The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all of us in numerous ways—whether through unemployment or underemployment, illness or the illness of a loved one, remote work or remote school, the cancellation of big events, and/or the general emotional toll, the fear and uncertainty and lack of social interaction. As a result, or possibly a symptom, of all this, the gaming industry has blown up over the course of the year. In April alone, Twitch recorded a 50% increase in gaming hours from March numbers, totaling 1.49 billion gaming hours. And revenues in the industry have exploded across the board. At the beginning of the pandemic, game sales grew by 63% over just a two-week period, and in August sales in the U.S. saw a year-over-year 37% increase. Those are some major numbers.

Something to do

Some of the increase in gaming has arisen from an increase in free time. For people who’ve lost their jobs and have been mostly stuck at home, or for students who have had extracurricular activities disappear due to concerns of spreading the virus, video gaming has filled the void.

In addition to a surplus of free time at home during the pandemic, there are two more major motivators for people’s increased interest in gaming. First, there is the need to overcome social isolation, and second, a desire to escape from reality for a while.

Virtual social interaction

We have highlighted many times before on Ritual Motion just how social the activity of video gaming is. For many years, the stigma around it assumed that gaming was a solo experience, but as those in the community know full well, it’s an incredible social space for anyone who wants to be involved.

In fact, the socialization opportunities within gaming and the community it provides are one of the top reasons people get in the game and stay in the game. Depending on your game choice, you play with people from around the world, form teams and join game and franchise-specific groups and communities, contribute to discussion boards and develop lasting friendships with others who share your interests. A study from 2017 found that playing massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) was linked to having a stronger sense of social identity and competence, better self-esteem, and decreased feelings of loneliness.

This year, the University of Auckland (New Zealand) professors Chris Bullen and Jimmy Chen looked at the social aspect of gaming as it specifically related to the unique experience of the pandemic. Starting with what humans need for mental well-being, Bullen and Chen cite the self-determination theory, which states that for people to have strong mental health and motivation, they need a sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. The imbalance or loss of these can lead to increased stress and anxiety, insomnia, or irritability. For many people, COVID-19 happened to affect all three, but for nearly everyone, it affected relatedness—a.k.a. feeling connected to others.

Video gaming has provided an outlet for people to bolster their sense of relatedness and find a connection to others in an otherwise very isolating time. Even the World Health Organization recognized the beacon that gaming was for social well-being. They partnered with the gaming industry to create a campaign, called #PlayApartTogether, to encourage people to use video gaming as a vehicle to find community and combat loneliness.

Virtual recovery

Another facet of all of this that needs mentioning is that while social interaction is hugely vital for everyone at all times, it’s particularly important for those in addiction and mental health recovery. When in recovery, face-to-face interaction and group sessions with others also on the recovery road are a big, big part of the process. The absence of those things can, for some, lead to relapse. Throughout the pandemic, this has been an area of concern within the behavioral health and substance abuse treatment community. They are focused on learning ways that recovery patients can still have meaningful connections with their counselors, doctors, and fellow group members.

Some have been turning to video games to do that. One treatment center chain, Recovery Unplugged, has been using the 2020 release Animal Crossing: New Horizons as a way for patients and clients to meet and hang out virtually. As the VP of Outreach for the company, Joseph Gororo, told the New York Times in April, “So much of recovery from addiction or mental health issues is connection. With so much of us trapped in our houses right now, meeting up virtually has us support each other in this game in a way we haven’t, being self-isolated and in quarantine.”

Needing to escape

Beyond the need for social interaction—or rather, in addition to it—has been the desire for many to escape. Whether spending all your hours in one place or just feeling downtrodden and depressed by the societal circumstances, getting to escape through any means can be a respite. We do this in any number of ways during normal times—movies, concerts, live shows, art shows, novels, travel—but in pandemic times, our options have been limited.

For those outside the gaming community, video gaming provided a new, or different, option from their norm, and one that was still available despite the shutdowns. Certain genre games really saw this boom—social simulation games like Animal Crossing and Among Us, role-playing games like Stardew Valley, simply soothing games like Flower, and multiplayer action games like Fall Guys. The main thing? That it didn’t simulate “real life.”

Escaping together

And then there is the combination of the two motivators: Escaping this world to another, but with someone else. What we used to do with travel, we have now been substituting with gaming. As Bullen and Chen wrote, “These games aren’t simply about individuals escaping the real world, but about going (virtually) somewhere together.” In the list of games, we noted above, you’ll also notice that in addition to being games set in more fantasy-driven realms, almost all of them are also multiplayer games with a social element.

In this period, we’re all looking to escape. We’re all looking for friends, connections, and community. Gaming lets us do both at the same time.