Life in lockdown: why video game worlds are more important than ever

Heidi Nicholas - April 18th 2020

There’s a moment in Red Dead Redemption 2 — after a gruelling trek over the mountains, a quick tussle with those damn O’Driscolls and a few minutes running in circles in the snow and marvelling at the physics of it — when the game drops you off in the true open world. You’ve been guided somewhat safely through the tutorial and now: that’s it. You can go anywhere and do anything. You’re set loose in the 1800s Wild West, and the whole world is yours. Thanks to the morally questionable nature of your gang and their erratic lifestyle, you’re not even tied to a particular way of living or type of behaviour.

It’s the same with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. After your initial stint in White Orchard, the whole world opens up: endless stretches of unknown wilderness, rustling trees, and only the pink and gold sunset as your limit. And with Skryim: a game and a world in which you can really get lost. You’re nudged out of the starting area, newly equipped with your tutorial skills, and — you’re off. The world is completely unexplored, your first proper quest is glittering up ahead, and you’ve got no idea what you’re in for.

With everything going on in the real world right now, and with more people finding themselves at home, unable to get outside like before, perhaps cut off from their usual forms of distraction, or just struggling with what continues to be a scary situation — that sense of escapism is more important now than ever.

Some members of the Red Dead Redemption 2 subreddit have mentioned how they aren't even playing the game actively, but just moseying through the landscape and enjoying the scenery and the feeling of being outside — while being stuck indoors. In Red Dead 2, Rockstar made a living, breathing environment that existed outside of Arthur Morgan: carcasses decay and attract predators, storms cover the sky, and animals set out hunting regardless of the presence of a single grumpy cowpoke. It’s easier to forget the onset of cabin fever when you’re playing a game that lets you travel cross-country and across states with nothing but your faithful steed and your tent.

Before some of the more stringent social distancing and lockdown precautions were put in place, we had a quick poll about how your gaming habits had already changed due to everything going on. Some of you said you were replaying old favourites, and it’s easy to see why. Returning to a game like Skyrim has never been more inviting, especially now it combines that much-needed escapism with a sense of familiar comfort. The increasing complexity and capacity of recent games means that there’s more and more space for your imagination to exist within them. You’re able to immerse yourself as entirely as you’d like, creating a new adventure like our Skyrim grandma, or diving into every hidden bit of lore to rebuild yourself as the Dragonborn.

Other responses to our poll included trying new genres or playing more Xbox Game Pass games, and it’s possible that this sudden combination of time at home and the desire to use that time to play games might allow previously sidelined genres to get their turn back in the limelight. Walking simulators, for example; what might once have been overlooked for something with more action or combat can now double up as a sort of mental exercise and excursion into a new world. What Remains of Edith Finch is already a fan favourite, but perhaps players might return to it now, and not just for the story, but for what else it has to offer: the gradual exploration of a chunk of a fictional world, and the snapshot of one family’s history within it. Other titles, such as Eastshade, offer just as much escapism, especially if you’re after something that isn’t riddled with ominous tension. Without the option to go outside, combat- and stress-free games offer a welcome alternative.

The World Health Organisation — which had previously recognised “gaming disorder” as a disease — has now launched the Play Apart Together campaign to encourage such measures as physical distancing. More and more gaming companies are urging players to stay at home, even as lockdown measures continue. The fact that there are more players at home, and that more of those players are able to resort to digital purchases even if unable to go outside, means that the games industry will most likely remain in a relatively strong position. It seems that the general view of video games and gamers is now a little softened, as opposed to the previous arguments against gaming, which gave rise to endless video game violence memes.

Aside from the increasing complexity of games — like The Witcher 3, which moves entirely away from “good” or “bad” options and into morally ambiguous grey areas which leave you stressing over your decisions hours later — there’s an increasing awareness of the portrayal and treatment of mental health issues which elevates the medium still further. Games such as Hellblade tackle the depiction of mental illness through a medium which would allow others to view the experience in a similar fashion, and Ninja Theory has now moved a step further: their Insight Project aims to promote well being through the combination of game design and neuroscience. They’re looking at creating gaming experiences which will help players recognise mental health issues and learn to overcome fears and anxieties. Games are challenging players with puzzles, obstacles, and choices, leading them to test their skills, imagination, decision making, and moral compasses in increasingly detailed and complex settings. And now, they’re providing a method of escaping into another world, just as players are starting to need that more than ever.

It's important to take care of yourself while you're following the necessary social distancing and lockdown precautions, and that includes, if you feel like it, escaping into an entirely different universe. There's something very comforting about the fact that each game offers a new world, and even if you don't feel like taking up the responsibilities of the Dovahkiin, you can still find a beautiful bit of landscape or some other avenue to let your mind wander. Take care of yourselves, folks.

More information and advice regarding the coronavirus and mental health is available at the NHS website and Mind.