The bleak, stereotypical image of the lonely, socially isolated video game player is rapidly falling away.
As the COVID-19 pandemic forces people to find new pursuits while stuck in their homes, there's been a surge in online gaming — and a growing realization these games can contribute to a healthy sense of connectedness and community, experts say.
The shift in perception was inevitable, says Kristopher Alexander, professor of video games at Ryerson University in Toronto.
"What this pandemic has done is highlight some of the more positive aspects of video games that are often lacking in the media," says Alexander, who specializes in video game design, e-sports and broadcasting.
Today's online games offer countless challenges and immersive experiences, but most also provide players with the option to chat live with teammates and exchange texts during play.
As well, people who take part in multi-player games are often required to co-operate to achieve a goal, which contributes to a sense of purpose and belonging.
"The pandemic has brought on a new kind of awareness for the video games medium, particularly in terms of how it can help us connect with our families, friends and traditionally offline communities," says Alexander, who as a teenager was ranked 17th in the world on the Street Fighter 3 video game.
Video-game researcher Rachel Kowert says the perception of the anti-social gamer was never based on reality.
"There's no evidence to suggest that the people who play online games are less socially competent than the people who do not," she said in an interview.
Kowert, who is based in Ottawa, says well-designed games help players meet three basic needs related to good mental health: competence, autonomy and relatedness.
Competence is about achieving goals. Autonomy is about making choices. Relatedness is about feeling connected to others.
The recent restrictions imposed on our social lives, including physical distancing and self-isolation, have short-circuited our ability to meet those needs.
"We can't go where we want to go, we don't have control over the pandemic, and we're being socially distant," said Kowert, who works for Take This, a Washington-based non-profit that supports mental health in the gaming community.
Online gaming with family, friends and strangers can offer players a sense of accomplishment, virtually unlimited choices and a sense of connection through real-time communication that doesn't always focus on the game.
"It's not a singular activity," Kowert added. "They are chatting with their friends. They're reducing stress, reducing depression and releasing endorphins — all of the things that we could really use right now during a very stressful, anxious time."
Even some of the industry's most outspoken critics have recognized that gaming can play a key role in keeping people connected during the pandemic.
The World Health Organization, which has frequently raised red flags about excessive use and something it calls "gaming disorder," recently announced its support for a gaming industry initiative that encourages players to #PlayApartTogether.
"I'm not surprised that the WHO has altered its stance on gaming," says Alexander. "People are now having to take a look at the richness of this medium .... The shift in their stance comes from education."
The gaming industry now rivals the music and film industries in terms of revenue.
According to a January 2020 study from the Canada Media Fund, more than 2.5 billion gamers spent about US$152 billion on video games last year. And all that money isn't just for solitary gaming.
"It may look like kids spend an awful lot of time in their rooms, on their screens," the study, titled "Closer, Wider, Faster," says. "But don't be fooled. Instead of meeting at the mall or the park, they convene on platforms like Fortnite and YouTube, where they socialize and meet other kids."
The Entertainment Software Association of Canada says the video-game industry in this country, which employs 27,000 people, generated $3.6 billion in revenue last year, up 15 per cent since 2017.
And there's plenty of evidence to suggest the industry has received a big boost since the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic on March 12. Nintendo's popular Switch console, for example, has sold out around the world in the past few weeks.
"There has been a boom," says Alexander, pointing to online platforms like Steam, which hit a new record earlier this month with more than 25 million users logging on in one day.
Scott Stewart, a senior analyst with international market research firm Mintel, says video games have evolved from a niche hobby in the 1990s to a mainstream form of entertainment that can't be ignored.
A recent Mintel consumer survey suggests that 67 per cent of Canadian adults play video games, and among them 39 per cent play online with other people.
"If we ask people why they play video games, 32 per cent of them say they do it to connect with others or to compete with others," said Stewart, who specializes in technology and is based in the Toronto area.
Among those who play online games, 47 per cent say they do so to connect with friends and family.
"At a time like this, there's a need for social connection while we're all stuck at home," says Stewart. "That's a reason why people are gravitating towards (gaming)."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2020.
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press