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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Playing through the pandemic: More than just entertainment

How quarantine has influenced the gaming behaviors of Western students

Garnet Droppo, former president of the WWU Game Design Club, holds a video game controller at Western Washington University, in Bellingham, Wash. on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021. Since the pandemic started in March of 2020, many college students have turned to video games for recreation.
Garnet Droppo, former president of the WWU Game Design Club, holds a video game controller at Western Washington University, in Bellingham, Wash. on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021. Since the pandemic started in March of 2020, many college students have turned to video games for recreation. // Photo by Sadie Fick

By Cole Mumper

On March 10, 2020, Western Washington University canceled all in-person classes as Whatcom County saw its first positive COVID-19 case. With options for social interaction becoming limited, one might assume Western students would channel this time to another avenue, like video games.

Before quarantine, Drew Hardcastle, a fourth-year English literature major, and essential pharmacy worker played an average of two hours of video games every day, she said. Now, Hardcastle’s average video game play-time is roughly four hours every other day.

During the pandemic, Hardcastle has been trying to spend more time with her family, maintain her job and manage the growing responsibilities of college. Video games are a way for her to relieve stress as an essential worker, especially with everything closed down, Hardcastle said.

“I still play like every other day now because I work and school takes a lot of time out of my life, and I work a lot more than I did back then,” Hardcastle said.

Ian Cullum, the budget coordinator of the WWU Game Design Club, played video games for three hours a day before the pandemic. During that time, Cullum had a “revolving door situation” where people would come in and out of his dorm to play, he said. 

Cullum now plays video games for four hours a day and has started playing more multiplayer games, he said. Cullum said he also uses video games to try to recreate the same kind of things he did before the pandemic and to interact with his friends.

“Before it would have been, like, we would all hop on like, like my roommate’s Nintendo Switch and played [Super] Smash Bros. together,” Cullum said. “Instead now we play like, Brawlhalla, which is just, it’s basically, it’s a free alternative [Super] Smash Bros.” 

Garnet Droppo, former president of the WWU Game Design Club, said he played about eight to 12 hours of video games every week before the pandemic. When the pandemic began, that number jumped to 25 hours a week, Droppo said.

As the pandemic progressed, Droppo said his video game play had leveled off to roughly the same level as before, albeit slightly less. 

Droppo said he expected there to be a boom in video game usage until the end of the pandemic, which did spike briefly at the start of the pandemic and the summer when Animal Crossing: New Horizons, an island life simulator game featuring anthropomorphic animals, was released. 

Despite these brief spikes in playing video games, to Droppo it seemed to return to normal very shortly after. 

“I feel comfortable saying I was wrong,” Droppo said.

While video games are usually for recreation, during the pandemic another feature became important: The ability to interact with others virtually.  

Among Us, an online multiplayer game where a group has to complete their tasks while avoiding an alien imposter, which allowed people to meet up with their friends online, grew rapidly in popularity during the pandemic. Scratching the social itch, being easily accessible on smartphone and PC’s and allowing a low barrier to entry all contributed to its rise.

“I don’t necessarily play more video games now than before the pandemic, but I play more multiplayer games now to interact with friends,” Cullum said. 

Cullum noted a shift from a personalized gaming experience to one where he can use video games as a medium to interact with friends. 

Qiang Hao, a Western assistant professor in the computer science department, said video games can be used for more than just entertainment. “Serious games” are used to promote social good and focus on subjects like education. However, Hao said he has not seen any serious games garner popularity in the public sphere.

Although video games can be a useful tool to relieve stress and interact with friends during a pandemic, not everyone is included in the design. 

Yasmine El-Glaly, a Western assistant professor who studies accessible computing and human-computer interaction, said video games are tailored to the masses and often leave out people with disabilities. 

Some games do have accommodations for people with disabilities, like subtitles. People with disabilities want entertainment, to de-stress and a way to interact with their friends just as much as people without disabilities, however, they are often left out of the conversation, El-Glaly said. 

“It’s more about awareness, so many people are not aware of the needs of other people and many people fall into the trap that all other people, or at least most of them are similar to me,” El-Glaly said.
For gamers seeking community in these times of isolation, there are plenty of ways to link up remotely. The WWU Minecraft server is open to all students and the WWU Game Design Club is operating entirely through Discord during the pandemic.

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