How COVID Changed Gaming


As we await the arrival of vaccines, the COVID-19 global pandemic continues to wreak tragedy, chaos, and economic hardship throughout the world. In the specific arena of video games, the pandemic has created a strange set of circumstances triggering unexpected effects, ranging from monetary to cultural.

I’ve been reporting on games for three decades, and although certain real world events — wars, terrorist attacks, and major sporting events — have altered the direction of gaming slightly, nothing comes close to COVID. 

The pandemic’s biggest impact on gaming during this awful time has been social-behavioral. Faced with the dreary prospect of lockdowns and isolation, many of us looked toward the world of digital entertainment for a diversion; and we opted to immerse ourselves in the escape of video games. More than ever before, we’re using those games to create, nurture and maintain social connections. 

Game industry research firm NPD issued a report this week that shows just how gaming has grown in the last year. According to the 2020 Evolution of Entertainment report, 80% of people in the United States played a video game during the period of the pandemic. They reported spending 26% more time and 33 percent more money on games than during the same period in 2019. 

A YouGov whitepaper released last week found that 40% of gaming consumers said that they played more games during the pandemic, than before. 

All this activity has provided a financial boost for games companies. In August, Nintendo reported $1.4 billion in profits for the quarter, amounting to five times more than the same period in the previous year. 

Social Connections

Much of this was driven by Animal Crossing: New Horizons (pictured below). It’s a game that, for many gamers, will partly define the COVID era, partly because of timing, but mainly because it whisks us away to a mercifully alternative world of social bonding and rewarding purpose. 

“There’s no nastiness and violence that exists. Players get absorbed into the day‐to‐day things without the real‐world consequences. It’s like you’ve been transported to a parallel universe.”

Dr. Romana Ramzan, a lecturer in game design at Glasgow Caledonian University 

Back in May, I reported on how friends were using Animal Crossing to come together. I spoke to Andi, a woman from Virginia, who credited the game with helping her to reunite with her twin sister. 

“We’ve always had issues getting along … But since the lockdown, we’ve been slowly talking more,” she said. “On Sunday we spent over two hours playing together. We haven’t played a game together for two hours, ever. And the entire time it was pleasant. It felt like a real bonding experience. Now we’re texting more, and not just about Animal Crossing. I’m learning more about her than I have in years.”

There are so many stories of video games helping people through hard times. When Michigan-based Dawn Learst was diagnosed with COVID, she got through recovery by learning to play Animal Crossing with her son, via Facetime. “Recovery from COVID-19 was lonely. Playing the game with Kevin and his girlfriend helped me feel connected to my family,” she said. “We have shared a lot of laughs these past few weeks and it has been the closest I’ve felt to my son in a long time.”

Challenges and changes

Of course, COVID has brought challenges to gaming. As game developers coped with lockdown and office closures, they had to recalibrate, causing a string of game delays. The most high profile of these was for Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part 2 which, ironically, is centered on the fallout from a global pandemic. 

Naughty Dog also changed the name of its annual fan event — held every September 26 for the last seven years — from Outbreak Day to The Last of Us Day. I believe this increased sensitivity will be something we see more of in the months and years to come. The Last of Us games feature enemies who are victims of a plague. This is a common trope in apocalypse fantasies, but creators will surely pause in future, before casting virus victims as monsters. 

Gaming’s familiar annual live events such as E3 had to be drastically retooled as virtual showcases. But this was already a trend in gaming exhibitions, which are increasingly seen as online events with a live component, rather than the other way around. COVID has accelerated that change. 

Game developers usually work to long timelines, making it difficult to react to real world events. But COVID’s dreadful longevity, and the immensity of its effects, have inspired some to use it as an artistic prompt. In the big budget action-adventure Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, a modern-day character notes that: “I don’t have COVID, no. And I’m well isolated. It’s just the three of us, traveling together, staying out of sight.”

Watch Dogs: Legion, set in a near-future London, features mask-wearing combat agents. Publisher Ubisoft used the mask-wearing part of the game’s tutorial to urge people to “wear a mask, any mask, and cover up that germ geyser on your face.”

Creative inspirations

Ndemic Creations’ hit game Plague Inc. — released back in 2012 — originally tasked the player with spreading a pandemic across the globe. When COVID arrived, the game became popular again. Last month, the developer released a free update, called The Cure, which reversed that dynamic, giving players the chance to combat a viral outbreak and save the world. During development, Ndemic consulted with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Plague Inc on Steam

One of the most interesting responses to the pandemic was an IndieCade game creation contest called Jamming the Curve. Developers were tasked with using COVID as the basis for a short game. 

One entry, COVID RPG, pits characters with special skills, like doctors, epidemiologists, and politicians, against the virus. Survive the Pandemic is a more personal narrative of balancing work-life needs and desires with sensible social distancing precautions. In Lab Hero, a nurse tries to comfort or save COVID patients. 

Post-COVID, the world will be changed in ways we cannot predict. Gaming is no exception. How many of the people who have embraced games, or who have increased the social dimension of their playtime, will continue to do so? How will game developers alter their world-views about the kinds of games they make, or the ways they approach common apocalyptic themes? And how will gaming react to the real world changes yet to come? These questions may be video gaming’s biggest test yet as it reacts to the most far-reaching real world event, so far, in its history.