Maverick Life

THE GAMES PEOPLE PLAY

Social gaming for the quarantined masses

Florian Olivo for Unsplash

Even as a period of incredibly disheartening social isolation has taken hold for many, gaming has the great potential to become a global social glue, filling the fissures left open by the Covid-19 pandemic.

When not working on newsletters for Daily Maverick, you can usually find me at my PC, playing any and every video game there is. Whether planning a grand-scale invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe (Hearts of Iron IV), or trawling my un-played playlist for something new and interesting (Rimworld), to say I am an avid gamer is an understatement. And our global community of gamers seems to be growing faster than ever in the quarantine era.

On the week of 16-22 March 2020, as lockdowns and semi-voluntary quarantines gradually became a global reality, 4.3 million video games were sold across 50 European, Middle Eastern, African and Asian countries, according to Market Data research company GSD, marking a 63% jump from the week prior. Meanwhile, for PC players like myself, Steam, the digital library of choice for PC gaming, hit over 24.5 million concurrent users in the first week of April, breaking all previous records.

Considering how massive the multi-billion dollar gaming market already was pre-lockdown, this additional increase in popularity should put those gamer stereotypes to bed once and for all. Gaming is out from behind the shadows and up front in the global pandemic.

What was completely unexpected during the national lockdown was just how quickly I found myself reconnecting with friends from years past in-game. A week or less into the lockdown, it became quite apparent that my friends nearby had become naturally quite distanced, while my friends and family from afar were suddenly, incredibly, shoved front and centre as we hit the multi-player games.

Hitting the lockdown Apex (Legends)

One such staple video game was Apex Legends. A “battle royale” game that throws you into a virtual world full of weapons with two friends and you proceed to battle it out against 57 other players as you try to be the last ones standing.

The loot ’n shoot mechanic is a big drawcard, which allows for a lot of talk among your friends while picking up shotguns and sniper rifles. The game is also free, which makes it a popular choice among our group.

It was while playing Apex that it first hit me: I was catching up with friends I had not seen in almost a year. One in Belgium and the other in Cape Town – it was great to hear how their lives were going during their own respective lockdowns.

They had both returned from a trip abroad in the nick of lockdown time and self-quarantining, and a dark humour gripped us all. Every cough and sneeze was a sure-fire sign of their impending cases of ’Rona. Behavioural scientist Peter McGraw termed this humour as a means by which we change our perceptions of a threat, in turn making it seem less threatening. If you can play Apex Legends with the ’Rona, nothing is impossible.

Each time we log into Apex, it’s great to hear they’re still alive, more or less. All isolated together, it dawned on me very quickly that we hadn’t withdrawn from social life, we’d simply uploaded it.

***

It’s a Warzone out there

When the Apex crowd is offline, there is Call of Duty: Warzone. Another free-to-play battle royale game, this Activision-published game is an outright phenomenon. As of early May 2020, over 60 million people worldwide had dropped into Warzone’s battleground. The game launched in early March 2020.

Anyone surviving lockdown in South Africa, who happens to have a teenager or three with a console, will doubtless know about Warzone by now. At the very least, the pained howls as they are knocked out of the match reverberate across the country’s digital streets. This one is popular by any metric.

Originally, it began as an individual time waster, but my Warzone’s friends list soon began pinging with messages from old school friends. Friends who I used to spend every other weekend with LAN-playing computer games from someone’s spare room.

For us, this was serious business. We’re in it to win it, so to speak. Perfunctory talk about how we’re doing during the lockdown – one lives in rural UK, the other in KwaZulu-Natal – swiftly makes way for tactical talk. Where are we dropping, what’s in your loadout, the usual kind of talk if you grew up playing games on wobbly garden furniture, fueled by two-litre sodas.

This is pure escapism, video gaming at its purest. Here, there’s little concern for ’Rona and more worry about ammunition. For a little while, at least, we’re able to transplant ourselves far away from the global pandemic.

***

Brothers in Diabolical arms

At some point during the lockdown, my brother suggested we climb back into Diablo III. Now eight years old, the game runs on virtually any modern-ish computer or console.

Caption Wizard (brother) and Crusader (author) in perfect destructive harmony

In a nutshell, you select your character, be it anything from a barbarian or wizard to a necromancer or crusader. Do you want to blast things from a distance using spells? Wizard. Do you want to leap in roaring and chop your foes down with monstrously large axes? Barbarian. One gets to grip with the play style very quickly.

My brother is in the late stages of finishing up his PhD in London. As a consequence of the lockdown, his activities range from work, writing, walking the Liverpool docks and avoiding the seagulls, and playing video games.

Diablo, then, is his reward for finishing a chapter, completing some revisions, or just plain stress release. For myself, it’s an opportunity to see how my family is doing, in between slaying demons of the underworld.

All told, the hours spent gaming during lockdown rival some of the laziest days of our youth. Unlike our youth, however, gaming is our outlet now. It’s the pressure valve that enables our mental faculties some breathing room mid-pandemic.

But during this process, it has also become a far more meaningful tool for reconnecting with old friends in a way I had not thought possible. We were support systems for each other in the real world, and now, in the digital one, we are a crucial lifeline expanding over the globe at a time when we have never been more isolated from one another.

This is not to say, however, that family nearby cannot bond over video gaming. Indeed, after the compelling run-though of Ori and the Will Of the Wisps, I took the plunge and put it up on the TV, controller in fiancée’s hand, willing to give it a crack.

And crack it did. A Saturday morning melted away into afternoon and early evening, stopping only for hunger and leg-stretching. Casual 2D platformers, then, is the genre that just might prove the right gateway for my non-gamer partner to share my digital world.

So before you berate your spouse, or children for spending too much time playing video games, consider their position. For many of the gaming masses, this is the most sociable we’ve ever been. DM/ML

 

Caption Wizard (brother) and Crusader (author) in perfect destructive harmony

 

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