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Chris Conway had been planning a surprise birthday party for a housemate, and that was the plan until 20 March when Oregon’s governor told all residents to stay at home.
No-one was to go out unless absolutely necessary because of the Covid-19 pandemic, so Mx Conway and his friends had to get creative.
They decided to throw a party in an online video game instead, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which was coincidentally released for the Nintendo Switch on the same day as Oregon’s stay-at-home order.
Meeting instead on a Sunday evening as colourful characters in the game, the friends hung out, chatted to one another and explored the virtual world. A world free of coronavirus.
“It’s been really nice just to go to the game and hang out with each other,” Mx Conway says. In Animal Crossing, players can join in a variety of activities, from fishing to playing musical instruments.
This is far from the only social event to have taken place in Animal Crossing since it was released. Some have even met up for dates in the game.
With restaurants, bars, leisure centres and other facilities closed across much of the world, people are having to find creative ways to maintain social connections, and have fun despite being stuck at home.
Weekly game sales have risen between 40% and 60%, according to analysts at Futuresource. Much of that has been aided by the release of Animal Crossing and other new titles like Call of Duty: Warzone, which allow people to meet up in-game.
Gamers are also spending more time in virtual worlds and using more internet bandwidth to connect.
For many, games don’t just provide a way of connecting with quarantined friends, they are also alternate universes where the reality of pandemic can be momentarily forgotten.
By day, Mx Conway is a delivery driver for a wine distributor.
“We got classed as essential retail so we’re still open,” he says.
Although bars and restaurants are no longer purchasing stock, shops that sell alcohol to the public have made far larger orders than usual. After a long day at work, an online getaway in Animal Crossing beckons.
“It’s really been wonderful just to give my time after work a little bit more structure,” says Mx Conway.
Today, there are hundreds of games featuring gigantic worlds that allow people to meet online. Eve Online, for example, contains 7,800 star systems where players co-operate with, or battle against, one another.
Hilmar Pétursson, chief executive of CCP Games which owns Eve Online, told the BBC that the firm had previously recorded about 7,000 new accounts per day, and then, on 14 March, that jumped to 11,000.
The surge coincided with the announcement of a lockdown in Spain, and followed the nationwide lockdown in Italy, on 9 March.
“Our game is famous for being a very social game,” he says. “Netflix and all that is good for passing time, but that doesn’t really give you a social context. And people are craving a social context.”
Eve Online is a demanding game, he adds, which forces people to work together to overcome various challenges in social groups, which helps players forge friendships.
At a time when there are so many restrictions on daily life, people are turning to games in order to satisfy certain basic psychological needs, says Prof Andrew Przybylski at the Oxford Internet Institute.
Socialising is one such need, but so are feelings of being in control and having a choice over what one does. Games offer that even though the physical spaces around us currently may not.
Prof Przybylski himself has enjoyed dipping back in to games he mastered when he was still at school, including Starcraft and Age of Empires II.
He can still remember how to win when playing against the computer, and it’s that familiarity which makes them comforting distractions.
“That sense of efficacy, that sense of control over my environment, is something that this crisis has fundamentally robbed me of,” says Prof Przybylski.
Games, he notes, aren’t designed to fulfil all of our needs. They aren’t perfect substitutes for meeting up face-to-face, for instance. They also may not be available to people who cannot easily afford them. But for those who can and do play them, games offer some respite.
“This is about meeting people where they are,” says Prof Przybylski. “It’s not a panacea.”
Another gamer who has sought distraction in virtual worlds is Sarisha Goodman, an education and sociology student at the University of Birmingham, who is currently living back at home in London.
“When I was a teenager I just always went to gaming when I was really overwhelmed, so that’s kind of what I’ve been doing,” she explains.
Her games of choice are The Sims 4 and Animal Crossing. She says she could play The Sims until 03:00 most days if she wanted to. It’s a simulation game that allows the player to create characters and furnish their homes. You can then observe how those characters interact with one another.
“We don’t have that normal life anymore, it’s nice to see it even if it’s in a game form,” says Ms Goodman. Sometimes, she uses the smartphone app House Party to simultaneously talk to friends online while she plays.
As a student in her third year, Ms Goodman hasn’t had time to play games for months. Now she is glad of them. She has watched some online lectures for her course, and is starting work on her dissertation. But besides that, university life has more or less been put on hold.
There has been a noticeable uptick in gaming since Covid-19 started to spread, confirms Morris Garrard, at market analysis firm Futuresource.
“We’re seeing particularly strong uptake in social games, games like Fortnite and Call of Duty: Warzone,” he says.
The volume of games sold every week has risen by between 40% and 60%, and gamers are expected to spend significantly more time in games than last year, as a result of stay-at-home requirements.
Similar trends have been spotted in China, where Covid-19 was first detected. The mobile game Honor of Kings, for instance, clocked a 20% increase in revenue from in-game purchases during February, adds Mr Garrard.
Steam, a PC game distribution service, recently counted 23.8 million gamers playing various games at the same time worldwide – the highest during Steam’s 17-year history.
That’s growth of roughly 15% in a fortnight says Tomas Otterbeck at Redeye AB, an investment bank.
Games played online are also using more broadband data. US network Verizon reported a 75% increase in gaming traffic in mid-March.
“We can expect a 100% increase, compared to pre-Covid-19, in data usage since that report,” says Mr Otterbeck.
But Prof Przybylski warns that, in such distressing times, people may need help beyond what virtual worlds can provide. Game companies should, he suggests, make it easy for troubled gamers to contact support services if needed.
“They need to put contact information for people who are in crisis onto their platforms,” he explains. “So when people need something that’s not Animal Crossing, they can get to it.”
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