It took the cancellation of games to shock most of us into realizing that the world as we knew it was gone, seemingly overnight. On March 11, the NBA abruptly announced the indefinite suspension of its 2019-2020 season due to coronavirus, followed swiftly by …
It took the cancellation of games to shock most of us into realizing that the world as we knew it was gone, seemingly overnight. On March 11, the NBA abruptly announced the indefinite suspension of its 2019-2020 season due to coronavirus, followed swiftly by similar announcements from the MLB, NHL, MLS, and XFL (and later even the Olympics).
It doesn’t matter if you cared about sports or not: This historic, unimaginable cancelation of all professional games forced Americans everywhere to reckon with the fact that life was about to become unrecognizable. And it’d stay that way for the foreseeable future.
Yet later in March, even as more essential staples of normal society like school and work began shutting down, Jeremy Saucier — who heads both the digital preservation efforts at the Museum of Play and their American Journal of Play — was reminded of something not even the pandemic could take away. He and his kids (along with many others in the neighborhood) ventured outdoors to cover their driveway in bursts of colorful chalk, his daughter writing “HAVE A GREAT DAY!” in big rainbow bubble letters while his son designed an inscrutable maze.
“It was this immediate sign to me of something you see across time and all over the world: Play persists,” he said.
In a moment when we’re being forced to closely reexamine what is essential and what is superfluous, it can seem almost trite to mourn the loss of games or counterintuitive to herald play as crucial. But actually, play has always had a central role in keeping us connected to what is universally human during the darkest chapters of our existence.
“Play and games serve vital functions to human beings,” said Kelly Ronayne, a scholar and professor of history at Adelphi University in New York. “In effect, we work things out through play.”
Despite what we might assume, “History tells us that game popularity increases with difficult times,” she said. “We tend to turn to them when we need to recapture a time of innocence or foster a sense of wonder. It reminds us of being children, taken care of. It lets us focus on something other than what is troubling us, and maybe even give us tools to work it out in real-world scenarios.”
Games on the rise
It’s no surprise then that, while everyone and everything else is hanging on by a thread, play is instead thriving during the pandemic.
We’re at a crucial moment in defining outcomes of this pandemic. Games industry companies have a global audience – we encourage all to #PlayApartTogether. More physical distancing + other measures will help to flatten the curve + save lives. https://t.co/QhX0ssN0lH
— Ray Chambers (@RaymondChambers) March 28, 2020
Coronavirus caused a huge spike in numbers across the video game industry: Steam stats showed a record 20 million simultaneous online players on March 15, Nintendo’s Switch sold out virtually everywhere, while overall game sales saw a 35 percent year-over-year increase in March. Even the World Health Organization is encouraging everyone to play video games.
But video games are far from the only form of play and games people are turning to en masse.
Demand for jigsaw puzzles also skyrocketed to the point of scarcity in March, with companies seeing a 300 percent or more spike in sales. Then there’s the chalk on the sidewalk, the never-ending scroll of bizarrely funny viral TikToks of quarantine boredom, or those treating yeast starters like their bread children.
“It’s hard to define exactly what ‘play’ is and isn’t. But you know it when you see it,” said Saucier. “And in times like this, people create play out of nothing.”
Little things can mean so much.
This heavy-machine operator taking a moment to bring smiles to the faces of two kids playing with their own miniature trucks is definitely the Twitter content I’m here for. AND the precision.
— Rex Chapman?? (@RexChapman) May 19, 2020
The Museum of Play has found documents that show people during the 1918 Influenza creating “folk” toys and games like dolls using nothing but their imaginations, Saucier said. That was also true in the Civil War, when economically strapped Americans living in active war zones used spare cloth, wood or yarn to fashion home-made toys seen as critical for teaching kids how to do chores, added Ronayne.
Often, this kind of created play repurposes objects that allow us to pretend we’re in a different world or scenario or even other people entirely. Blankets become a fort or superhero cape, chalk becomes a painter’s palette, yeast becomes your child.
“So much of it is responding to a moment that places constraints on who we can or can’t play with, how we can play, what’s safe,” said Saucier. Pandemics are especially ideal environments for this, since there’s ample time and a dire need for enriching activities within confined quarters. “People are using the pandemic as an opportunity to look at play differently, as a way to keep themselves and their families going, to connect with other people.”
Games and play, Saucier said, are different from other mediums because there’s evidence that it’s nothing short of a biological drive we share with the rest of the animal kingdom. More than entertainment value, they fulfill fundamental needs that are in higher demand during periods of crisis.
“In imaginative and fantasy play when we take on roles, it’s more than just escape. It’s hands-on processing to deal with abstract anxieties. When we fight monsters in a game, we can put a face to an unseen enemy like the one we’re all battling now,” said Saucier. “What comes out of that process is understanding, its strength, and ultimately — usually — a sense of poise and accomplishment.”
That’s why, in the Great Depression, the same people who could barely afford food still found the time and money to foster a golden age for (of all things) Monopoly. The irony of that is palpable.
“But it gave people a sense of control at a time when they felt they had none,” said Ronayne. “It let people pretend at personal wealth and security, even if only for a brief period.”
That unexpected therapeutic power of play is evident now all over the world, too.
The spread of coronavirus made the mobile game Plague Inc — in which you take on the role of a virus wiping out humanity — shoot up to the top of the charts in China and around the world. In war-torn places, play is so essential to surviving the day-to-day that kids are photographed doing parkour amid the ashes of Gaza City, while video captures a father in Aleppo teaching his young daughter to laugh at the sound of bombs.
Even in concentration camps all across Nazi Germany, Jews imprisoned, starved, and tortured found a way to play in their own soccer tournaments.
“It is the darkest possible situation you could imagine that you’d assume would be the least receptive to play and games,” said Jane McGonigal, a game designer and researcher who created the play-oriented mental health app SuperBetter. “But they did.”
There is a temptation to write off the rise of everything from video games to jigsaw puzzles during coronavirus as a consequence of sheer boredom, people searching for any way to keep busy. But the utility of play during times of struggle goes far beyond enjoyable pastime, becoming a way to regain a sense of normalcy, stay connected, process trauma, cope with stress, depression, anxiety, and confront the real-world fears threatening our lives.
Despite so often being seen as a frivolous, expendable luxury, it appears that when all else collapses, it’s play and games that we cling to most.
Why games help us when we need it most
Aside from being a collective salve, McGonigal has been on the forefront of research into games as a method to help individuals combat depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
One Oxford study found that Tetris was one of the most effective treatments for soldiers returning from war with PTSD, with one psychiatrist calling it a “cognitive vaccine” against visual flashbacks. The reasons why are also closely tied to why you’ve probably called Animal Crossing your anti-anxiety or antidepressant medicine during lockdown.
“They’re an extremely effective way for you to take back control of your attention, to essentially train your brain to not torment yourself with the visual images of trauma or unwanted negative thought patterns,” she said. “It’s partly because of how much of the brain’s processing power is preoccupied when you’re engaged in a game. There’s a lot of visual attention. There’s problem-solving and predictive resources.”
For another, video games are designed to trigger what’s called a state of “flow,” when you’re fully immersed in an activity through a sense of accomplishment and meeting challenges. Flow warps our sense of time, inducing a near-meditative state of calm in the present moment.
For anxiety, this works because of how much it’s tied to worrying about potential threats that could happen in the future.
“That’s incredibly useful right now when most of us can’t really do anything to change what’s happening. It’s not a good use of our anxiety,” said McGonigal.
But the power of games in a mental health context is more than just distracting us from bad feelings.
Depression essentially shuts down the neural circuitry in our brains that usually registers optimism and visualizes good things happening in the future. But research shows that consistent video game play reactivates that circuitry, since you’re constantly trying to predict positive outcomes to win — whether it’s deciding which word will get you the most points in Scrabble or building your perfect village in Animal Crossing.
“It fosters hope.”
“All of that delight and positive anticipation ignites the dopamine receptors in your brain, making your brain more confident in the belief that good things can happen, more responsive to positive stimulation,” said McGonigal. “It fosters hope.”
Gamers are also more likely than non-gamers to try multiple strategies and approaches to overcome obstacles. Despite what the worst stereotypes of gamers might lead you to believe, they’re also more willing to ask for help and advice to achieve success. Adopting that kind of mindset can help you fare better while facing all the new, unpredictable challenges of the constantly evolving pandemic.
McGonigal’s work with SuperBetter feels particularly suited to this moment because she first got the idea to use games while struggling to recover from a traumatic brain injury. In her experience, the aftermath of depression, anxiety, and PTSD is similar to what we’re hearing now from patients recovering from COVID-19 (which she likely had a case of earlier this year).
“It’s an illness where you think you’re getting better, then you get sick again. It really plays mind games with you,” she said.
But that “growth” or “challenge” mentality people have while playing games also teaches you how to conquer the experience of setbacks, to accept it as a challenge rather than defeat. In games, fail states are a given. But they’re also designed to ensure you can overcome those failures if you double down on your efforts instead of shying away when things get hard.
“It builds a sense of self-efficacy. You start to see yourself as someone who can overcome things,” she said. “It’s an activity that reaffirms it’s possible for you to get better. Even if you’re not feeling better physically now, you can stay engaged with that cycle of stumbling then eventually getting better.”
Games are a natural balm against anxiety, depression, and uncertainty. It isn’t hard to see why so many are flocking to them now; consider the reports of increased signs of PTSD in Chinese youth after the pandemic, and general negative psychological effects of quarantine being observed in America.
Of course, there’s some extra steps in translating those skills gained while playing games into the real world (which is SuperBetter’s goal, ultimately). Luckily, we’ve got a lot of time on our hands to tackle that part too.
The future of play after the pandemic
Despite helping us survive the pandemic, though, the future of play amid COVID-19 remains uncertain.
“There’s potential danger in the question of what play will look like after the pandemic,” said Saucier.
As both public and theme parks across the world tepidly prepare to reopen despite uncertain public health consequences, it’s clear play will need to change and adapt to what’s safe. The good news is that it inevitably always does. The Museum of Play is already collecting information, stories, and documentation about how people are resiliently and creatively re-imagining activities like playdates — as with Saucier’s daughter, who recently played dolls with her best friend through Zoom.
“But for many years now play has also sort of been under attack,” Saucier cautioned.
“For many years now play has also sort of been under attack.”
Children’s playtime has been on the decline in schools for decades. Meanwhile the economic stressors and uncertainties of late-stage capitalism, like the gig economy, creates a near cultish worship of productivity in America, where the average worker is given a fraction of the vacation days workers in other countries get — then further pressured to not even take that time off.
At the beginning of the pandemic, a New York Times opinion piece gave the public permission to play games without shame right now, simultaneously implying that there’s something inherently shameful about it during non-pandemic times. Even I’ve felt the need to prove the serious, legitimate, thorough research that proves the utility of play and games. Why can’t we just appreciate their inherent worth, without moralizing it through this prism of productivity?
“Play is really in the eye of the beholder,” said Saucier. “So we’ve reached an interesting crossroads because at the same time that there’s a chance to recognize how play helped us get through this, there’s a potential to prioritize pragmatism and the ‘more important things’ — and in some ways leave play behind.”
Already, we’re seeing pressure from the top of the economic machine in America demanding non-essential workers to get back to it, despite the very real threat taking public transportation to an office or serving food in a crowded restaurant still poses without the right precautions. It’s hard to imagine that both in the midst of the pandemic and whatever world comes after it, playtime will finally be valued in this country as the essential human drive that it is. Saucier worries that adult playtime, already highly stigmatized and undervalued before the pandemic, will suffer greatly too. Las Vegas, the bastion of adult play in America, was on shaky economic ground even before the new crisis shut it down.
But there’s hope, Ronayne believes.
“We all talked about work-life balance but I think people are only now waking up to what that really means,” she said. “The pandemic is making us focus on what really matters: love, kindness, family, health, laughter, friendship.” Play and games are so often central to all those life-balancing acts.
Oddly, even though we tend to think of play and games as a shameful antithesis to the all-work-no-play bootstraps ethos of American exceptionalism, it’s also vital to our economy. Our cultural devaluation of it stands in stark contrast to the billions upon billions of dollars made on the backs of games and play through the sports and video game industry.
In the end, our greatest hope for the future of games lies in the power embedded in the experience of play, particularly during the pandemic.
“It’s an ultimate expression of freedom. When you’re truly in a state of play, you enter into this realm of imagination, choose to be challenged, agree to follow made-up rules, voluntarily accept the restrictions of those rules,” McGonigal said.
At a time when many of us in quarantine and lockdown feel frustrated by the need to restrict our freedoms for the greater good, play is a reminder of the power behind that very human choice.
“It kind of goes back to why children played soccer during the Holocaust. It was this last bastion of their freedom. No one can force you to play — it’s something only you can choose for yourself,” she said. “That’s the healing power of games.”
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