Games in the Era of Social (Physical) Distancing and Global Pandemic

Andy Phelps
8 min readApr 13, 2020

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Note: This is a longer form essay drawn from a shorter piece that I published with The Conversation at https://theconversation.com/gaming-fosters-social-connection-at-a-time-of-physical-distance-135809

Like many of us, I am doing a lot of stuff at home these days, with a number of shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders in place across the country and around the world. Indeed, I am currently writing this from New Zealand, which is on a nationwide Level 4 Alert, with all but essential businesses shut down. And again, like many of us, I find myself working from home on Zoom and Skype, binge-watching Netflix, trying to remember to go for a walk occasionally, and generally anxious about the state of the world and our future as a species. Recently there has have been a spate of articles praising video games as a sorely needed form of escapism and entertainment in these troubled times, such as this piece in the Los Angeles Times, or this article in the New York Times. While I find myself in agreement with the general thoughts from these authors, there are much deeper and humanistic reasons that we are turning to games than just to escape from the world of the coronavirus: games are a form of social engagement at a time when we are trying to limit our base instincts to gather together in a time of anxiety, and games are interactive in such a fashion as to provide us agency when we feel we have none.

I would be remiss not to note my appreciation and enjoyment that games are being written about in such a positive light during this time. It wasn’t long ago that they were still being blamed for school shootings and real-world violence (without evidence), and particularly so if the perpetrator of said violent act was white (which is nearly always the recent pattern of these American tragedies). It wasn’t long ago that ‘game addiction’ was being touted as a new classification by the World Health Organization (WHO) despite the misgivings of researchers and medical practitioners. Indeed, the usual way that we talk about games and seek to blame them for moral decline and addiction is nothing new, as has been written about extensively by my colleague Prof. Lindsay Grace at the University of Miami, and it’s interesting that the shift to staying home to slow the spread of COVID-19 seems to be a turning point in our public relationship to the subject. There were celebrations within the gaming community when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld games as a protected form of speech and referred to government restrictions of their content in reference to that of art and literature, but that was years ago and hadn’t changed a lot of the narrative in some circles. What could be going on that is driving that aesthetic? And why is nearly everyone I know working very hard for a capitalist raccoon in Animal Crossing?

Games for Social Connection and Interaction

Games are social. Games have always been social. Senet is presumed to be one of, if not the earliest board game, and was played approximately 3500 B.C., by — you guessed it — 2 people. Other games with deep, rich histories are similarly steeped in two-player social interaction: Chess, Go, Backgammon, and more. Mehan was an early game for multiple players, dating from the Predynastic Period in ancient Egypt. Fast forward to the age of video games, and things aren’t that different: I grew up in the age of the first Atari, in the age of Pong! Pong was, incidentally, first installed commercially at Andy Capp’s Tavern, in Sunnyvale California, and in some sense this was the establishment of the video game industry of today. Later, I lived through the rise of the 1980’s arcades, of Chuck-E-Cheese franchises, and later still the incorporation of the Nintendo Entertainment System into the home of just about everyone I knew at the time. But these games were always social: neighborhood kids gathered to take turns playing, birthday parties were held at arcades, summer hang-outs at the neighborhood pool also meant playing the Rai-Den cabinet.

For some time, the popular narrative around games has been warped to describe games as an anti-social form of entertainment, in service to the myth of the lone teenage boy playing in a basement, perched on pizza boxes in the dark, dimly outlined by the glow of the screen. Game scholars tend to roll their eyes at this, as it has never really been that simple, but in talking with the general public this myth is still very much alive and well. And yet in this distressing time of being trapped in our homes, people are instead using games to come together. Interspersed in the doom and gloom of endlessly rising exponential charts and armchair epidemiology on my Facebook wall, many of my friends are sharing their Animal Crossing connect codes (and one couple even celebrated their wedding in the game). People are checking in with each other through guilds in massively-multiplayer games, connecting with each other over PlayStation Network and XBOX-Live, finding not just an escape from the news of the pandemic or the ‘same four walls’ of their house or apartment, but also social interaction, human contact, value in knowing there are others out there. It is one of the most basic and primal needs of what it means to be human, and games have always served this purpose, which is why there were 20 million people on Steam a few days ago, breaking the record for concurrent users of all time. It’s the reason that the industry is rallying around #PlayApartTogether, an effort that even has the WHO tacitly promoting gameplay for social connection during this pandemic, or at least partnering with the industry on some positive messaging to that effect. That said, we need to be clear as players, and as parents, that the current climate didn’t suddenly eliminate long-standing issues of games and internet culture, including inherent sexism, racism, gender and social discrimination on just about every conceivable axis, as has been noted by game scholars and academics, as well as industry sources, for numerous years.

It is also important to note that this isn’t just about networked games or mass communication: I’m also tracking stories of how this time at home is giving several of us a chance to bond with family members we might not see as much during the ‘normal’ state of the world. In one instance, I’ve seen a good friend finally connecting with his 11-year old son, because they are both at home and playing Minecraft together. A few folks I just met recently in New Zealand are playing board games over Zoom, and others are just using this time to finally play together locally. Games are often the social glue to structuring interactions that go far beyond the content of the game itself. Several of my colleagues are pursuing active research with regards to how games are helping people cope in this time of stress and panic, and a big component of that seems to be connecting with friends and family, and/or players and participants all over the world. I myself have recently engaged in a new project with Dr. Mia Consalvo at Concordia University exploring how small-scale streamers are working to support each other socially in this crisis, how they are sharing information, and how their interaction with games is a tool for social survival. (We’ve written previously on some of the community and labor aspects of these small streams, and this area of gamer/streamer culture is personally fascinating to me in its intersection with daily life). The benefits of games during this time could be wide ranging with a number of positive developments, from social cohesion to educational engagement, as noted by Greg Toppo at USA Today.

Games as Tools for Agency

Games, because they are interactive, give us a form of agency that feels somewhat different than other media. They provide us a sense of control, the ability to be a hero (if we want), the ability to explore, the ability to compete, to solve, etc. Everyone’s motivation for engaging in games is different, as was explored in massively-multiplayer online games by Richard Bartle, and has been reworked and explored in the game design literature repeatedly. They can situate us in the thrill of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, engage us in epic quests, allow us to solve the mystery, let us conquer the aliens, and more. Or as noted in those opinion pieces that started this reflection, maybe they can help us understand what is happening in the world, via simulating a pandemic and exploring response strategies that rely on cooperation, or help us feel empowered by letting us save the world from similar outbreak scenarios. Maybe they can even help us figure out a solution to the coronavirus!

In the longer term, games can (continue to) help more young people engage in STE(A)M careers, provide unique opportunities for students to explore science and technology, and even engage both patients and doctors in research on health and wellbeing (p. 126) in new ways — all of which seems critical to our long term future in ways it didn’t just a few short weeks ago. The point is that it is very easy right now to feel that we have no voice, no ability to affect change, that there is nothing we can really do other than try to ‘flatten a curve’ which feels very abstract, and at times hopeless. Games offer us a chance, via their interactivity, to know that we are capable of meaningful action. They are a way to inspire us, not merely a mechanism for relaxation and escape.

And so in closing, this is my version of a “Love Letter to Games” at this very trying moment in our history, a reminder that games are a platform that brings us together, to explore and challenge our understanding of the world, to engage us with our presence here, not merely escape from it. I have the pleasure of working with Dr. Doris Rusch at Uppsala University on matters pertaining to what we term ‘existential game design’ or ‘games of the soul’, and in a recent piece we co-authored for the Digital Games Research Association 2020 conference (forthcoming, 2021) she noted: “According to existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom, the human experience is characterized by anxiety, stemming from the Givens of Existence: death (life is finite), freedom (we have to make choices and it is unclear what they should be based on), existential isolation (we are all ultimately alone in this universe), and meaninglessness (life has no inherent meaning, we have to find our own) (Yalom 1980, pp.8–9).” We can find existential ideas in games like Walden, a game (Fullerton, T. & USC Interactive Media & Games Division, 2017); Journey (Thatgamecompany, 2012); and Every Day the Same Dream (Molleindustria, 2009), just to name a few, but increasingly right now I think almost every game out there is ultimately helping us find some way of grappling with our place in the world. That is, in the end, one of the most critical purposes of art.

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Andy Phelps

Professor at @AU_SOC, Director at @AUGameCenter, President at @theHEVGA. andyworld.io he/him