Gaming During the Pandemic Is Starting to Feel Like Work

And that’s not a bad thing

A black and white screenshot from Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The player villager looks dazed in front of a computer.
Photo courtesy of Damon Beres and Nintendo.

On March 15, just days before Chicago would issue a shelter-in-place order in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Max Plenke decided to get really into Counter-Strike.

Recognizing that he was about to spend a lot of time stuck in his apartment, Plenke, a branded content editor, realized that there was probably no better time than now for him to jump back into one of the most competitive online shooters after nearly two decades of not playing. Over the past two months, he’s logged over 200 hours.

“There’s something weirdly comforting about it,” he tells me. “I can’t think about how desperately bad things are when there are teenagers who are about to ruin me.”

In early April, Lia Russell, a Bay Area labor reporter, dusted off the PS4 she had bought with her dad two years ago and started exploring a fading Wild West in Red Dead Redemption 2.

“If there’s a time in my life where I can justifiably sit on my butt and play games, it’s now,” Russell tells me.

We’re not playing video games to escape the daily grind anymore, we’re playing to recreate it.

Plenke and Russell are part of a surge of millions who are either returning or getting into video games as the world around them shuts down. And like other trendy quarantine-inspired activities — like baking sourdough or learning how to skateboard — gaming has taken on a small importance: providing a sense of productivity and routine that the pandemic, and economic recession, has thrown out.

After a day of struggling to get anything done at work, the ability to jump into a game and knock out some side quests, or rack up some wins isn’t so much a dopamine fix as it is a necessary salve. We’re not playing video games to escape the daily grind anymore, we’re playing to recreate it.

Games that have jumped in popularity amidst the Covid-19 crisis — Animal Crossing, Call of Duty: Warzone most notably — are unique in that they don’t just offer escapism, but instead present chaos that we’re compelled to control. We invest hundreds of hours into crafting islands others can admire, we drop in with our friends for the chance to overcome the odds stacked hilariously against our favor.

We think of video games as time-wasters, a natural fit for our new pandemic lives. Whether we’re working from home, or unemployed, or just unable to do the things we normally do outside, we now have a surplus of free time that video games have been specifically designed to fill: tightly designed, escapist power-fantasies with jaw-dropping visuals. This is what journalist Frank Guan argued in his piece on why video games are better than real life.

“Video games are rife with those Pythagorean vistas so adored by Americans, made up of numbers all the way down; they solve the question of meaning in a world where transcendent values have vanished,” he wrote in 2017. “We turn to games when real life fails us — not merely in touristic fashion but closer to the case of emigrants, fleeing a home that has no place for them.”

But there’s something different about playing video games in a pandemic that’s more than distracting, numbing consumption.

“This gives me an outlet to feel like I’m doing something, even if it can’t be tangibly measured,” says Russell. “I can’t do things like going to the grocery store without extreme planning in advance. But if I can conquer this part of Hope County — now it feels like I’ve accomplished something.”

“I have this one need of existing in another space and tackling these very simple goals, and the only vehicle I’ve found to do that is Counter-Strike,” says Plenke. “It’s like, ‘Well, I can’t say I didn’t do anything today, I just got the most kills last match.’”

The phenomenon isn’t unique to the pandemic. As Katie Heaney wrote earlier this year, the to-do listification of video games is something that developers have used for years now to keep players coming back. “They’re a cheap way to create content, allowing designers to tweak just a few variables to create dozens of tasks and storylines to put between a game’s central challenges,” she writes. “Because these tasks are low stakes (i.e., imaginary), they provide a hit of accomplishment without the same level of anxiety or stress that real-life tasks can induce.”

But even if the games haven’t changed, we have. “Playing video games has taken on a new and quiet urgency for me in this indoor time, the same way brushing my teeth or going outside to take a walk has,” writes Vox’s Alanna Okun. “Something I used to take for granted as part of the fabric of my day but that now feels somewhat integral to my sanity, my rhythm, my continued grip on reality.”

In other words, playing a to-do list-heavy open-world game like FarCry 5 hits different during a pandemic.

This kind of pandemic-gaming-as-work extends beyond rediscovering the productive joys of picking up a controller. Games have always been a familiar retreat for me, but lately, I’ve been playing games that feature grind-heavy progression systems. As soon as the stay-at-home order was announced here in Philadelphia, I renewed my World of Warcraft Classic subscription and jumped back into a game I had gotten bored of months ago. As my work to-do list dried up, my WoW to-do list swelled. I had goals and timelines for hitting max level, and then once I hit that I came up with more goals and timelines to get my character ready for endgame raiding.

“What World of Warcraft ‘sells’ players, in this sense, is a chance to struggle metaphorically against the very thing that oppresses them.”

This is, in fact, the whole appeal of World of Warcraft, English professor Kevin Moberly explains in a 2010 paper. “World of Warcraft challenges players to make something of this world—not simply to make sense of it or map its contradictory spaces, but to produce value from it,” he writes. “What World of Warcraft ‘sells’ players, in this sense, is a chance to struggle metaphorically against the very thing that oppresses them.”

The draw, Moberly goes on to explain, isn’t so much the spectacle of taking on 100-foot tall demigods with 40 fellow players, but rather how we’re able to turn taking on 100-foot tall demigods into something that looks and feels like work.

Now that my character touts some of the best gear in the game, I’ve settled into a routine, treating my position as a full-time raider in my guild as a full-time job. I put in the time to gather materials for powerful potions, I structure my days around logging in to receive powerful “buffs,” all so I can perform when it comes to raid night. And in the morning, after I scour through the data of each boss fight from the night before, I analyze how I can improve. I play World of Warcraft not to escape the late-capitalism drive for productivity, but to recreate it, to prove to myself that even as my own industry crumbles, I can still Do Stuff.

Today, video-games-as-work has become so prevalent that developers are looking to productivity software for inspiration. Modern games like Fortnite now play more like a project management platform, writes developer Simon Pitt. “Fortnite generates tasks like a relentless scrum manager. As our lockdown days blur into one long stream, I’m finding my work and free time merging,” he writes. “The only difference is whether I’m ticking off tasks in Trello or in Fortnite. Replying to client emails by day, searching ammo boxes at Holly Hedges by night.”

That’s not to say that this is bad, that Covid-19 has us resorting to games to drip-feed us productivity dopamine. If anything, it’s helped some folks clarify their relationship with games.

Before the pandemic hit, Plenke’s main hobby was writing sketch comedy. When that went away, and he picked up Counter-Strike to take its place, he realized the value of a hobby that’s easy to walk away from.

“For how much you can invest in it, it’s nice to have something that you don’t really care about,” he says. “And that’s a weirdly comforting place to be, I will do this because I like it, and I’ll just put it down and I won’t think, ‘Ah man, I really should have played Counter-Strike for another hour today.’”

Video games might be easy to walk away from but now seems like a rare moment when dumping dozens, if not hundreds, of hours into a video game not only seems understandable, but even necessary. For Russell, she was never one to binge-watch, too passive an experience to feel like she was “doing” anything, she says. But with video games, she has no problem playing upward of three hours at a time.

Watching my friends list on Discord balloon with people dipping their toes into gaming, and witnessing everyone find their game for nightly play sessions feels reassuring — amidst everything that’s going on, at least you know that they’ve found something to occupy their time. In the Before Times, seeing a friend spend hours every night in Slay the Spire might raise an eyebrow; today, the feeling is more like “Hey, good for them.”

Russell sees her relationship with FarCry and Red Dead as purely transactional. Games help her kill a surplus of free time, sure, but once this is all over the PS4 is going to stay with her dad. “I honestly think I’ll probably snap back to the way I was before,” she says. “I’m a social person, I like to see people face to face, but I don’t think that’ll happen for awhile.”

Pandemic gaming isn’t so much about losing ourselves in video games, but rather, finding ourselves. To ask yourself what it is you need to do to stay safe, and sane as everything else falls apart around us. And hopefully, leaving us better prepared to figure out what we need when it comes time to remerge and rebuild.

I write about technology. Regular contributor to Medium’s OneZero. Seen in Vice, Businessweek, The Outline and others. he/him.

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