Pandemic: Covid-19 is an immersive social commentary, an unforgiving roleplaying game concerned with the fragility of humanity. It inflicts denigrating obstacles upon its players from the early levels, encourages pay-to-win behaviours and is riddled with bugs. It sucks.

The gameplay is drawn out and repetitive and the level design is desperately uninspiring. In most cases players are subjected to a single house.

With 6 billion of us dealing with the often gruelling experience of the pandemic, it's an odd quirk that in a connected world so many of us have never felt so alone.

Covid forced us to reassess our relationships with screens and what we use them for. With the the usual social mechanics undermined, proximity bonuses wiped out and strange new rules enforced, we have had to find new ways to survive and thrive.

Video games have proven to be as essential and (in the case of the Playstation 5) in-demand as toilet paper.

 

The lonely, isolated experience of the last year has been punctured by video games. The deceptively dramatic Among Us and the sprawling Call of Duty Warzone. New players who had never held a controller were gifted new ways to interact. Pandemic: Covid-19 became multiplayer.

 

This was video games not just as a pass-time but as catharsis, healing players just like the power ups found in the games themselves.

Joseph Cummins
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When student James Stevenson moved to Gourock, 40km west of Glasgow, in 2019, he did so knowing he would be further from his friends than ever before. At 26, he was about to start a degree for the second time. The first, in medicine, had lead him to moments of depression, isolation and eventually pushed him to drop out of the University of Liverpool.

Deep in the west of Scotland and caring for his 90-year-old grandfather after the death of his grandma, his chances to make and see friends were curtailed before the pandemic began.

“Playing Minecraft with old school friends has been a lifeline."

Now, nearing the end of a successful year studying engineering at the University of Glasgow, it has been over 12-months since James has had prolonged contact with anyone other than his mother and at-risk grandfather who requires almost round-the-clock care.

“If I do something,” James says, “there's that direct connection between what I did and the potential of causing my granddad to die.”

 

James says that a year in front of a screen, studying, revising, would have pushed him beyond the brink if not for reconnecting with friends on the other side of the country through gaming.

“Playing Minecraft with old school friends has been a lifeline," he says.

 

It’s in games that James has found the most comfort (it’s also how Screentime spoke with James) and where many of his evenings have been spent.

AVATAR: Minecraft allows players to change how they appear to friends in the world they build together.
IN GAME: Screentime spoke with James Stephenson, gamertag: RandomUPSMan, in the Minecraft world he had built with friends over lockdown.
Not playing solo

Research published by the American Psychological Association is challenging the stereotype that gaming is an inherently lonely pursuit. The study's author, behavioural psychologist and gamer, Dr Geert Verheijen mapped the gaming rhythms of 705 children with a mix of questionnaires and observations. 

 

He found that while solo play bolsters feelings of loneliness and isolation, social play – that is with friends online – not only provided the opposite, but could alleviate existing negative feelings.

 

Always a gamer, James found that the time he had to play was reduced by social and educational pressure. Dr Verheijen has called this displacement theory – time spent in-game is usually carved out at the expense of something of more perceived value.

 

But a global pandemic is an irrefutable means of reducing distractions. With the playing field levelled, those busied by the real world turned to screens as a way to experience new ones.

 

Dr Verheijen’s study showed that when it comes to gaming, quality is far more important than quantity. An hour spent with friends in 2014's Minecraft, or the breakout viral hit from Nintendo, Animal Crossing, a few nights a week – about the time afforded to a student and carer – was significantly more helpful in reducing feelings of loneliness, a need to belong and a fear of negative evaluation than the same time spent on social media.

Moreover, a similar study conducted during the pandemic found that another refuge of the world's mass bored, social media,  was having almost exclusively negative effects.

 

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that limiting the amount of time spent on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat to ten minutes each day led to significant reductions in loneliness, while those who used social media for upwards of five hours each day were more likely to show severe signs of depression.

 

For James, who suffers from low moods and fleeting motivation, gaming was enough to drag him through the toughest of years.

 

“Just knowing that I had friends sharing some digital time with me was enough. We were alone, but alone together. Just talking shit made me feel so much better.”

GLOBAL: With over 1bn global players as of March 2021, shooter PUBG encourages players to stick Covid regulations.
#PlayApartTogether

At the start of the pandemic, the World Health Organisation (WHO) urged the world to stay home and game – cementing the UN-backed organisation’s health guidelines of social distancing and proper hand hygiene. They even roped in support from 18 of the gaming industry’s largest names to support their push for a Covid-secure pass time.

 

Bobby Kotick, chief executive of Activision, the studio behind Call of Duty Warzone, said in a press release: "Games are the perfect platform because they connect people through the lens of joy, purpose and meaning. We are proud to participate in such a worthwhile and necessary initiative.”

18 months previously the WHO's view on gaming was very different. It had categorised ‘gaming disorders’ as having an impaired control over a gaming habit and making it a priority at the expense of other more important things. Essentially, not knowing when to switch off.

 

A year into the pandemic and WHO has recommitted to #PlayApartTogether. Reality TV and beauty mogul Kim Kardashian (who also put her name to one of 2014’s top selling games, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood) has supported the campaign, rewarding players for following WHO guidelines with in-game exclusives.

REWARD: Kim Kardashian encourages customers to stay home with in-app exclusives.
A survey found that time spent gaming has increased since 23 March 2020.

Some parts of the world are hoping that their play through of this pandemic is reaching its final levels. But unfortunately in others it looks like the worst is yet to come.

At a time of enforced isolation but soaring connectivity, a hour digging coded blocks is enough to remind us that when we play, we rarely do so alone.