A friend of mine noticed something interesting. His teen was playing a game online with a group of other kids, but no one was actually “playing.” The characters were just kind of standing around chatting with each other as the game went on without them. The game had become secondary to the conversation. He mentioned it in our group chat and everyone with teens had noticed something similar. We had all seen our kids chatting on Discord or some other software and hanging out in-game.
It turns out that, without much fanfare, gaming has become one of the world’s largest social activities. Covid-19 increased the importance of gaming even further, driving game sales around the world.
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The pandemic has turned everyone into gamers
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Gaming has evolved into a medium that can not just relieve the stress of isolation but be a cure for isolation itself. It can take us places and connect us to people.
The problem is that gaming is only a solution if you can afford it.
Ever since the first arcade games, the types of games people can afford to play, and how long they can be played, have always come down to money. As people lose their jobs or their businesses, or scramble to get by on a percentage of what they used to, families have less and less access to the expensive hardware and software that gaming requires. This is creating an ever-widening gap between gaming haves and have-nots.
Cloud gaming, still in its infancy, has risen as a way to help bridge this gap and get new demographics of gamers into gaming.
It’s a literal game-changer.
Gaming Is Essential
There has always been a disproportionate amount of fear-based reporting about the negatives of gaming. The truth is, even though there are real negatives, the evidence overwhelmingly shows that gaming is becoming an essential modern tool in keeping connected and keeping healthy.
Even though some people might benefit from playing less games, the simple fact is that not enough people who need games have access to them.
Video games have quickly gone from being a solitary activity to a social one. Covid-19 has certainly shined a light on this with article after article chronicling the rise of video games as a powerful tool in combating pandemic-era isolation and depression.
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Even the World Health Organization that has sometimes been very critical of gaming has recommended playing video games to stay connected:
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Video games are deeply social. Studies have shown that over 70% of gamers play with others. The Benefits of Playing Video Games (apa.org)
According to PEW research
“91% of video-gaming boys play with others who they are connected with over a network; one-third of boys say they play this way every day or almost every day … Nearly eight-in-ten online-gaming teens (78%) say they feel more connected to existing friends they play games with”
It’s not just online gaming that is social. According to the Entertainment Software Association, more than half of the parents of gamers play with their children at least once a week and feel that it’s a good time to socialize.
Social games have deep benefits for people of all ages.
“In findings published in 2017, the team found that MMO engagement correlated to a stronger sense of social identity, or how people self-identify based on their affiliation to groups. That social identity then corresponded with higher self-esteem and more social competence and lower levels of loneliness, the researchers found.”
The Real Social Benefits of Video Games
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Video games have been shown to ward off anxiety, guard against ostracization, help with loneliness, and help with many other mental health issues. Gamers have been shown to be more likely to have creative hobbies, play an instrument, and be civically engaged.
It’s not only young gamers that benefit from the social and mental health properties of gaming. A Goodman Group study of 140 seniors over 63 years old concluded that:
“…both regular and occasional video gamers reported greater well-being, social functioning, and health than non-gamers. In addition, they reported significantly lower rates of depression among people who play video games than those who don’t.”
Other benefits include reduced risk of Alzheimer’s, enhanced cognitive ability, and improved balance. And they enjoyed it!
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Yea for gaming! But there are not so many studies about the fact that there is a growing digital divide and that many people simply can’t afford to game at the level they might need to.
People Can’t Afford to Game
“4.4 million households with children don’t have consistent access to computers for online learning during the pandemic,” according to USAFacts.org. “Among children ages 3–18, 17% live in households without a laptop or desktop computer. At least 11 million students don’t have a computer for online learning at all, in addition to those that may need to share a single device with siblings.”
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Millions of American kids only have a computer if their school district gives them one. Not only can you not game without a computer, but you also need a GOOD computer. The computer you’re going to get from your school is likely to be a pad of some sort or a Chromebook (which are amazing, by the way). But you’re not going to be installing CyberPunk 2077 on it. Ever.
I suspect that the number of people who have a “computer” but not one that can handle video games would be extremely high. In fact, I believe that a large number of people gaming on phones or tablets are doing so because that’s the only device option they have.
A really good gaming rig is going to cost $1,000–$3,000 and will last about four years if updated regularly. On a budget, you can get away with $600–$1,000.
Then add in your favorite peripherals, graphics boards, and so forth.
Consoles aren’t that much better.
Xbox Series X is $499 and up. The all-access upgrade is $839.76.
Playstation 5 is going for around $499 as well. $399 for the digital edition.
The eighth gen Nintendo Switch is around $300–400.
The game prices themselves are another heavy burden. AAA games hover around $60 each for all systems. To put this into perspective, a single game itself is about the price of a cheap Chromebook or tablet for school.
For a long time, we had to pay to play. If you wanted to play a favorite game at the highest resolution, you needed to buy the best hardware to power it. MS Flight Simulator alone is rumored to drive almost $3 billion in hardware sales this year.
To run Cyberpunk 2077 this is what you need:
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This is not what people have. Millions and millions of people have nothing. The ones that do, are using a Chromebook, tablet, or a computer that would be not meet the requirements of most AAA titles. They are as far away from installing Cyberpunk 2077 as not having a computer at all.
In a family of four with two kids, each with a $60 Chromebook, this would automatically shut these kids (and adults) out of many gaming experiences and the social benefits that go along with them. They could play Android games and some browser-based games, but there is no way that a Chromebook is going to let kids participate in World of Warcraft.
Enter cloud gaming. Cloud gaming runs games on virtual machines and feeds the video output to your screen, so essentially, you need NO HARDWARE but a decent screen and good internet. That means, yes, Chromebooks are fine. A phone is fine. Even a Kindle Fire or Chromecast is possible.
Google has a cloud gaming service called Stadia that uses Google’s massive computing power to process games and stream them to your screen, whatever it is.
I’ve tested it, and I have to tell you, it’s exciting. I attached an old (slightly broken) Xbox 360 controller to my Chromebook, and it worked as well as it did on my Alienware PC. It was like science fiction. Like Google opened a magic portal on my Chromebook, which they really did.
You can see a video of it here:
You don’t even need a computer; you can use a Chromecast attached to a TV.
Oh, and except for the cost of the game, the Stadia service is free. FREE. Also, you can share the game with the members of your Google Family. For a little more a month you can play games that come with the Pro service, no purchase necessary.
To recap, a family of four can all share a AAA title that plays on almost any screen they own.
This could change everything.
It isn’t just Google either. Many companies have been exploring the cloud gaming space.
Xbox has a beta streaming service, and you don’t even have to buy the games. You can stream 100+ games for about $14 a month. And yes, you can use it on a Chromebook or other android devices.
Now if you buy a game you can play it on your phone, pad, Chromebook, or anything. Since you buy the games when you finally get that gaming rig, you still own them, and you can load them up from Steam or any other service. They even have a free option! $5 a month is a pretty good deal for longer sessions if you have extra money and tend to game for long periods of time.
Even Amazon is getting into the action with their Luna service. It looks to be modeled on their subscription/channel model so you’ll be subscribing to channels that have the games you want. The benefit is that you can play it on Amazon products like FireTV. I’ve been playing it this week, and it’s pretty cool.
Even if you can afford to keep up on the best PC games or offer your children next-gen consoles, these services can still have benefits. As a game designer and writer, I’m not buying every new console and PC game that comes along. It’s too expensive. Now I can broaden my experience and try new games on other consoles that I might not have played before. I can buy Cyberpunk 2077 and not worry about getting my hands on a GeForce RTX 3090 (I can’t). That can officially be someone else’s problem now.
Cloud gaming is not perfect. In fact, it’s failed several times before.
The games can lag. When they do, in a boss fight or crucial moment, I can say from experience that it’s beyond frustrating. Then again, games will stutter and lag on a PC too.
There are other problems too. Games may not be at exactly the resolution everyone would like and there are gaps in the games that are available. Many game developers may be reluctant to allow their games to be streamed (boo). All of these are real issues that have to be overcome, but they aren’t the biggest problem for inclusivity.
The biggest issue is that these systems require excellent internet access. They simply don’t work without it, and many many people are going to be shut out because of this. This is a shame, and it means that cloud gaming is not a complete solution. We need internet access for everyone. Cloud gaming is a start, and I expect and hope that cloud gaming will continue to grow as more people become aware of its benefits.
I’ve tried it and it works this time.
If you’re not convinced, I encourage you to try a version of it. Most of the services have a free trial and you can see if it works for you. Is it as good as a dedicated PC gaming rig or a new console? No, I’m sorry to say, it’s not. However, if you want to play AAA games on a Chromebook or a phone, this is magic.
I really hope this time people are going to get their hands on those games that will make a difference to them.
The people who I hope benefit the most from this new technology are people who can’t currently game at all. People who wouldn’t get to play any other way. This could bring them in and keep them here. The seniors on a pension, the families struggling to make it, the kids who feel isolated. The people who can’t play with their friends or that can’t make new friends. The gamers who have to watch other people play cool games on YouTube and Twitch. Now they can join into the stream and play with their favorite streamer with the push of a button.
I’d love to help include everyone who wants to game get into gaming. I hope cloud gaming is a way to help do this.
Please let me know below about your experiences and let’s figure out how to level the playing field.