Games Might Be The Only Normal Thing Left

Games Might Be The Only Normal Thing Left
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Trying to make sense of the current pandemic is, on the surface of it, impossible. Even with the curve starting to flatten, there is no end in sight to the ramifications. Conservative governments worldwide are resorting to the kinds of economic measures that would have made the most idealistic communist utopia look generous. Faith in the current structure of the global supply chain has been completely upended. Central banks are printing money on a scale that will completely upend the world’s idea of debt and debt ratios.

People’s lives and worlds have completely changed. But what’s new with COVID-19, even compared against World Wars, the Great Depression or the bubonic plagues, is how the whole world is experiencing this simultaneously. Rich countries, poor countries, Western countries, Eastern countries: everyone is being by the same invisible force all at once, with no end in sight.

The world is changing. And the only thing that might remain the same as it once was, the last bastion of what things were like, might be video games.

It’s not as if video games haven’t been impacted by the coronavirus, of course. The business of video games has already been radically affected, from shortages of consoles and physical games like Ring-Fit Adventure, delays in manufacturing and development, and the complete rework of inner processes. Some studios have continued largely unaffected – plenty of indie studios already rely on distributed or remote development – while others have gotten creative, like Riot Games’ virtualised solution for their broadcast control centre.

Services like Xbox Live, Steam, and the PlayStation Network are more popular than ever, and the amount of hours played per day has skyrocketed. I was in a tech briefing last week where one company mentioned that hours played has risen by a staggering 50 percent since the coronavirus hit, although there was a lack of detail around what the start date was.

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But it’s not an uncommon figure to hear. According to StreamLabs, all streaming platforms have enjoyed a “significant increase” in concurrent viewers and hours watched, with Twitch breaking the 3 billion hours watched mark for the first time in a quarter.

In these uncharted, uncertain times, video games are one of the safest solaces. Not just mentally, but financially too. From a consumer level, video games have never been cheaper thanks to mature digital distribution platforms, constant competition among publishers, the rise of indie games often priced at cheaper levels, and the need to compete just to cut through all the online noise.

And throughout decades of derision, games have been a wholly social activity. The best singleplayer stories aren’t told in isolation: they’re the moments shared by people as everyone discovers all the ways we reached those moments, the decisions and actions along the way.

Mainstream media, finally, is starting to tweak to that reality. The amount of “games you can play in isolation” stories from traditional news outlets has skyrocketed, possibly because even the aging editors there recognise that Netflix and chill for six months straight isn’t sustainable. Even a rag like the Daily Telegraph has found themselves doing relatively straight video game coverage, with the majority of their audience deprived of their regular sources of misery.

Business is good for general developers too, big and small. Even a tiny indie like the digital adaptation of Through the Ages had to apologise through an in-game update, because the studio’s infrastructure wasn’t equipped to deal with a 500 percent increase in their playerbase. Retailers are enjoying a massive boon right now, both brick-and-mortar stores like EB Games and online component retailers, particularly the latter as Australians scrambled to upgrade their home offices. A lot of that money hasn’t necessarily been in new CPUs, laptops or regular gaming gear, but it’s still been a net positive so the likes of AMD, Intel, Nvidia and other brands.

But more importantly than that: games haven’t really changed. Roach will still find his way onto rooftops in The Witcher 3 the same way he did when Australians openly coughed on the train, started drunk fights in the street, and were able to walk down the road without being questioned by police. Barrens chat will still be a figurative and literal toxic wasteland. Gaming tutorials on YouTube will still be topped and tailed by messages to like, subscribe and hit the bell. Our interface with video games remains the same, picking up a controller, launching Steam, grabbing the Switch up off the table, opening the App Store while taking a dump or lying on our side late at night.

Life in the video game world carries on, even if some of the announcement and media train surrounding it has been curtailed. Companies held livestreams or Directs beforehand as a way to disseminate news; now they do that more, swapping out preview events and briefings for private livestreams and beta branches on Steam. Publishers turned to influencers before as a primary source of promotion, and now that train has accelerated. Some were already well down this road, Bethesda, 2K and EA particularly.

The lack of larger conventions has made life harder for smaller studios to cut through the noise, because their shot at making an impression is affected by the noise and algorithms jamming up people’s inboxes and social feeds. But people will come up with creative alternatives. Demos, for instance, are making a comeback, especially this year as developers look for ways to reach audiences without the ability to make a face-to-face pitch.

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But outside of those machinations, games is the last bastion of normality. You don’t feel the impact of that when reliving Kojima’s disconnected world in Death Stranding, or enjoying a brief bit of escapism as you work your way through Slay The Spire once more. Firing up a game through DOSBox has the same bugs today as it did three months ago. The experience and the memory remains the same. And as so many lives are irrevocably altered, whether it’s through unemployment or the removal of the little things like the cafe you used to visit shutting down or having second thoughts about touching a button on an elevator, the things that remain the same become all the more important.

The sources of comfort so many people turned to – sport, a bar or pub, fish and chips at the beach, an afternoon coffee – are gone. Nobody knows when they will return, what they will be like when they do, and whether people will flock to them anymore.

At least video games are still the same.


  • I both agree and disagree. As a crystallised product of effort, the video games, books, toys, movies, machines, devices, etc. haven’t changed because their current form is what they will remain as until they degrade and fall apart.

    As a digital, intangible product though games are changing. How we consume them, how they’re made, what they’re about, the culture surrounding them, everything about video games is changing as we start to narrow our focus on them as a way of keeping ourselves occupied through a crisis that leaves us with few other options.

    Games that are actively maintained will change over time in response to increased numbers of players. Multiplayer games will find better ways of letting people stay connected. Games will continue to find new ways of integrating with social streaming platforms to let people play together. VR will (hopefully) have a renewed focus as we realise that isolation sucks at the moment and being able to connect via a virtual world helps us feel like there’s no distance at all. Games will change to address the problems of today and the future that may be as they always have.

    So while the games that have already been made may continue to exist in their current form, I wouldn’t sit around expecting games as a form of entertainment to stay the same because the times, they are a-changin’.

    • Well, connection via VR is what a lot of cyberpunk dystopia is born from. Second Life could get a second life. (badump-tish)

      Firing up Beat Saber last night to do some flai- er… exercise was a nice change after being stuck inside for the last week. My thighs sure are sore tho!

    • Sort of, but not as a result of the pandemic. That’s generational, advances in engines, hardware and culture. It’s the natural cycle of the industry, and players are still experiencing that journey the same way we always did. COVID-19 hasn’t changed anything there.

      • But it has. We’re in a time now where everyone is staying indoors, where the normal avenues of entertainment and interaction have become closed off. A time where people no longer have a commute to game during, or offices to play something with mates.

        Now you’re stuck at home and that commute time might be spent catching up on some console gaming or playing games with your kids. Those bouts with your friends at work are now playing an online game with Discord open because two of your mates have to look after their kids and can’t play just yet.

        The changing circumstances are also changing the way we game and games are changing to adapt. You can’t go out and play Pokemon GO anymore so they’re bringing it indoors. Exergaming is making a strong resurgence as people can’t get out to the gym any more. Gaming events and updates are becoming more frequent because people are stuck indoors and their gaming habits have changed to become more frequent and for longer periods.

        We’re still experiencing the journey, but we’ve had to start running because COVID-19 has forced us to adapt a lot quicker to a world where indoor entertainment is the primary format.

      • CORVID is going to change everything.

        Just like 911 gave us a generation of entertainment comfort food where the good guys were clearly good and the bad guys irredeemably evil, where torture was acceptable for the ‘public good’, where Muslims were inherently a threat to our way of life, and where people welcomed the introduction of a massive surveillance state and dramatically undermined civil liberties.

        CORVID too is changing the way society thinks about the world, what themes are acceptable to discuss in entertainment and what themes are off limits because the emotions are too raw for comfort. Games are hardly an island in the ocean, immune from those broader social forces.

        I’d like to think that CORVID will lead to more cooperative games and more socially aware themes around public responsibility, although we really won’t know for sure until a couple of years have passed. More likely it’s simply going to drive further xenophobia and tighter borders. Will we even care so much about sports games, for example, when we’ve lost an entire season of pretty much everything and people’s interests drift onto other things.

        Suffice to say that month after month of terrifying headlines, social isolation and fear of death, a massive decline in collective wealth and decades of debt and economic recession and high levels of unemployment can hardly not effect games any less than it will effect everything else in society.

      • I love how the WHO came out an supported Video Gaming on their social media pages as a great way to stay home, play together…
        … after they declared it a disease earlier this year.

        National Geographic called gaming an epidemic of the 21st century in an article they printed last month… while an actual pandemic shut-down their country.

        Maybe a few attitudes will change… but I think when the world returns to normal, we will still be ostracised for not going outside 😛

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