How Coronavirus Will Impact the Way We Play

Earlier this week, I was chatting with a neighbor about the impact of coronavirus. He, like me, plays a lot of video games, and we joked about how “prepared” we were to spend time indoors. “It’s like we’ve been training for this moment,” I joked—a brief moment of levity against a very dire backdrop.

There’s no doubt that coronavirus will impact many aspects of our society, some for better (e.g., lower pollution) and some for worse (e.g., health care system).

A lot of ink has already been spilled on the impact of the gaming industry. There are canceled conferences and fan events, supply chain disruptions, and game development challenges with remote working. The impact on esports, with its emphasis on live events, is also an immediate challenge for game makers, team owners, and event organizers.

But at Twofivesix, we’re much more interested in what this might mean for gamers of all stripes, in small part, because we’re the exact audience that’s being affected.

Leisure Time During a Crisis

One of the biggest immediate impacts of coronavirus is the threat of recession. From a historical context, we know that entertainment consumption can rise during a recession. In 1982, for example, theater attendance rose 10.1 percent as unemployment darted past 10 percent. Then admissions fell nearly 12 percent again three years later as the economy picked up

Games are no different. According to Cowen Inc., in both 2001 and 2008-09:

“the industry enjoyed healthy overall growth in both software and hardware sales despite a negative economic environment.”

But even before the current crisis, there’s already been research on the impact of the 2008 economic downturn on video games. Young men, in particular, who graduated into a recession have already been replacing their work time with video games. 

Video games have become so compelling, the researchers wrote, that it raised what’s called “the reservation wage,” i.e., the lowest pay a worker will accept for taking a job. For the young and out-of-work, the calculus is simple. Without a family to support or other immediate expenses, the allure of games discourages someone from taking a “bullshit job” with little prospect for advancement or higher pay. Why become an e-commerce warehouse worker when you can be spending time …. having fun?

In case you’re concerned, the same cohort reported overall rising satisfaction, was spending twice as much time looking for work as they were playing video games, and likely spent more time socializing in video game spaces, rather than playing alone.

(An aside: “What about E3?” you might ask. You likely heard the annual trade show was canceled this year. This is a post for another time, but the show was already facing problems before Coronavirus as game makers started marketing titles directly to fans. This will likely be a death knell for the event, barring a major rethinking.)

A “Captive” Audience

More specifically, for our current moment, social distancing has already had one simple impact: more people are playing video games. Gaming usage is up 75%, while social media usage was flat, compared to watching video’s increase of 10%, according to Verizon. Two weekends ago, video game distribution platform Steam continues to top its all-time peak with 22 million people playing over a 24-hour period.

It’d be easy for many to picture this audience: an army of white, young, male gamers spending more time doing what they already love, playing first-person shooters. 

But what’s more interesting is that the increase in gameplay is much, much wider than that. For example, Nintendo’s Ring Fit Adventure, a workout game, is facing supply shortages. Wired spoke to Bryan McFarland, a 33-year-old in Mesa, Arizona, who’s spent weeks looking for the title because “he just wanted a way to work out in the privacy of his home.” McFarland fits the stereotypical first-person shooter archetype, but he’s interested in playing games for exercise instead.

Daniel Ahmad an analyst at Niko Partners, noted that “fitness and dance games were particularly popular” for Chinese consumers during the coronavirus outbreak.

In an appeal to brands, Microsoft’s director of advertising James Gross noted that Microsoft Solitaire reached an all-time high of daily active users. The demographic? Women aged 25-54.

Anecdotally, I’ve been spending more time playing games with friends online, many of whom have children. Whereas before, it was difficult to align schedules, we all know that we’ll be in front of our TVs at 7 pm. Why not hop into a game of Mario Kart?

As we spend more time indoors, I see a new audience being activated. People who used to play games, but now have the dedicated time to pursue that enjoyment as a replacement activity for other leisure like going to concerts or going to the movies. These could be busy parents who spent time gaming in their 20s and now have some extra weekend time to kill. It could also be previous skeptics who are tired of streaming movie night and conference call dinner parties.

Video games write the first draft of technology’s history.

Over the past week, I’ve introduced more and more friends to Discord, the chat and text app designed for gamers. It’s a great tool to voice-chatting while playing games while social distancing from coronavirus, particularly compared non-gaming applications like Zoom or Google Meet.

Gamers have often been at the forefront of new technologies, including VR, interactive TV, and social networks. That is just as true at this moment as it’s been for decades. Ironically, less serious applications can have serious impacts on technology. Steven Johnson wrote in Wonderland:

If you are trying to figure out what’s coming next, you are often better off exploring the margins of play: the hobbies and curiosity pieces and subcultures of human beings devising new ways to have fun.” 

Gamers demand technology meet their needs as perfectly as possible.

The popularity and utility of Discord is a great example of how games push at the edges of technology. Discord is a free voice and text chat application that grew from the world of games. Founder James Citron has said that he was frustrated with how hard it was to use voice chat while playing videogames. They launched Discord as a solution.

 “The more features and new tech we added, the more we saw how practical a communications app this was and how it filled so many gaps in the existing chat market for players,” Citron said in 2016. The app quickly became popular among the competitive and professional gaming scene due to the focus on high-quality sound, security features, and little audio delay, which then spread to the larger online gaming community. 

Since then, Discord has grabbed over 200 million users — more than Slack. When Drake famously played Fortnite with popular streamer Ninja, the latter walked Drake through how to install Discord after a frustrating experience on their respective phones.

Games push at the edges of what technology can do, in part because the drive is something other than commerce. If there’s a slight lag in a conference call, your coworkers can maneuver around it. But the difference between perfect communication and almost perfect communication can become the difference between winning and losing.

It’s apparent that Discord is already thinking about non-gaming applications of their service. They released a guide earlier this month for educators who are stuck at home for coronavirus. Speaking from personal experience, my wife is a high-school teacher and like many, she’s been thrust into figuring out how to conduct her teaching from afar.

A content warning

We’ve already seen a spike in coronavirus-related content. Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion has spiked. As I write this, the 1995 film Outbreak is #9 on Netflix. John Barry’s 2005 book The Great Influenza is in Amazon’s top 100. 

Games are no different. Plague Inc., which plays exactly as the game sounds, rose to the top of the App Store charts. The sudden popularity prompted James Vaughn, the creator, to remind players that it is a game, not a scientific model. “We would always recommend that players get their information directly from local and global health authorities,” he said. The cooperative board game Pandemic that has players team up to find a deadly virus has seen sales spikes around the country as well. 

It would seem that playing games about a virus during a pandemic would be counter-productive. But it’s actually a coping mechanism called “defensive pessimism.” Julie Norem, professor of psychology at Wellesley College, says, “It’s a strategy for dealing with anxiety and helping to manage anxiety so that it doesn’t negatively influence performance. If you feel anxious in a situation, it doesn’t really matter if it’s realistic or not, you feel how you feel. “Some people run away from the situation, and some people run into it.”

Outside of games that focus directly on the current crisis, games, overall, have been responding. The popular app Pokemon Go, a game that encourages players to walk around the real world to capture creatures, has released an indoor version. Game makers from big companies like EA to smaller ones like Snowman have been offering their titles for free or with a massive discount. They’re looking to encourage new players to jump in as an escape.

Escapism is one of the big drivers for players seeking out solace. The word is typically perceived as negative, but game designer and best-selling author Jane McGonigal has argued that there’s two forms of escapism: self-suppression and self-expansion. The former is running away from unpleasant thoughts, and the latter is about building stronger relationships. There’s a difference between saying “the world is really messed up right now and I want to ignore it” vs. saying “the world is really messed up right now and want to be with other people.” 

Writer Thomas M. Disch summarizes the purpose of games as a form of escapism succinctly: “There are times when all of us would rather flee our problems than confront them head-on with the heightened awareness that genuine art forces on us. For such times, nothing will serve but escapism.”

As we continue to settle into our new reality of social distance and the threat of disease, I expect that content will adjust and react. I see work created explicitly (e.g., games about diseases) or implicitly (e.g., multi-player games for those stuck at home) being the new normal.

The Takeaway for Brands

For brands thinking about talking to gamers at this time, there are a couple takeaways.

First, recognize that economic realities have already been pushing us towards more video gameplay, so look for messaging that calls out a new surge of players. There are ample opportunities to support building stronger networks of play. For example, Nike’s #PlayInside #Playfortheworld campaign isn’t directed at gamers, but is a great example of how to tap into the active side of indoor play.

Second, as communities continue to grow on gaming platforms, consider revisiting your channel strategy to account for gaming-specific venues. Look for ways to incorporate more gaming-specific technologies like Twitch and Discord.

Finally, consider working with game makers that are doing either pro-social or entertainment work on the subject of disease. Look for ways that you can support healthy escapism in your communications.


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Image: Pandemic: Legacy by Sean Hagen is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0