OPINION | The Power of Games for Good

In these unprecedented times, games are uniquely positioned to provide some much needed respite.

An image showing a family of three sitting in their home laughing whilst holding PS4 controllers.

There’s no doubt about it, these are troubling times for everybody. Without going into too much detail about events that we are all too aware of, ‘lockdown’ and social distancing measures have had an immeasurable impact on society as we know it. The combination of self isolating, limited outdoor access and the inability to visit family and friends is having a serious affect on people’s mental health and general well-being.

In days such as these it is imperative to keep the mind occupied and engaged, and to remain connected with others as much as possible. Games are ideally positioned to provide this. Although anybody can get lost in a good book, film or TV show, games are unique in that they require a level of interaction not present in other forms of entertainment.

The likes of Netflix and Prime Video are brilliant, and wholly worthwhile in their own right, but they are passive activities and it is easy for the mind to wander back to less desirable subjects. Although it is just as common to spend 20 minutes deciding which game to play as it is to spend that time scrolling through Netflix’s endless content list, once the game begins the level of participation required is beyond that of a TV show or film.

And just like other forms of entertainment, they are varied enough to appeal to any age or preference. Sports, role playing, puzzle, complex strategy, single and multi-player games, there is a genre to suit any taste.

An image of the full cover of Edge Magazine Issue 345 dubbed "the feel better issue". It shows a hand-drawn apartment block from the outside with each window/room showing an image representing a different game.

This month’s issue of long-running UK gaming magazine Edge is just utterly lovely. Produced during lockdown it is devoted entirely to games that make you feel better.

The old stereotype that gaming is a solitary endeavour is truly a thing of the past. The rise of online gaming has become a great way to interact with both friends and strangers alike. The phenomenal success of games such as Fortnite and Minecraft prove that players of all ages can keep in contact and socialise with friends and family members from afar. Fortnite’s “Travis Scott Event”, held on April 23rd and featuring the US rapper performing in-game, attracted a truly remarkable 12.3 million concurrent players. What else can achieve the same sense of involvement in such a huge – and shared – event on anything like that kind of scale?

And then there are fitness games, the most famous of which was arguably Nintendo’s Wii Fit way back in 2008. The recent surge in popularity of virtual reality headsets however has seen a true resurgence in the genre. VR can take fitness to another level, and the Polygon article Sitting all day ruined my health. VR saved me, detailing writer Shawn Kittelsen’s use of the format to combat his own weight gain is testament to its effectiveness.

The World Health Organisation who recently – and controversially – recognised “Gaming Disorder” as an official illness, have put their full backing behind the industry’s #PlayApartTogether initiative. And the UK games industry has gone a step further with it’s Games for Carers programme, created to offer free games to NHS staff.

This is a time when many previously uninterested in gaming may be contemplating dipping their toe in the water. And there’s a sea of titles out there ideally suited to pull them in.

Animal Crossing is probably the most publicised gaming success story of the lockdown so far. Enjoyed by gamers young and old, it is successful in providing not only a warm and welcoming place to visit, but also a sense of structure, a sense of routine in its busywork and daily tasks that is currently all too absent for many. An idyllic, low-stakes game-world that is always waiting, happy to accommodate players for anything from five minutes to five hours.

Games are even stepping in to fill the void left by other forms of entertainment which have been put on hold. Sports clubs have moved quickly into the eSports space to keep their fan-bases engaged at a time when live sport is impossible, and football teams from all tiers are participating in online tournaments streamed live over Twitch, with famous players the world over getting involved.

A promotion image from Sky Sport's ePL Invitational event showing logos of the participating teams and footballers such as Man City's Raheem Sterling and Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold.

The Sky Sports YouTube channel is showing live coverage of the ePL Invitational, a FIFA tournament involving all 20 Premier League clubs contested by players and celebrity fans. Konami are hosting a similar tournament in PES 2020 with 11 clubs and players involved internationally.

Of course nobody is suggesting that games are the solution to the world’s problems, or that playing games all day (as with TV) doesn’t present problems of its own. But these are far from normal times, and any form of distraction to engage those struggling to cope with the current situation should be fully explored.

So, forget the petty squabbles over format wars – of teraflops and GPU speeds – and try to remember why you got into gaming in the first place. That simple childlike joy of getting lost in another world, the sense of accomplishment at overcoming a challenge thought impossible and the laughter shared with family and friends. Games have always been used to help people through difficult times, and they are uniquely positioned to help with this one.

Gaming as a medium is versatile like few others. So start up a single-player epic, a short visual experience, a family-friendly party game, a fitness title or don your headset for some social or competitive online multiplayer. Relax, focus, and above all else try to enjoy it.

Take care everybody.