According to Verizon, U.S. video game usage during peak hours has gone up 75 percent since the quarantine first went into effect weeks ago. Alaina Demopoulos, writing for The Daily Beast, states that “Steam, a video game distribution service and forum, reported a record number of 20 million users last weekend.” Retail outlets have been struggling to keep with demand for the Nintendo Switch. Kyle Orland, writing for Are Technica, says “The Switch is currently unavailable at Amazon, GameStop, Walmart, Best Buy, Target, and other major online retailers, though some local stores may still have spotty availability. When new stock does come in to these online stores, it tends to be gone in less than an hour.” The New York Times reports that, “Viewership numbers on Twitch leapt 31 percent from March 8 to March 22, according to Arsenal.gg, a data analytics firm. (By then, one in four Americans was under shelter-in-place orders.) During that two-week span, the numbers of hours a day watched on Twitch rose to 43 million from 33 million.”
Sales of video games have skyrocketed as well. Eustance Huang, writing for CNBC, says “Nintendo’s latest installment of its Animal Crossing franchise, titled New Horizon, was released on March 20 and sold more than 1.8 million copies in its first three days in Japan, according to video game publication Famitsu. In the U.K., the title sold more copies in its first week on the shelves than the launch sales of all previous entries in the series combined.” Doom Eternal, the gory sequel to the 2016 reboot, according to Bethesda and id Software, had its best opening weekend in franchise history, doubling the sales number of its predecessor. Blizzard’s new battle royale, Call of Duty: Warzone, debuted recently, accumulating over sixteen million players in under a week.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the gaming industry is in a unique position to not only weather the pandemic, but come out on the other side stronger than it was before. Whether it’s virtual weddings, digital therapy, or morbid escape, video games are being put front and center in many people’s lives for the first time. The question becomes then whether the games we play can adequately step up and fulfill those needs now, more than ever.
People crave connection, a goal not new to the gaming industry, which has long made it its mission to bring people together, tell impactful stories, and promote diversity in any way it can. Historically though, these efforts by gaming companies to bring us closer together have repeatedly butt up against a real past of misogyny, harassment, racism and discrimination. Even now, harassment of all sorts still runs rampant in many online gaming communities today, whilw the effectiveness of measures taken to overcome these issues has been bumpy at best. Natalie Morris, writing for Metro, says “A 2019 study found that two-thirds of gamers have experienced serious harassment while playing online, much of it involving racist threats. 53% reported being targeted based on their race, religion, ability, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. And these aren’t always empty threats, the researchers found that ‘an alarming 29% of online game players have been “doxed” in an online game, meaning that their personal or private information was publicly exposed against their wishes.”
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Combine this with countless examples of over-sexualizing women, firing women developers for baseless causes, harassing game developers, and the nurturing of a robust culture of demeaning women and people of color among many other things and you get a recipe for what could be disastrous. This is not to say there has not been progress. There most certainly has. It would be hard to argue that the gaming industry is less diverse, less inclusive, and less accessible than it was two decades ago, but with such an influx of new gamers it does seem prudent for companies to ramp up their efforts to make the gaming experience as smooth as ever.
Games have a responsibility, derived from the amount of attention they require of their audiences.
Much has been shed in the past couple decades. Gaming is as mainstream as ever. No one is playing in the dark of night in ill lit basements. Gamers are a proud, outed people who enjoy the limelight as much as anyone and are diverse as ever. And all the better for it, because now is the time for these values to shine bright. If there ever was an example of a runaway successful underdog story, the story of games would be it, because as bad as the worst experiences of playing a game have been, I’ve had countless other great moments that resonate with me deeply.
The simple fact is that gamers can look like anybody nowadays; therefore, so can games. Way more stories are able to be told and enjoyed, and gamers and game developers are starting to figure out ways to make serious change outside the four corners of their screen. Gamification is spilling over into dozens of other industries from marketing and advertising to social good via the United Nations.
It’s no longer enough to be content with telling a good story or providing some hours of entertainment. Video games are an art and so with all these newcomers entering the arena, how gamers, gaming companies, streamers, and everyone else reacts will be crucial.
Why is it important for this video game to be made now. If the story for example is a gritty World War II drama, why is it important to tell it now? What are you trying to say?
If the game mode requires two teams that are pitted against each other, why? What’s different about it? How will this way of playing be different than the five hundred similar ways of playing games that have come before it?
The best games I’ve played have been topical, pushed boundaries, and brought people in. That’s the standard for which we should be measuring games.
That can be hard when for example your game is a marketing ploy about wooing a handsome inventor of fried chicken but even then, the question is valid. The game needs to be more than just about buying chicken, teaching us instead about meaningful human connection or the breakdown of stereotypes around love or encouraging us to think about eating healthy.
Games have a responsibility, derived from the amount of attention they require of their audiences. These are pieces of content that will keep us captivated for anywhere from a few hours to hundreds. Imagine if you were tasked with talking to a captive audience for fifty hours. You could do anything, have them jump in down, run in circles, debate the finer points of Karl Marx’s theories, show them violent movies or even just sit quietly. What would you choose?
This is the inaugural post of my new publication A Game A Day. In the next few months, there are many things I hope to do with it including reviews, interviews, game analyses, and much more.
Please consider giving the publication a follow. It’s only through that kind of support will I be able to keep this thing going and eventually expand it.