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A Common Quest

How video games keep people connected

By Anna Holtby

May 11, 2020 •
The newly released video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons allows real-life friends to connect online, providing social connection in an isolating season.

This spring, brothers Sean and Matt McCreary, '14 BA, were exiled to an unknown land, doomed to fight for power in a wilderness full of dark secrets and dangerous strangers.

Fortunately, this punishing fate was confined to the virtual world. The brothers recently started playing Path of Exile, an online action role-playing game, as a way to connect during the pandemic.

Matt, who works at UAlberta in communications, says he and Sean grew up playing video games similar to Path of Exile. Now, with physical distancing measures in place, the brothers are back on a virtual mission. They prop their phones next to their computer screens, video calling as they both battle in the game.

"It makes it feel quite social. You actually get to spend some time together doing something fun, which is rare at the moment," says Matt.

Sean Gouglas, a UAlberta video game researcher isn't surprised people are using online games to connect during the pandemic.

There's good in gaming

"So many games are now online, collaborative and constructive. I think people see them as a wonderful way to communicate and socialize," says Gouglas, who teaches the online course Understanding Video Games at UAlberta. He is a professor in Digital Humanities in the Faculty of Arts.

Although people may once have held the stereotype of the gamer as an adolescent boy mindlessly jabbing buttons in a dark basement, he says that perception has faded. Gouglas says video games are just another form of entertainment in a long line of media feared by older generations. "Many forms of media have been vilified, from movies to comic books - to reading novels if you go back far enough," he says. "There's this moral panic associated with anything that kids tend to do and enjoy."

Not only has research debunked the myth that video games are just mind-numbing time-wasters, but general perception has also shifted. Gouglas attributes this to the fact that so many people have now played games for so many years. According to a 2018 report by the Entertainment Software Association of Canada, the average age of people who play video games is 39, both men and women play in equal numbers and 61 per cent of Canadians self-identify as "gamers" - a far cry from the stereotypical antisocial teen.

"The success of video games has led to the change that we see," Gouglas says. "It's become such an important cultural touchstone for so many people that it's hard to say that it's 'universally bad'."

He cautions that some online gaming communities can be exclusive, or in his words, "bro-y." These groups can exhibit antisocial behaviour, promoting misogynistic or racist language and insisting that the game only be played by people in their particular demographic.

But inclusive, social video games are gaining wild popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Gouglas points to Animal Crossing: New Horizons as a prime example. The game allows users to be a part of a community and play with real friends online, inviting each other to their virtual islands. The new version of the game was released on March 20, in the early days of the pandemic, and topped the list of best-selling video games for the month. Today, it's still at the top of Amazon's video games bestseller list.

While games like Animal Crossing allow for positive social connection in a season of isolation, Gouglas points to another reason for their success during the pandemic.

"In many ways, games are controllable and understandable. You enter into an environment where there are rules, and if you figure out the rules, you're rewarded with more power. I think people are finding that really refreshing in a time where we have very little control."

There are social skills in isolation

As video games gain popularity as a way to socialize and cope with anxiety, there is still concern over the amount of time kids and teens spend in front of screens.

Jason Daniels, '00 BA(Hons), '07 PhD, is a researcher with the U of A's Faculty of Extension and studies how technology affects children's cognitive development. In recent years, teachers have noticed some children start elementary school with limited social skills. These students sometimes have a harder time interacting face to face, Daniels says.

With children out of school, there's a danger of losing essential opportunities to develop those skills, he adds. At school, kids navigate relationships with teachers and peers, working out conflict in the classroom and on the playground.

"Young kids spend a lot of time trying to determine who they are and how they fit in the world. A lot of that development happens through interactions with other people," Daniels says. "The absence of that makes it a lot harder for kids to develop a sense of self and place."

So it might seem a little ironic that now, during the pandemic, technology can play a role in maintaining social connection. Daniels says it's important for kids and teens to find ways to connect with their friends, and parents can play a role in facilitating opportunities for their younger kids to interact online. The pandemic won't last forever, and he'd like to see it spawn some conversations at home.

Technology itself is not a deterrent to socialization; it's how the tech is used, he says. "This is a great opportunity for kids to engage through a medium like video games where they can have some fun and feel like they're connected." The trick, for Daniels, is balancing that online connection with family time away from screens. A dad himself, he cautions against being too strict. "As a parent, you can stop feeling guilty about your kids using technology. We're all in this weird space right now. If your kids are using technology more, they're going to be fine."

For a couple of kids who grew up gaming, Matt and Sean McCreary are certainly fine. Living in a different city than Sean, Matt says he talks to his younger brother even more now than he did in the weeks leading up to the pandemic.

"The game has certainly played a part in that. We set aside a time every week where we just sit down for a few hours and play together," says Matt. "We talk about the game, but we also have an ongoing conversation about what else is happening in our lives."

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