The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have serious, far-reaching health and economic consequences. At the same time, the pandemic has been a time of great opportunity and prosperity for some – a time to capitalize on the advantages and ‘new normal’ of stay-at-home lifestyles. This appears particularly true for the video gaming industry, including its multi-billion-dollar operators in the home console market, Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft, and the mobile game giants Apple and Tencent. Since the beginning of the pandemic, these companies and others have thrived, reaching new heights of financial success.
The gaming boom during COVID is borne out in recent figures (Statista, 2020). In the early months of the pandemic, global spending on video games increased by 36%, including a 29% and 24% increase in the United States and Australia, respectively. Notably, there was a 155% increase in global spending on gaming consoles in March 2020, as many sought to own their first console or expand their gaming capabilities while in lockdown. Most players sought out novel gaming experiences, with 60% reporting that they were playing new or different games as opposed to their usual games. The game Animal Crossing on the Nintendo Switch, which features a peaceful village of anthropomorphic animals, sold more than 13 million copies in March 2020 and fueled a media narrative that gamers sought relaxing escapism and colorful whimsy to relieve stress and uncertainty (Khan, 2020). Other data indicated, however, that the greatest increase in time spent gaming was in the ‘fighting’ game genre, which increased by 30%, suggesting that many players may have desired a different kind of catharsis.
It is clear that many turned to gaming because it was seen to offer something of value during the pandemic. The benefits of gaming are well known, and it is likely that players were motivated to play for various reasons including, but not limited to, comfort and escapism, mental stimulation, to pass the time and stay socially connected, for stress relief, and to turn attention away from the pandemic. Moreover, as noted by Viana et al. (2020), some games (‘exergames’) enable rigorous physical exercise in the home environment, particularly desirable when gyms or outdoor fitness options were less available.
Early in the pandemic, the industry recognized that gaming could be leveraged to support public health objectives while serving its core business strategy of selling and promoting gaming products. A noteworthy example was the #PlayApartTogether social media campaign in April 2020 which encouraged people to stay indoors and play online games as a method of complying with social distancing and related guidelines. Although the campaign’s reach and efficacy are unclear and difficult to measure, it continues to be supported in 2021 by more than 80 gaming industry bodies.
The #PlayApartTogether campaign also sparked debates on ‘excessive’ gaming, in particular gaming disorder or ‘video game addiction’, a topic that has been contentious for more than three decades. The debate intensified following the World Health Organization’s decision in 2019 to recognize problem gaming under two distinct health problems, ‘Hazardous Gaming’ (QE22) and ‘Gaming Disorder’ (6C51), in the latest revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). Academic commentaries have included researchers in favor of the disorder (Rumpf et al., 2018) who cite epidemiological, neurobiological, and clinical evidence, while others are opposed (Aarseth et al., 2017), claiming that such evidence is inconclusive or flawed. Similarly, readers of The Amplifier Magazine may recall the June 2018 issue in which the Society for Media Psychology and Technology issued an official statement expressing opposition to the then-pending WHO decision, citing a concern that the disorder was “more a product of moral panic than good science.”
Regardless of one’s views on ICD-11 gaming disorder, most would agree that gaming is not always beneficial or innocuous. Recent studies have investigated ‘problem’ gaming in the COVID-19 context. The research base in this area is currently limited, possibly due to publication lag time and the lack of studies adequately positioned to track pre-pandemic player behavior and problem gaming over time. The available research reports the following observations:
1. Gaming time increased during the pandemic for all types of gamers, including non-problem and problem gamers – for example, Paschke et al. (2021) reported an increase of about 25-30%, as problem gamers increased their mean total screen time from 229 to 293 min/day and non-problem players increased from 116 to 155 min/day.
2. Adolescents’ gaming time increased to a greater degree among males and problem gamers than for other types of gamers – for example, Kim and Lee (2021) reported that players who met the criteria for gaming disorder reported a threefold increase in PC gaming time (from 58 to 173 min/day) as compared to other gamer subtypes with a less-than-twofold increase.
3. Mean endorsement of gaming disorder symptoms increased only marginally among adolescents – for example, Teng et al. (2021) reported that mean GD symptoms increased from 1.79 to 1.84 (effect size of .07) in Oct-Nov 2019 and March-April 2020, respectively.
This selected reading of the evidence presents only a snapshot of gaming and problem gaming in the age of COVID-19, with these data primarily sourced from participants during the early months of the pandemic. Gaming activity has clearly increased, but this increase does not appear to be associated with a proportionate increase in gaming-related problems. One might conclude that pandemic factors are not contributing greatly to problem gaming, which would be consistent with some research on problem gambling during COVID (Brodeur et al., 2021). However, many forms of land-based gambling also became less accessible or non-existent during this time. Another possibility is that gaming-related problems may take longer than just 1 or 2 months to develop and become severe and that a complete picture of the COVID effects is yet to emerge. The stress and disruption of the initial wave of the pandemic may also have overshadowed problems related to gaming. Another possibility is that problem gaming may become more detectable at such time when individuals have to ‘reset’ or re-adapt to pre-COVID lifestyles (e.g., returning to school), and gaming routines established during the pandemic are challenged. Current data examining these possibilities are not currently available.
The global gaming industry has enjoyed record-breaking profits in the context of a public health crisis, which has followed closely after the WHO decision to recognize problem gaming as a diagnostic category, an issue of public health concern. Industry support and cooperation with researchers could enable steps toward better science to serve the interests of both sides of the gaming disorder debate for improving efforts to respond to the needs of problematic users and promoting the benefits of recreational gaming that have existed before and during the pandemic and will so in the foreseeable future.
Aarseth, E., Bean, A. M., Boonen, H., Colder Carras, M., Coulson, M., Das, D., … & Van Rooij, A. J. (2017). Scholars’ open debate paper on the World Health Organization ICD-11 Gaming Disorder proposal. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 6, 267-270.
Brodeur, M., Audette-Chapdelaine, S., Savard, A. C., & Kairouz, S. (2021). Gambling and the COVID-19 pandemic: A scoping review. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 110389.
Chambers, Ray (@RaymondChambers). 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. 7:48am. Mar 29, 2020. Tweet.
Division 46 Committee. (June 2018). An Official** Division 46 Statement on the WHO Proposal to Include Gaming Related Disorders in ICD-11. The Amplifier Magazine, June 2018. Retrieved from: https://div46amplifier.com/2018/06/21/an-official-division-46-statement-on-the-who-proposal-to-include-gaming-related-disorders-in-icd-11/ (accessed 13 October 2021).
Khan, I. (April 2020). Why Animal Crossing Is the Game for the Coronavirus Moment. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/07/arts/animal-crossing-covid-coronavirus-popularity-millennials.html (accessed 13 October 2021).
Kim, D. & Lee, J. (2021). Addictive internet gaming usage among Korean adolescents before and after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic: A comparison of the latent profiles in 2018 and 2020. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(14), 7275.
Paschke, K., Austermann, M. I., Simon-Kutscher, K., & Thomasius, R. (2021). Adolescent gaming and social media usage before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sucht, 67, 13-22.
Rumpf, H. J., Achab, S., Billieux, J., Bowden-Jones, H., Carragher, N., Demetrovics, Z., … & Poznyak, V. (2018). Including gaming disorder in the ICD-11: The need to do so from a clinical and public health perspective: Commentary on A weak scientific basis for gaming disorder: Let us err on the side of caution (van Rooij et al., 2018). Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 7, 556-561.
Statista 2020 figures on gaming during COVID-19: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1106498/home-media-consumption-coronavirus-worldwide-by-country/
Teng, Z., Pontes, H. M., Nie, Q., Griffiths, M. D., & Guo, C. (2021). Depression and anxiety symptoms associated with internet gaming disorder before and during the COVID-19 pandemic: A longitudinal study. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 10(1), 169-180.
Viana, R. B., Vancini, R. L., Silva, W. F., Morais, N. S., De Oliveira, V. N., Andrade, M. S., & De Lira, C. A. (2021). Comment on: Problematic online gaming and the COVID-19 pandemic–The role of exergames. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 10. Doi: 10.1556/2006.2021.00014.
(Co-Editors’ Note: Daniel King was a recipient of the 2021 Distinguished Scientific Contributions to Media Psychology and Technology Award from the APA Society of Media Psychology and Technology.)