If we lived in normal times, the otherwise rather dreary Deutz district of Cologne would have turned into a magical world again. TV teams had waited for colorfully disguised crowds to jostle in front of and in the Cologne exhibition center. The reporters would have felt like brave anthropologists and once again pretended that people who play video games were still a strange species in 2020.
However, after we live in the not so normal here and now, last week Gamescom as the world’s largest trade fair for video games, like all other such events, ended purely digitally. But there were still many reports of success. The video game industry is arguably one of the few industries that is booming despite, or perhaps because of, the Corona crisis. Compared to the previous year, sales grew by 30 percent in the first quarter. The time players spend in front of the devices and screens rose by almost three quarters during the lockdown period.
Travel to the magical land rather than to the neighboring country
Such numbers naturally lead to the usual reflexes, especially in Germany. She asked whether the risk of computer game addiction was going to increase very badly time recently got a media psychologist. And Daniela Ludwig, as the drug commissioner of the federal government, said that the “sharp increase” in video game use “must not go on like this”.
This type of alarmism is as convenient as it is known. The corona crisis could well be a good occasion to rethink the role of video games in society. No other medium struggles so much with the stigma of wasting time. However, due to the ongoing state of emergency, the industry is in an unfamiliar situation: When did one have solid evidence that one’s own product can also have positive effects on the human mind? According to a study by the industry association Game e. V. stated that almost a third of the respondents said that video games had helped them to get through the corona pandemic better. Even the World Health Organization, in cooperation with leading development studios, has launched a campaign called “Play apart together”, which appeals to compliance with hygiene and distance rules.
The synergy effect is more than obvious: Like no other medium, video games make it possible to keep the principle of social distance and still be able to interact. Of course, you could also meet your friends in a boring video conference – but you don’t experience anything, you are only painfully reminded of the absence of the normal state. Why should you just stare at the familiar faces in front of carefully staged bookshelves when your friends can instead wear futuristic armor – whereby you can kill a few aliens together. Or you can jet across the surface of the moon. Or travel on horseback towards the sunset.
New in the discourse: computer games as balm for the troubled soul
Aside from a sense of community that can be experienced, a little escape from reality could also be more digestible for the mental state, instead of picking up the latest dose of bad news via “Tagesschau” every evening. But why does this escape in the standard social situation always have to look like that, sitting on the couch, numb yourself with the latest load of fiction from the Netflix flat rate or embarking on a long-distance journey immediately after the lockdown has been relaxed? Wouldn’t it be obvious nowadays to forego vacation after at least a week of domestic quarantine and instead teleport to magical kingdoms or glittering crystal grottos at the push of a button?
Anyway, the once so clearly drawn dividing lines between fantastic video game narrative and reality are becoming noticeably thinner. Because there are of course enough titles with the usual plots that tell of the end of the world. “The Division 2” or “The Last of Us 2” suitably transport the player into a world in which a pandemic has raged even worse than it does in real life. If you slip into the role of the game character who removes the chaos again, the simulated ability to act can perhaps also have a beneficial effect in real life.
For many users, especially those who have only found their way to the screen due to the current crisis, it will still feel uncomfortably close to real life. But where should you flee to when the events outside the window feel more and more like the plot of a dystopian video game? Dangerous demagogues, a dying planet, a global plague … And so escapism today often works with opposite signs – the direction of escape is no longer from the supposedly boring reality to the digital adventure, but from the chaos at the door to the ideal world the screen. In any case, there is hardly any other explanation for the surprise success of this year. Nintendo’s “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” has developed into a cultural phenomenon with eleven million users during the time of the lockdown. The game is almost bursting with sheer cuteness: anthropomorphic animals hop around, the color palette is nice pastel, everything is as harmless as possible. People trade and socialize, they visit their neighbors. In short: they live on their lives as they were used to before the pandemic. But all of this happens on a fantasy island ruled by a capitalist raccoon.
For people who find it all too colorful, there are of course more serious options. In other games, people pursue an ordinary job, drive trucks or run a farm. Classic dream jobs such as pilot or amusement park operator can be simulated as well as work in more obscure industries – such as demolition masters or deep-sea fishermen. The attraction for the players is the same here as there: They work their way up, build something, cross one item off the list, but the next one is already waiting. With the utmost seriousness, the users at the virtual wheel complete an hour-long bus ride in real time or mow a wheat field. Switch off through work. The digital machines are modeled on the real models down to the smallest detail.
There are then rewards waiting for you to acquire new equipment with which you can complete the same points and tasks even faster and more efficiently in the future. In short: You play capitalism, simulate a work utopia that does not exist in everyday life, or only seldom. This is only contradictory at first glance. Even for Adorno, leisure was only an extension of the ideals of the world of work into private life; it is subject to the same optimization and efficiency dictates.
Video games give people something rare: a sense of control
It fits in with the fact that more and more video games exist on their servers as a “persistent world”. This means that the events happen without the player taking part. There is no pause button. A game like the space opera “Destiny 2” never ends. The development studio regularly presses the reset button. All adventures can then be repeated over and over again. There is always something to be done. It’s no longer about winning the game and then putting it aside. The game becomes a hamster wheel, a Sisyphus rock and a never-ending challenge. We have to think of gamers as happy people.
If you look at it positively, you could say that video games give people back a sense of control. You create routines. They simulate clear processes and goals in a world that seems more unpredictable than ever. After all, everyone wants to be productive. Sometimes it’s just the circumstances that prevent that. Is it possible that the illusion of having achieved something is enough to pacify the guilty conscience that one feels when everyday life is interrupted by Corona? And should the game world be too demanding, there is sure to be a video somewhere on the Internet that explains step by step what to do. Or you can quickly find a couple of colleagues with a small post who are pursuing exactly the same goal as you are. Wouldn’t it be nice if that also existed in real life?