Quarantine Has Made Video Games About More Than Escapism
Video games are an escapist medium. That's what everyone always says. And it's true! They allow us to be whoever or whatever we want, no matter the realm of possibility. Wizards, monsters, survivors in the post-apocalypse, anthropomorphic marsupials named Crash – we can be anything. We can escape our day-to-day routines and problems, and we can live a life beyond our wildest expectations.
In 2020, this is perhaps essential. Between COVID-19, election season, and a constant barrage of bad news, reality is bleak. Exacerbating everything is the fact that, you can’t really leave your house unless you can help it, due to the risk of spreading or catching the virus. There has perhaps never been a better time in modern history to want to escape into the fantasy worlds of video games to just give ourselves a break from it all.
But despite all of this, I find myself wanting to draw my time in quarantine out, to make time go slower. I’m still escaping in a way, but not in the ways I used to. Rather than hide in a make-believe world by myself, I want to inhabit worlds with other people, I want to live in those moments and conversations.
Before this year, before the pandemic, I rarely played multiplayer games. Historically, single-player games have always been more my style. I love games that I can lose hours or days to, isolating myself from the world. Hell, I don't even like other people being in the same room as me when I'm playing a game. I don't want anything getting in the way of my time in a virtual world and with its story. That's how it's always been for me, until now.
When the coronavirus started hitting the United States hard earlier this year, my life fundamentally changed within days. I'm a double cancer survivor, and because of this I'm immunocompromised. On top of that, I have respiratory issues. I am firmly in the at-risk camp for COVID-19. More bluntly: If I were to catch the virus, that'd basically be it for me. When cases first started sweeping the country, I immediately had to isolate myself from the rest of the world, and I continued doing so as things got worse. Outside of the people I live with, I can't see any friends or family. I can't even go down the street to get a coffee. Of course, this isn't unique to me; anyone intelligent also isn't going around seeing people like they used to. But the restrictions placed on someone in my camp are harsh. I never thought I'd get F.O.M.O. from hearing someone is going to the grocery store. Physically, I’ve never been more alone. Socially, I don’t think I’ve ever been better.
Every single day, one of four people texts me saying some variation of the same thing. "It's time to get the W." Once that text comes in, myself and everyone else in my group chat assembles. It's time to hang out. It's time to see my friends … kind of. I don't actually see them; I only see their avatars in Call of Duty: Warzone, the stand-alone battle royale mode for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. But I hear them, and that's important. That's good. It's what I wait all day for. I'm waiting for it right now, to be honest. If I can't go over to their houses or see them in person, then dropping into Verdansk and shooting people will (and does) more than suffice.
I don't blame anyone for trying to escape from everything going on right now. How could you? This sucks, man! But for me, I find I no longer want to escape my day-to-day. When my quarantine first started, I couldn’t wait for a day to be over. I’d sleep in, take naps throughout the day, and go to bed early. I played single player games that I knew would take me a ton of time to complete. I put 124 hours and 22 minutes into Persona 5 Royal in less than two months just trying to make my days disappear. It was a disaster on my mental health.
Now, I don’t do that so much. I’m still trying to escape the bleakness of the world around me, but not in a way where I want it to all disappear. When I finally get the chance to talk to my friends, I want to be in those moments because I want to hear about what they’re up to, to talk as best we can like things are normal, to maintain those relationships despite the time and distance. And it’s working! I’ve never felt closer to my friends I play Warzone with, some of whom I’ve known for more than 15 years, which is a wild thing to think about. It’s also nice to just talk to people about how much everything sucks right now. Misery loves company.
It's a bit of a romantic view of friendship during a pandemic, but it's also something to hold on to. And that feels really important right now. Playing Warzone, racking up kills, going for the W (pronounced here as "dub," meaning "win"), none of that is really all that important to me. If circumstances were different, I don't think I'd even play Warzone. It is super not for me. It's macho, aggressive, and online-only. It encourages players to be hostile and violent, to shoot first and think second. It's the antithesis to the kinds of games I play. I should hate Warzone, but it's my favorite game in years. It just has very little — if anything, really — to do with the game itself. It has everything to do with the people I play that game with. Whenever someone has to log off, I genuinely get upset.
I'm still keeping up with the big releases of the year. I'm working through Mafia: Definitive Edition right now (I very much agree with Jeff Cork's review) and I absolutely cannot wait for Yakuza: Like A Dragon to launch in November. I'm getting excited for the new consoles to come out, too. I'm still dipping into fantasy worlds, still gaming the way I used to. What's changed, though, is the primary reason I come to video games these days. In the midst of what's maybe the worst period of my lifetime in history, I no longer want to consume myself in a fake reality free from my own, to make time go as fast as possible. I want to be aware of the time I have in Warzone. I don't want to escape my reality right now, because it's all I have.