafts, and other forms of creativity while others watch. The platform has been around for about 10 years, but Twitch content creators and subscribers had an enormous growth spurt during the pandemic – the number of streamers went from 3.9 million to 9.9 million in one year.

However, both the large number of people playing video games and the amount of time spent on them was met with some concern. An article from The New York Times had parents discussing their worries about children spending so much time on the games, as well as scientists also mentioning the harmful effects of too much time in front of the screen. There’s also the fact that not every online interaction with another player is good or positive, either. These are valid worries, no doubt. But given everything that had been happening in the world right now, it’s also valid that we should be able to get a distraction from what’s happening around us and find solace in a completely different world.

From my personal experience, I’m very grateful for the impact that video games have had during the pandemic. During the “days of uncertainty” at the beginning of the pandemic, I was happy to play Animal Crossing: New Horizons and create an island getaway of my very own. More recently, I’ve begun tackling the Fallout game series for the very first time and conquering an alternate world of post-apocalyptic America. Have the games made me lose sight of what’s going in the real world? No, absolutely not. So many others and I are constantly bombarded with COVID-19 reminders, be it the slow buildup of masks in my car, the emails I receive informing me how we’re still living in “uncertain times,” the struggles with online schooling, and more sadly, the death rate from the pandemic.

Each and every day, I am reminded of this unfortunate time period we’re living through. I can only hope it passes sooner rather than later. We’re all struggling to keep our head above the water, so when any kind of lifeline or rescue comes along, it’s no surprise how eager we are to grab at it. If we can’t see each other in person, we sure should be able to at least connect in a different way. And if we can’t do what we used to for fun just yet, we still should be able to have fun in a safe and healthy way.

So, let us watch that TV show we had on our viewing list but always put off for another day. Let us see the new movie at home that we should be seeing in theaters. Let us play the video games

that distract us, that make us happy if just for a little while. Let us give our anxiety, depression, and stress a break for a moment.

Let us keep turning to the arts.


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