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Pandemic is Drawing New Players to Video Games

Once seen as a disorder, critics now support online gaming

Jeff Parrott Staff Reporter
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4 min read
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... I suspect online gaming is turning into a kind of godsend as we'll rely on it for our socialization into the foreseeable future.
- Chris Ferguson, psychology professor at Stetson University


The World Health Organization drew a lot of attention recently when it included “playing active video games” in a list of activities it recommended while people stay home to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

In fact, the guidance was jarring to some because it came less than a year after the WHO added “gaming disorder,” loosely defined as an addiction to playing video games, to the International Classification of Diseases.

The WHO’s more recent recommendation referred specifically to active video gaming, the kind that requires physical movement beyond the wrists and thumbs, such as Nintendo Wii or the Switch game Ring Fit Adventure. But the WHO is also supporting the gaming industry’s new initiative, #PlayApartTogether, to encourage online gaming as a means of entertainment while social distancing.

“A considerable amount of gaming is social and a lot of communication can go on through games in various formats,” said Chris Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University. “In this sense, I suspect online gaming is turning into a kind of godsend as we'll rely on it for our socialization into the foreseeable future.”

In addition, video gaming, already rapidly growing before the pandemic, is filling new voids created by the global crisis. The Indiana Soccer Association, for example, has partnered with GYO Score, an esports and gaming data analytics platform, to promote “Keep Kids Playing,” an initiative to encourage youth soccer players to play soccer video games online with each other while their actual soccer games are suspended.

Boon to Esports

The pandemic has given people more time to focus on esports and think about how it can fit into their daily lives, said Shawn Smith, GYO Score’s chief product officer.

“When we talked to soccer coaches, we were shocked to hear that about half of them were already recommending that their players play FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association) at home because they believed it genuinely helped train them in the X's and O's strategy of soccer,” Smith said. “The piece they hadn't quite thought of was how they can run their own leagues to better guide that training, and that's what we're working with them on today.”

The cancelation of sporting events also has driven new fans to esports competitions. Smith said traffic on GYO Score’s platform has doubled during the pandemic. He expects some of that growth to subside once the pandemic has ended.

“But we're hopeful that esports will retain the new fans it is currently gaining and use that momentum to develop permanent leagues, tournaments, and social events that can continue even once the pandemic calms down,” Smith said.

Sense of Control Regained

More people also are playing “life simulation” video games, such as The Sims or Animal Crossing: New Horizons, that let the player build virtual worlds, said Ferguson, who studies the psychological effects of video gaming.

“Gaming has the advantage of giving us a sense of control and autonomy,” Ferguson said. “We can have real influence, even if it's over a fictional world. Given we've entered a period in our own lives where we really have lost control over even our day-to-day movements, games can be an important outlet to get this need met.”

Reconnecting With Old Friends

Kevin Kraemer, a 39-year-old senior product designer, hadn’t played since his PlayStation 3 broke about four years ago. But Kraemer, forced to work from home by the pandemic, recently separated from his wife Jenn and has had full-time custody of their 7-year-old daughter, Evy, while Jenn self-quarantines with symptoms.

So Kraemer, who travels a lot for work, used his airline miles to buy a PS4. He posted news of his purchase on Facebook and Instagram, and his college friends have offered suggestions for games. He’s excited to reconnect with them by playing Call of Duty: War Zone, an old favorite, but also to give Evy something to do once she has finished her school work online.

“She can’t play with friends right now and I didn’t want her watching YouTube all day,” Kraemer said.

Screen Time Concerns Often Overblown

Ferguson said parents are right to keep an eye on their children’s screen time during the pandemic, within reason.

“Mostly, parents need to relax,” Ferguson said. “We've done a great job terrifying parents about screens and video games over past decades, but the truth is evidence linking games to negative outcomes is largely non-existent.”

So as long as children seem content, getting their school work done, exercising at least an hour daily, and sleeping 8 to 10 hours a night, parents don’t need to set time limits on video gaming during the pandemic, Ferguson said.

“I suspect that the pandemic, as parents see their kids didn't explode due to increased screen time,” Ferguson said, “is really going to revolutionize our understanding of screens in our lives.”

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Pandemic is Drawing New Players to Video Games

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