I thought playing video games was unproductive – until coronavirus

Diving into the game.
Diving into the game.
Image: Activision
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I’ve never felt better about staying home and playing video games.

That’s probably because it’s one of only a few things I can do at the moment. Before social distancing, whenever I would take a few hours to sit on the couch to play games, I’d feel icky afterwards, like it was time I should have spent being more active. But now I don’t feel guilty. In fact, I feel great. Playing video games—and watching other people play video games—has been a reliable defense against quarantine-induced anxiety, if only for a couple hours at a time.

Not long after Quartz closed its New York office and my colleagues and I all began working from home, I downloaded Warzone, the new, free-to-play game mode of the popular first-person shooter franchise, Call of Duty. Like Fortnite, Warzone is a “battle royale”—lots of people parachute into a large, topographically diverse map, which serves as the game’s Hunger Games style arena. You run around, loot weapons and ammo caches, and hunt (or hide from) other players. The map slowly shrinks, forcing players into tighter quarters, until only one team is left.

It is, undoubtedly, macabre. But, for me, Warzone has been something of a miracle during this crisis, especially because I get to play it with friends.

For a few hours after work most days of quarantine, I’ve hopped onto Warzone and played with a good friend from college, who now lives in the United Kingdom. I’m far from the only one to discover (or rediscover) a passion for gaming: According to Verizon, video game usage is up 75% on its network since the outbreaks of coronavirus began in the US.

As I told Quartz at Work reporter Lila MacLellan in last week’s Quartzy newsletter, beyond serving as a fleeting distraction, gaming has literally given me a sense of control at a time when everything else feels out of my control. You can listen to the experts, stay at home, wash your hands. You can minimize your risk of getting infected and infecting others. Ultimately, though, it’s not entirely up to us. The virus will do what it does. It doesn’t help that in the US, at least, the government’s bungled response to the pandemic only adds to the anxiety.

But the act of using my fingers to press buttons on a controller, which correspond to movements and actions in the game, gives me some control back, some sense that my decisions have consequences in this virtual world. It’s small, but valuable.

The most unexpected part of all this is it’s introduced me to the streaming community on Twitch—a world that was utterly foreign to me just weeks ago.

Playing so much Warzone led me to Twitch, the Amazon-owned streaming platform, where millions of viewers tune in every day to watch popular streamers like DrDisrespect and TimTheTatman play games all day. I knew of Twitch and was vaguely aware of gaming figures like Ninja, but I had never intentionally watched its content. If playing games myself felt like a waste of time, then watching other people play them was an order of magnitude worse.

Now, I totally get the appeal.

Video game streaming is a weirdly unique blend of gaming, live podcasting, and, at times, stand-up comedy. Streamers share their screens with everyone watching them, which is often more than 30,000 people at once for the most popular channels. If they’re playing a game, then you watch them play it from their perspective. If they pull up a YouTube video or simply have their desktop open, you see that too. Usually, they’ll also point a video camera at their faces, which feeds into a separate, smaller box inside the screen they’re sharing. So you can watch them as they watch and play things. It’s like being in their living room.

Watching is free, but in order to access some additional features, you need to pay for a $5 monthly subscription to their channel. (Some streamers restrict the live chat to subscribers only, for instance.) Viewers can also donate money with an accompanying message, which streamers will often read live on air—if it’s appropriate.

Some of the streamers on Twitch are genuinely entertaining. They didn’t amass thousands of subscribers by accident. DrDisrespect, a character performed by former game designer Guy Beahm and one of the platform’s most popular personalities, has signed with Hollywood talent agency CAA and seems destined to crossover into TV or film. Many channels—his included—have surprisingly good production values with custom graphics and professional lighting. It’s not all just people webcamming from the couch. You can see the time and energy put into the trade. They put on a live, one-person talk show, pretty much everyday, and it can last hours at a time.

Many will surely roll their eyes at the notion of watching other people play video games all day. But I’ve found that’s not really why most people watch. At least, that’s not why I continue to. Rather, it’s the bizarre intimacy, the unmatched access you have to these people. Viewers can interact with them in realtime, like they’re your actual friend hanging out with you at home. It’s a virtual hangout session. That appeals to introverts at all times, but especially at this particular moment in history, when the online world is the only place where it’s safe to socialize.

The communities on Twitch tend to reflect the personalities of each streamer. DrDisrespect—a satirical cross between a WWE performer and a 1980s action movie villain—tends to attract the type of viewer who might look up to such a person (his live chat, at least to my eye, reads like the mad ramblings of a bunch of pre-teen and teenage boys). And, to be sure, some of these communities can be deeply toxic. At its worst, video game culture can be a racist, misogynist, and homophobic cesspool. Many streamers don’t tolerate that kind of behavior and have moderators who enforce strict rules in the chat. But some are more lax than others, and a few even encourage the toxicity. It’s not hard to figure out which ones do and don’t.

Perhaps it’s because of the sense of solidarity created by near universal quarantine, or perhaps I’ve just been lucky, but I haven’t encountered many bad apples since getting into gaming. Last week, I watched NBA players Devin Booker, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Kyle Kuzma play Warzone together for a Covid-19 charity relief stream. This past weekend, Twitch hosted a “stream aid” event with several celebrity streamers, including John Legend and Joe Jonas. They raised $3 million for the World Health Organization.

I don’t know if I’ll keep gaming and Twitching when this is all over (certainly not at this pace). But, for now, it has provided me and countless others a safe alternative to socializing—a real feeling of camaraderie at a time when we all could use some.