Video games connect friends during coronavirus pandemic

October 18, 2020 — by Andy Chen and Justin Guo

In the pandemic, video games have evolved from pure entertainment into a necessary vehicle for social interaction.

On April 26, Junior Aidan Costello logged on to “Minecraft” for the first time in his life — he’d seen YouTubers play before, but he’d never played himself. Virtually spawning into a dark, bleak room, he saw 10 of his closest friends join the “Minecraft” server at the same time. They led him up a nearby hidden staircase, revealing a massive mansion with the words “Happy Birthday” embedded overhead. Over the course of the past three weeks, the 10 had meticulously built it for him.

While Costello’s friends initially wanted to host an in-person surprise party for his birthday, they were unable to do so because of social distancing norms, said junior Justin Hao, who played a key role in organizing the virtual event. Like many other teenagers during the pandemic, they instead turned to video games as a means to socialize and celebrate. 

Video games have long been around as a way to unwind, but during the pandemic, they’ve taken on an additional purpose of serving as an extension of social interaction with friends.

“I didn’t really play video games before COVID, but now that everyone’s been social distancing for so long, I’ve started to play more as a way to mess around with my friends,” junior Henrik Zhang said. “Games give us something to do and laugh about in a safe and easy to access way.”

One video game Zhang and his friends have recently taken up during the pandemic is “Among Us.” 

“Among Us” is an online social deduction game, where players are assigned a role of either “crewmate” or “imposter.” In order for the imposters to win, they must gain the trust of crewmates while systematically picking them off. Crewmates must either figure out who the imposters are and vote them out or finish various tasks scattered around the map. Originally debuting in 2018, the game saw a dramatic spike in engagement over quarantine, amassing more than 41 million downloads and 1.5 million concurrent players over the past 45 days, according to GameRant

Zhang said that the game’s similarity to the classic role-playing game Mafia, reasonable learning curve and near-limitless possibilities make it the perfect party game to play with friends.

“Depending on you and your friends’ moods, it can either be a relaxing or stressful experience,” Zhang said. “It’s the perfect mix of cooperation and competition.”

Other video games, such as “Minecraft,” “Club Penguin,” “Animal Crossing,” the “Overcooked” series and “Jackbox Games” have also seen a rise in popularity. During the early stages of quarantine, Verizon reported a 12 rise in video streaming and a 75 percent rise in gaming usage. The number of concurrent users on Steam, a popular video game platform, shot up from 16 million to 24 million from March 11 to April 3, and is hovering above 21 million as of Oct. 10.  

Senior Leslie Sun said multiplayer games help facilitate socialization because they have built-in features that encourage social interactions with others.

For example, in “Animal Crossing,” a video game in which players construct buildings, socialize with non-playable animal characters and collect items, players are encouraged to virtually befriend their friends’ accounts, and are even rewarded with in-game currency for doing so. 

As with “Minecraft,” people on the internet have turned to “Animal Crossing” to organize virtual birthday parties, weddings, gender reveal parties and much more. Sun herself frequently uses “Animal Crossing” as a medium to connect with online friends and alumni.

“For me, I think I actually found more time to hang out with my friends than I did before,” Sun said. “It’s easier to organize an online event than it is to organize real life hangouts, because all you have to do is just open up your computer.”

The combination of rising gaming internet personalities, like Dream and OfflineTV, and popular video viewing sites such as YouTube and Twitch — a platform that live streamers use to broadcast games or other entertainment — have also contributed to the use of video games as a means of  socializing. 

According to TwitchTracker, the average number of concurrent viewers on Twitch has increased from 1.26 to 2.03 million from 2019 to 2020 — an increase of almost 800,000 concurrent viewers, a rate quadruple that between 2018 and 2019. Not only do these YouTubers and Twitch streamers inspire students to have fun playing games with their friends, but they also give students something to talk about while playing.

For many, watching streamers and playing games with their friends has even revitalized their social lives — students like junior Weilin Sun weren’t initially motivated to talk to friends, but as video games became more and more mainstream, they found a reason to create new friendships and reignite old ones.

“During the summer, I didn’t really keep in touch with a lot of my friends because it felt exhausting compared to just hanging out in person,” Sun said. “With video games becoming as popular as they are, I’m talking to my friends a lot more, and since different people from different groups of friends can all play together — since games are so accessible to everyone — it’s a pretty unique experience.”

However, some students — and even more parents — are concerned about the potential dangers that come with video game addictions. 

“Although it’s nice to have fun during your junior year, playing too many games can actually be pretty harmful,” Zhang said. “Sometimes I play ‘Among Us’ past midnight; that definitely impacts my sleep.”

Despite this, Costello believes that as long as students manage their time wisely, video games can provide a valuable source of entertainment and socialization.

“Socializing has felt different over the quarantine, but I've enjoyed it nonetheless,” Costello said. “Even though we’re not physically together, my friends take the time to hang out online and have fun together — it really means a lot to me.”

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