Speaking through his headset, University of Hawaii astrophysics student Mike Andrews enthusiastically says, “Julian, you can have the Dreadfire Vessel I have, if you want!” His statement is punctuated by a flurry of keyboard clicks as he prepares to forward the article to his friend.
It’s Wednesday night, and Andrews’ bedroom is softly lit by the fairy lights and glow from his laptop. On screen, his “World of Warcraft” character – a troll monk named Riotgrrl – idles next to the corpse of the enemy his team has just defeated. Andrews waits for his friend to accept the offer. He smiles with the satisfaction of helping someone else, through the close contact, even if this action is virtual. Julian – or rather his bovine avatar named Moowarrior – recovers the offered ship. “Thanks, Mike! “
Like millions of others during the COVID-19 pandemic, Andrews has turned to online gaming as a social outlet as opportunities for in-person interaction have faded. Over the past several months, he’s devoted a few hours each week to an online multiplayer role-playing game, where he meets virtually the same group of players (mostly other residents of Hawaii) in bi-monthly “raids”. This group, which ranges from 10 to 20 people depending on the day, includes some of Andrews best friends as well as friends of friends he has never met in person. Over time, it has become a social affair. “Apparently we’re trying to raid – you know we’re meeting, we’re trying to beat this boss right now.” … Basically over time we mostly talk about stories for the first 35 minutes. Now it’s just a way to socialize and hang out. Listen
During raids, the group works together to defeat difficult enemies, obtaining equipment – like the aforementioned Dreadfire Vessel – that helps their characters progress and allows the group to be successful collectively. It’s a bit like playing a sport and helping your team score a goal. Listen As Andrews raid teammate Devan Meinhart explains, “Helping each other prepare is also an important part of the raid. … It is not uncommon for us to “transport” a few less well-equipped people in order to catch up with them. ”
Like many high school kids, Andrews had big plans for 2020. He was entering the home stretch of graduation and starting to think about graduate school. At the end of 2019, he spent several long weeks applying for research internships, all of which were postponed and ultimately canceled as news of COVID-19 began to arrive. Apart from dashed academic hopes, he faced additional challenges during the pandemic: work and the new responsibilities that come with sick family members. In the midst of this turmoil, he found himself turning to video games. Listen
Andrews was far from alone in his choice of coping strategy; four in five Americans played a video game in 2020, according to an NPD Group survey. This survey also reported a significant increase in gambling across all age groups. Steam, one of the largest game distributors in the world, reported astonishing increases in usage in 2020 compared to 2019: 21.4% more purchases and 50.7% more game hours . Activision Blizzard Inc., the creators of World of Warcraft, reported that 2020 saw its highest sales and engagement in nearly a decade.
What could explain this spike in the game? “A good game takes up enough space that you can’t languish in your horrible thoughts about how the world has changed,” says Nicholas Logue, professor at Windward Community College and longtime writer. Listen. In a case study published in 2020, Lin Zhu, a graduate student at State University of New York at Albany, identified two main psychological drivers of pandemic gambling: Games offer an “instinctive escape from realistic difficulties” and respond to a “deep inner desire for social interaction”. Logue also emphasizes the accessibility of the games; since it is an activity that you can do without leaving your couch or your home, they are “pandemic ready”.
For Andrews, games can represent not only an opportunity to socialize during a time of social distancing, but also an opportunity for camaraderie. Before the pandemic, he enjoyed in-person collaborative activities, such as his role as a volunteer radio DJ and audio production manager at the college radio station, KTUH. In this role, he assisted station members with their audio production projects and frequently “filled in” to host shows when other DJs had to miss their shifts. While such activities were curtailed last year, games like Team World of Warcraft can help fill some of the void. Another raider Meinhart says Andrews “helps[s] with calling mechanisms and tracking our overall progress as a raid ”, and that“ communication, patience and humor are key to the success we’ve had ”.
Still, raid nights aren’t a perfect substitute for the in-person socialization Andrews lacks. The game itself is frustrating at times, adding a mental tax to an otherwise light-hearted conversation, and Andrews describes the conversation without the help of body language as “a little weird,” and this online interaction can sometimes feel a bit like an acting game. Listen. Overall, however, the raid nights usually left him in a better mood than when he started. As Professor Logue says, “It’s the ability to just relieve stress, the ease with which we can play games… For the most part, I think games are an incredibly positive way to escape. “