I’m a big reader. I love fiction and non-fiction, I love paper books, audiobooks, e-books, comic books, whatever. And I live near a world-class library for easy access to all of the above. But since the COVID-19 pandemic changed everyone’s lives, I’m struggling to get lost in their worlds. While reading, my mind invariably wanders to the outbreak.
What I can do is play video games. Lots of video games. Something about gaming has been more engaging than reading, giving me that escape I so badly need right now. Over the past few weeks, the Final Fantasy VII Remake, Call of Duty: Warzone, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Fallout 76 have consumed the hours I used to set aside for reading and other activities, like spending time with friends in person.
I am not alone — gaming is up 75% on Verizon’s networks, the company says — and, despite calls to use this time for more “productive” pursuits, I am not ashamed. Sure, I could be mastering bread-making, catching up on my reading backlog, writing a novel, or doing the myriad household tasks I need to tackle. But I’m not. I’m gaming. It’s fun, it kills time, and, crucially, it’s a way to make “social distancing” feel a little more social and a little less distant.
I’m lucky. I’m not sick and no one in my family is sick. I’m still working and have the luxury of playing games to pass the time. And experts say behavior like mine won’t hurt, and may even help, so long as I’m taking care of myself in other ways.
“Accumulating evidence suggests that playing video games isn’t really associated with negative outcomes,” says Chris Ferguson, an associate professor and department chair of psychology at Stetson University. He notes that it’s still important for adults and children alike to exercise and get their work and chores done. But, he says, “as long as that’s all checked off, there are honestly no maximum limits on video game time, particularly as right now there might not be much else to do.”
That’s good news not just for me, but also for the many others out there gaming their way through the outbreak. Take, for example, Donovan Beeson, a 37-year-old in Chicago who’s been furloughed from her job as an executive assistant. She’s supposed to go back to work on May 18, but she thinks COVID-19 will keep her at home much longer. “I’m definitely gaming more,” she says. She’s been filling her time with Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp on her phone. These games, in which players do various errands to spruce up their environments, offer a satisfying “virtual to-do list,” she says.
“They tick that ‘you’ve done a thing’ box in my brain when I can’t be doing lots of things,” says Beeson. They also give her a way to connect with her nieces, two young Animal Crossing fans who live miles away in Florida. “They set up an Easter egg hunt for me with the bunny-day themed stuff,” she says. “I was impressed and touched. They made me wear one of the egg day outfits when I came over to [their island to] do it.”
Ellen Blackman, an English instructor at the University of South Carolina, is breaking up her days of recording video lectures and logging on to Zoom meetings with Stardew Valley, in which players run a farm in a small town. “I had this gut reaction of, ‘oh, that sounds comforting,'” says Blackman, 38. “So I loaded that up and started a new game.”
Blackman says she likes open-ended, uncomplicated games. “I don’t like to play platformers or anything with a lot of combat because I get frustrated and I have other parts of my life that are frustrating, so I don’t know why I would want my leisure activities to be frustrating,” she says. She’s also played a little of the space exploration simulator No Man’s Sky and has eyed Animal Crossing, but doesn’t own a Switch, the only console for which it’s available. “They require just enough concentration that you can clear your brain of the things that are causing some anxiety, and stress, and worry,” she says. “But they themselves are not replacing that anxiety with ‘oh, I’m not good at the game.’”
For others, gaming is a way to stay connected to friends who they can’t see in person right now. Garrick Gomez, a 36-year-old support engineer at a Dallas-based financial software firm, has long used games to stay in touch with friends. “I think everyone having to isolate … has really forced everyone to reach out and try to play games and find games that we can all jump on,” he says.
Gomez says he’s even made new connections since self-isolation started. “I’ve definitely played with people I don’t know, that are just friends of buddies,” he says. “Everyone is locked down and playing games so the online gaming community is thriving, and even expanding, which is kind of neat.”
Ferguson says that gaming with friends is a good way to fill the void in our social lives left by the lockdowns. “Most humans just aren’t built for this,” he says. “Video games can be an excellent platform for getting social needs met. That was true pre-COVID, and that’s even more true when other avenues are largely cut-off.”
In the early days of social distancing, calls to use our suddenly ample time to be productive were plentiful. But it’s not an easy time to stay focused on work, school, or anything else. Many of us stuck at home simply need something to keep our minds off the unspeakable horrors unfolding across our cities, our country and the world. Video games, with their robust stories, hours of playtime and built-in social connections, can be that something. They have been for me, and many others — and we shouldn’t feel guilty about any of it.