Online games have become a big part of our pandemic lives

As people continue to look for opportunities to socialize at a distance, more and more are using game play to socialize right now. The video game industry is facing some real challenges nonetheless.

More people turning to video games as a way to socialize at a distance, but industry still hurting

Online games have become a greater part of our lives during the pandemic. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

From pandemic socializing to major lawsuits, video games have have made a lot of news in the last year.

"I used to play almost exclusively narrative-based games or single-player games. And I have very much started playing more multiplayer games with friends, social games. So that could be like party games on Jackbox for example that you can play over Zoom, or Among Us, which is on several platforms, but started on PC, which is a social deduction game between friends," Elise Favis, a gaming journalist, told Spark host Nora Young.

Favis, now a features editor at Fanbyte Media, has been reporting on the commercial gaming industry during the pandemic. And she isn't the only one whose gaming habits have changed over the past year. Favis says many people are using game play to socialize right now.

Elise Favis has been reporting on some of the issues in the commercial gaming industry during the pandemic. (Washington Post)

"I have noticed pretty much since March last year when the pandemic really started occurring [that] people were turning to games that they could interact with friends with or make new friends on," she says.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons by Nintendo came out in March, 2020, and sold more than 11 million copies in just 12 days. The community-based game involves people coming together to build and interact with one another.

Twitch has also enjoyed a surge in use over the course of the pandemic. In April 2021, there were more than 2.2 billion hours of content watched, an all-time high for the platform.

In addition to the social engagement that gaming offers, Favis says, in a year of remote learning, some educators have also turned to these tools to help with teaching. "I think a lot of the time, especially parents see video games as a distraction or giving their kids a lot of screen time that might be unwanted."

Last year, Favis wrote about a high school teacher in Montreal, who re-routed his class trip to Greece into Assassin's Creed Odyssey. He took his class on a virtual tour of ancient Greece using the game's educational mode. "In some ways [it] might even be better than going there in person, just with all the added educational tidbits in there.

"You can play the story, which is fictional, but then you have the education mode that is based in facts and history, visit different landmarks and learn about different historical figures and things like that.

"So these experiences can actually be very sophisticated, and used in many different creative ways."

Favis hopes that this relationship between educators and game developers will continue post-pandemic. For instance the education suite in Minecraft, which existed long before the pandemic, was made available to educators for free last year.

Another example is Dreams, a game creation system created by UK studio Media Molecule. It allows users to create their own interactive experiences and share them with a community and friends. And some people are using it for educational purposes.

Gaming industry challenges

But while people are playing more games during this time, Favis says the industry itself is facing some real challenges.

Along with the delayed releases of titles, like The Last of Us Part II and Halo Infinite, ranging from a month to a year, Favis says the cancellation of the video game industry's largest events, like the Game Developers Conference and E3, has left creators, developers and publishers without a space to display and market their games in person.

"And independent developers, I would say are the ones probably hurt the most by the pandemic because they're the least financially stable. And they don't have a publisher like a large video game company would. So they really have only themselves.

"So if you are interested in the next game coming out, you're going to watch a live stream about it. But a lot of the time, these live streams are packed with information [and] it's happening at a rapid pace."

Favis says often indie games are given short time slots within these streams, whereas at a convention, they'd be on a show floor for several days and people try them out. "They just have more prominence there."