Modern Life

Who’s gaming now — and why

The pandemic created new reasons for noobs and experienced gamers to explore, embrace, and influence the world of gaming.

By Melanie Ehrenkranz — October 12, 2021

When gamer Ebby [his gaming handle] met his online friend Matthew seven years ago through League of Legends streamer Trick2g’s Twitch channel, they became close, playing together and having side conversations about gaming and other aspects of their lives — like chatting with a friend at a bar. 

When Ebby found out Matthew had died of COVID, he rekindled his relationship with some of their mutual friends within the Trick2g community to let them know of Matthew’s passing. Since then, they’ve been playing games occasionally, and Ebby says it has helped them process their grief. 

“Over time, I’ve met a lot of people gaming through Twitch,” Ebby says. “I can’t stress enough how much it has influenced my life.”

In the past nearly two years checkered with loss, isolation, and uncertainty, the gaming industry saw a huge spike, as millions of people turned to game play for connection, distraction, comfort, and control. Kurt Dean Squire, professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, who researches how video games can positively impact students and young people, noticed new kinds of gamers emerging during the pandemic, such as kids gaming with friends beyond their immediate circles. “I see a lot of kids playing games as a primary form of social bonding and cohesion,” he says. 

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New players joined and longtime players leveled up, spending billions on gaming hardware and software in the first quarter of 2021 alone, discovering new games, and making new friends.

“There are some people who have not played a video game in 20 years, and the pandemic has pushed them to realize that there are games about cooking, depression, discrimination, chemistry, and even fishing,” says Kristopher Alexander, professor of video game design, broadcasting, and esports infrastructure at Ryerson University’s RTA School of Media in Toronto. 

The trend shows no sign of slowing down: Market research firm Statista predicts the number of gamers around the world will increase to over 3 billion by 2023, up from about 2.5 billion before the pandemic. In a survey from the Entertainment Software Association, 55% of gamers said they played more during the pandemic, and 90% said they’ll continue after social distancing precautions are no longer required. 

Gamers who picked up or intensified their gaming during the pandemic will carry these new experiences forward as new games and platforms evolve to meet their needs. Here’s a look at what’s drawing more people to gaming, and why they’re sticking around.

Reinvigorated gamers and workday escapees

Rachel Gillespie, a 28-year-old designer, has been gaming since she was four years old, but started playing a lot more party and multiplayer games in the early days of the pandemic, when she says she was on Discord every day with the same group of people, sometimes bouncing between a dozen different games at once. 

“I think the variety of games is more influenced by the social factor,” she says. “I want to play the games that my friends are playing and also want to play the games with them.”

“I see a lot of kids playing games as a primary form of social bonding and cohesion.”

—Kurt Dean Squire, professor of informatics, University of California, Irvine

Tiffany Rodriguez, product manager for gaming PC monitors at HP, said that she noticed subscription levels rising for older games and longtime favorites, which she attributes to people resubscribing to games they didn’t have as much time to play before. 

“If I do have downtime, instead of being stuck in the office where I went to the break room or to take lunch, I’ll hop into a game for an hour,” she says. “I have more bandwidth now because I don’t need to go anywhere.”

Working from home — which is likely to continue at least part of the time for many people — led gamers to not only find more time to play, but also reimagine their gaming setups to create a meaningful distinction between work screen time and gaming screen time. Gillespie, who already had a gaming setup on her PC, bought a work laptop when she started working from home to keep the two worlds separate.


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Rodriguez says gaming consumers bought more peripherals and accessories in the last year, and HP has seen a lot more customer inquiries about improving their gaming setup now that they work from home. The screen someone spends all day working at might be associated with stress and mental fatigue, and they can transform it into an escape from that stress with personalized trimmings like ergonomic seating, multiple mounted monitors, LED lighting, and backlit keyboards. In June, HP acquired HyperX and its award-winning portfolio of gaming peripherals like headsets, USB microphones, and console accessories to meet the growing demand.

“For gamers and ‘battle-station builders,’ this is like their spa, their time to decompress from the workday and escape into a different reality,” Rodriguez says.

“Cozy” cravers and community builders

Squire says a lot of gamers these days are drawn to “cozy games,” or games with an aesthetic that “evokes the fantasy of safety, abundance, and softness.” Animal Crossing, Hearthstone, and Stardew Valley are all examples of cozy games. These games don’t pose any real threats, so players can experiment and be vulnerable as they get to know their in-game neighbors, go on solo adventures, or design virtual homes and farms. The general vibe is chill and gentle, and they let players tap into sincere emotions, as well as find a sense of community — a soothing virtual balm at a time when people are urgently craving spaces free of danger and hostility. 

Young woman gaming on her OMEN by HP laptop in her room.

Courtesy of HP

Gamers who picked up or intensified their gaming during the pandemic will carry these new experiences forward as new games and platforms evolve to meet their needs.

Competition is, of course, a key element of the gaming experience, and an important way for gamers to build community and camaraderie. Alice Balashova, 24, who goes by the streaming name Aliface on Twitch, created a worldwide Tetris tournament as a way to foster online community for the hundreds of chapters of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers honor society for computer and electrical engineering students during the pandemic. Some chapters still host weekly Tetris game nights, and her friends and family started having their own Tetris gaming parties on Discord while under lockdown. She thinks the reason why gaming builds such a strong sense of comradeship is simple. “It doesn’t matter who you are IRL, because we all got on this game to play,” she says. “Be it to grind a specific rank or to grab that legendary gear in a single-player game, we all sit at our computers or consoles all over the world excited to take up the next challenge.”

Social spectators

Another segment of the gaming world that matured during the pandemic is livestreaming. While sports like basketball and football had to hit pause, some people looking to watch competitive sports turned to esports, leading to a huge rise in viewership. According to the latest Streamlabs report on the livestreaming industry, Twitch viewership more than doubled in a year, from 3.1 billion hours watched in the first few months of 2020 to 6.3 billion in that same span in 2021; watch time on YouTube Gaming nearly doubled in 2021; and Facebook Gaming topped 1 billion hours in a single quarter for the first time ever.

“Sports fans now have favorite [esports] players, favorite teams, and are more familiar with the category,” Rodriguez says. “Instead of turning on ESPN, I can log on to Twitch for free and watch my players.” 

And while watching a battle royale with their favorite players is certainly a massive draw to streaming platforms, another finding in the Streamlabs report shows that competition isn’t necessarily what attracts the most eyeballs. The most frequently watched category on Twitch? The non-gaming category “Just Chatting,” which is exactly what it sounds like: a venue for players to just chat — about gaming or anything else — and an example of how the impact of gaming is much bigger than the actual game play.

Ebby says he imagines people gravitate toward these chatting channels because they offer an outlet for authentic connections. 

“It fills the gap for the social interactions a lot of people yearn for.”