Games were a lifeline in 2020

For the gaming industry, this terrible pandemic has been “a catalyst”, proof that “gaming is mass-market entertainment and it’s here to stay. Some people will appreciate it more, some less, but now they see it as entertainment as valid as Netflix or cinema or anything else.”

These were the words of Marcin Iwinski when I spoke to him about his new game Cyberpunk 2077. While his game has faced some criticisms, his analysis is spot-on: 2020 has been a watershed year for gaming.

When the pandemic hit, all outdoor entertainment disappeared overnight. Galleries closed, festivals were cancelled and film production was shuttered. But game development continued apace, and quarantine brought curious new players in their droves who found solace in fantasy worlds from the onslaught of bad news. Covid-19 did not create gaming’s surge in popularity and cultural legitimacy — this was already happening — but it certainly accelerated the process.

Industry analyst Newzoo has been struggling to keep up with the massive boom in the industry, recently revising its 2020 market estimate for the second time to raise projections to $174.9bn. Many online games charted record player numbers this year, and even when lockdown restrictions were lifted, the numbers didn’t reduce. Players might have first been attracted by pandemic boredom, but they have stayed.

It was hard to miss the headlines of new PlayStation and Xbox consoles this autumn. While questions are being raised about how much life the console format really has left, both were rapidly embraced by fans and remain sold out almost everywhere. The beginning of a new console cycle tends to be a strange moment, as expensive new hardware becomes available but the games do not yet exist to make the most of the technology, but the potential of these devices will be revealed in the coming years. For anyone on the fence about getting a new console, the best advice is probably to wait until prices drop and developers start releasing strong games like free spider solitaire masters that you can’t play anywhere else.

This was a year when the rest of culture started to adopt game spaces as virtual stages, at a time when physical events were mostly written off. Fortnite hosted a massive concert with rapper Travis Scott in April, with Lil Nas X following suit in online game Roblox in November and Stormzy launching a new track in Watch Dogs: Legion. Online game worlds are increasingly seeing their horizons expand, seen no longer as mere spaces for play, but platforms with huge, eager audiences where creators can stage art exhibitions, theatre and film screenings.

As the boundary between real-world and virtual culture became more porous, so our politics entered game spaces. Gamers staged their own Black Lives Matter protests in The Sims, while the industry itself pledged support to the cause — with varying degrees of cynicism — by issuing statements, donating money and delaying events to make space for the voices of protesters.

The reverberations of #MeToo also hit the industry hard this year, with several prominent companies facing allegations of sexual misconduct from executives and French gaming giant Ubisoft firmly in the crosshairs. These have opened the door for a notoriously opaque industry to start behaving more transparently, and may accelerate the process of games themselves addressing weak representation of women and minorities.

‘Ghost of Tsushima’, a stunning world of samurai honour and cherry blossom

Yet for all the discussion around how gaming’s position in the cultural firmament is shifting, it was the pure quality of this year’s games that lured in the new players. No game converted more non-gamers to the fold in 2020 than Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which was released just as the pandemic hit in an impeccable moment of kismet. The game places you on a remote island and tasks you with nothing more dramatic than fishing, planting gardens and doing up your house. During the spring, when Covid-19 anxiety hit its peak, gamers and their partners, children and parents drew comfort from the regular rhythms and balmy breeze of Animal Crossing. If there was a single “game of the pandemic”, this was it.

Animal Crossing was also remarkable in that it provided an opportunity for players to socialise without breaking quarantine rules — they could visit each other’s islands virtually, leading people to stage weddings, birthdays and even business meetings in the game. It was one of a handful of social games that took flight this year, alongside the raucous quiz game Jackbox, ludicrous obstacle course Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout and spaceship paranoia-simulator Among Us, which asks a group of players to detect a murderous imposter in their midst.

‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ became the ‘game of the pandemic’

The reach of these games was dramatically expanded by their popularity on streaming services such as Twitch, YouTube and Facebook Gaming — fans clocked millions of hours watching their favourite streaming personalities narrating their game experiences, and Among Us even attracted US Democratic politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar to the party.

While some of the simplest games made the biggest impact this year, 2020 also gave players some of the most sophisticated, cinematic experiences in gaming to date. Chief among them was The Last of Us Part II, which recently swept The Game Awards, offering a morally complex take on the zombie genre. While its darkness and relentless violence was not for everyone, the game undoubtedly scaled new heights of screenwriting, voice acting and dramatic storytelling in the medium.

Elsewhere Ghost of Tsushima gave gamers a stunning world of samurai honour and drifting cherry blossom to explore, and the lavish remake of Final Fantasy VII revived beloved characters for a new audience and sent series fans into a nostalgia frenzy. While the recent release of Cyberpunk 2077 has been beset by glitches, for those who could play the game on good hardware, it presented a rich exercise in storytelling across a gritty, dystopian California.

The indie game community has become a hotbed of innovation over the past decade, combating the sterile tropes and bland aesthetics of the mainstream with fiercely personal visions. This year they joined the big leagues with indie offering Hades, an ingenious brawler which casts you as the prince of the underworld trying to fight his way up to the mortal realm. It garnered acclaim beyond the usual indie circuit for its wonderful writing, characterisation, and perfectly balanced combat mechanics.

Meanwhile the vivid literary experiment of Kentucky Route Zero, which casts you as an ageing delivery man navigating a surreal landscape of rural American poverty, came to an elegiac, suitably elliptical end. This year’s best indie games are like short-story masterclasses, from the gentle, poignant family holiday of Wide Ocean Big Jacket to the hand-drawn, experimental If Found . . . , one of a handful of games that brought LGBTQ representation in games centre stage.

The experimental ‘If Found’ helped bring LGBTQ representation in games centre stage

If we have learned one thing from the explosion of gaming in 2020, it is that gamers are not a monolith. There are teenage boys in their basements, yes, but also working mums on their commute, elderly people doing phone puzzles in their chairs, kids trying to unwind with a game of Fifa in Baghdad and young girls organising a Minecraft party in Texas. Games are not just dungeons in which to shoot each other — they are music venues, sports arenas and club houses to meet and catch up with friends. For countless people stuck inside, games became their default social space, an invaluable lifeline to the outside world.

Looking back over the year in gaming, I was reminded of something visionary game designer Jenova Chen said to me in an interview last year: “You don’t ask someone, ‘Do you watch movies?’ or ‘Do you listen to music?’ You just ask what kind they like. One day, we will simply ask each other: ‘What kind of games do you play?’” This day now seems closer than ever.

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