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Arts & Culture

The creation of a virtual community

The last couple of months haven’t been easy. We’ve been inside, isolated, and seemingly alone thanks to a global pandemic. But the social distancing period has also meant that as a society, we’ve found new ways to connect, engage, and maintain a sense of community.

Restaurants are sharing their top-secret recipes, gyms are live-streaming exercise classes for free, and video games are being downloaded at a higher rate than ever before. In the past, these games may have had a reputation for being anti-social. That perception is changing, and it’s changing for the better.

University of Canberra PhD student Anna Tito is a gaming programmer and an expert in the use of games for social good. She says that this difficult time has provided a breakthrough in the stigma surrounding video games and those who play them.

“Games are having a big swell right now because everyone is at home and available to play. The audience is growing quickly, and developers are recognising that and catering to new audiences.”

Not only do people have more time to play video games, but they’re more willing than ever to tap-in to the community feel and friendships that can be made as a result of gaming.

Many games – like the increasingly trending Animal Crossing - include social components where you are able to gather with your real-life friends virtually.

“Games like Animal Crossing are having a big upswing at the moment because they rely heavily on social experience,” Anna says.

“Groups of friends can gather and have Animal Crossing ‘parties’ where their avatars gather on one island and hang out virtually. It creates a social connection during a time where we can’t gather in person.”

In a time filled with uncertainty, the benefits of video games are rock-solid. The majority of video games have a clear beginning, middle, and end and encourage players to make their way through the game in a logical manner.

This can create a mental challenge for players, Anna says.

“The thing about games that is different to a lot of other mediums is they’re quite optimistic,” she explains.

“When you’re dealing with life being a complete mess, and when things aren’t going particularly well in real-life, games provide an environment where the rules are known and the problems are manageable.”

“Even the darkest, most difficult games are solvable.”

And while this escapism isn’t new, Anna says that since the COVID-19 crisis began, hordes of people who have never played a video game in their life are turning to them as a way to pass the time or entertain themselves.

“I’m seeing a lot of people play video games for the first time as a coping mechanism,” she says.

“It lets them escape for a little while and the world makes sense.”

So will these new users continue playing now that restrictions are easing? Anna thinks so.

“Now that people have had a taste of gaming and can recognise the social benefits I think it can continue to be another aspect of those relationships – you can do things together but in a different way,” she says.

“It will give people another tool in their social toolbox and another way to interact. They’ll look back on this time and remember the relationships they built over video games and potentially go back to that whenever they can’t hang out in person.”

Games don’t discriminate either. It’s easy to stick with the stereotype of video games being violent or graphic in nature. Similarly, there is often an assumption that all video gamers are teenage boys.

It’s simply not the case.

“The reality is that games have always been particularly diverse, even in terms of the players,” Anna says.

“There are games that have an old woman audience – even Solitaire is a video game – and there are games like Episodes or Chapters that are aimed at teenage girls.”

Overall, Anna’s message is that when it comes to video games, the pros far outweigh the cons. They’re often educational, easy to get involved with and of course, lots of fun.

“There is a game out there for everyone,” Anna says.

“If you’re wanting to get involved in gaming, I can guarantee there is something out there you’ll like. If you’re not sure where to start, just have a go – it’s about having fun.”

No matter your stance on video games, one thing is for sure – they’re here to stay.

Words by Elly Mackay, pictures supplied by Anna Tito.

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