Sunday scaries

Why experts say you should feel good about playing video games in quarantine

Itching to try Animal Crossing? Now is the time to play.

Video games continue to evolve in their storytelling capabilities, art, and emotional complexity. The millions of people who already game know this — and now, under quarantine, the rest of us are catching up.

According to a report released on March 17 by Verizon, American video game use has increased by 75 percent since social distancing guidelines were put into effect nationally. By April 9, Verizon announced that number jumped to 115 percent. You probably know someone who has bought a Nintendo Switch or PS4 or someone who plays the massively popular game Animal Crossing: New Horizons — a particularly peaceful game that’s having a moment — after going into self-quarantine.

Why are so many people suddenly drawn to games? A researcher, Ph.D. student, and the author of the Psychology and Video Games series who goes by PlatinumParagon tells Inverse that this sudden video game attraction phenomenon can be explained by three factors.

The first is the fact that video games are immersive and interactive experiences. The experience of playing is akin to taking a “mental vacation” from the 24/7 news cycle and the constant scroll of social media.

Second is the fact that video games have historically been stereotyped as a “waste of time.” Now, we seemingly have a lot of time. This time can be spent indulging in something we’ve perhaps been made to feel guilty over.

“This is the perfect time to be kind to yourself and unwind with a video game, and the evidence seems to support this, as PC gaming is experiencing a record high and retailers are struggling to meet the demand for Nintendo Switches,” Platinum says.

Thirdly, video games keep us connected with our friends and loved ones.

“We are lucky enough to have a robust video game industry that can connect us with so many people,” Platinum says. “We can use Animal Crossing to play with our younger siblings, our parents, or even our grandparents, then go to our computer and raid with our college friends in Final Fantasy XIV.”

Animal Crossing is a game that’s associated with anecdotal positive mental health experiences, and gamers, along with critics, have long noticed this.

In her review of Animal Crossing Inverse’s Jen Glennon writes that the “straightforward, laid-back gameplay rhythm is also a welcome distraction in scary times.”

Games can be a "welcome distraction in scary times."Nintendo

Animal Crossing also encourages in-game prosocial behavior, which research suggests actually boosts out-of-game prosocial behavior as well. When people help and support each other in non-violent ways, that behavior tends to extend to other relationships. It also factors in small victories and goals — a particularly helpful aspect considering present times.

Perhaps the best example of this pro-social behavior in Animal Crossing was a recent wedding held within the game.

While more research is needed, mental health specialists are increasingly excited about the potential of games to help people. Studies already show that puzzle games like Tetris and Bejeweled can reduce depression, stress, and prevent traumatic flashbacks. Scientists agree that games could potentially complement other forms of therapy; studies just need to catch up to what players report anecdotally.

If you’re looking for other games to enjoy right now, you can check out Inverse’s guide to PS4 quarantine games. Platinum also recommends the Jackbox Party Pack of games for staying connected to groups, keeping fit with Ring Fit Adventure, and returning to games you loved as a kid.

“The world is quite a chaotic place right now and bad news is very common, so it would be nice to return to a simpler time when it was just you and the video game,” they say.

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