“Unfortunately a lot of people have lost a lot of the things that they do in daily life that bring meaning,” Lobel says. He points to psychology’s self-determination theory, which argues that people are most fulfilled by activities that meet three basic needs — autonomy, competency, and relatedness. That means, respectively, activities that give us control over how we approach something, that allow us to improve in something, and that make us feel part of a larger whole or group.
“When it’s not as easily apparent where people get those needs fulfilled, video games are an easy place [to turn],” he says.
Bringing new players to the game
While gaming culture can seem intimidating to those who don’t know the language, inside jokes, or understood “rules,” Johnson says she’s seen the gaming community become more welcoming of newbies, as more people look for ways to connect socially, and that many gamers are tapping into the inherent sociability of the medium to support each other during this time. In HP’s survey, people who started gaming during the COVID-19 crisis were twice as likely as non-gamers to say they feel more connected to people now than before the crisis.
“I see this as a way people are there for each other, to play with each other, to listen to each other,” HP’s Johnson says. “People who didn’t know each other two hours ago are asking each other if they have everything they need. It says a lot about the community.”
Alexander says part of the positive experience for new gamers is understanding that the environment extends far beyond just first-person shooter games — there are gaming genres for all interests now. He cites story-rich games like the adventure game Virginia, the music-themed indie game Wandersong, and Neo Cab, a narrative game that addresses surveillance and the gig economy. There are even games centered on coping with crisis and depression, such as Depression Quest and Radiant One. These games existed before the pandemic, but for the many new adopters over the last few months, they’re a revelation.
“I really appreciate that people are saying, ‘Are there games that talk about race?’ Yes there are,” Alexander says. “‘Are there games where I can learn about coping in a crisis?’ Of course.”
As more people turn to gaming as a way to pass the time while they’re stuck at home, Johnson says the new experiences they discover — and the social and mental benefits that come with them — could make gaming an important part of their lives after the pandemic.
“Connecting with this community is just therapeutic,” Johnson says. “It gives us an escape, and everyone needs an escape every once in a while.”
Learn more about inclusive gaming communities.