Dec 22, 2020 - Technology

Video games offered a lifeline in 2020

Illustration of a pattern of repeating d-pads stylized as red health pluses.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Video games have long provided players with a chance to escape reality, but in 2020, they took on much larger roles, serving as exercise companions and social gathering places — filling urgent needs in this coronavirus-altered year.

Why it matters: 2020's transformations will likely outlast the pandemic. While some people who boosted their video game use this year will scale back, others will keep gaming in a central place in their lives.

The big picture: If 2019 was the year that parents got serious about screen time limits, 2020 was the year those limits went out the window.

  • For many students, especially teens and tweens, recess and breaks meant more screen time — including using games like Roblox and Minecraft as ways to socialize while physically distant.

That drove usage figures through the roof.

  • Minecraft, for example, saw a nearly 90% increase in multiplayer sessions following the start of the pandemic.
  • In October, Roblox pulled in a world record 1.7 million concurrent players to Adopt Me!, the most popular game on its platform.
  • By November, engagement on Xbox Game Pass, Microsoft’s subscription game service, had more than doubled from a year earlier, the company reports.

Games like Minecraft and Roblox filled in as virtual substitutes for shuttered concert halls and canceled Thanksgiving gatherings. Xbox recently launched a campaign to get older people in on gaming to connect with their grandkids.

  • Active games like Just Dance and Fitness Boxing served two very important functions at once, combining fun and a workout.
  • And, of course, video games continued to play their customary part, transforming us from couch potatoes to superheroes, star athletes — or even, in the case of the extremely popular Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a creature ruling and customizing, an island.

Between the lines: While gaming had a huge year, it wasn't in all the ways you might think.

  • The Nintendo Switch, which works as both a portable game device and as a TV set-top console, was the best-selling video game system, even after the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X hit the market last month.
  • Those new consoles were in short supply, so it's not like people didn't want them. But the three-year-old Switch has versatility and affordability that made it especially suited to the pandemic year — and it, too, was frequently sold out or in short supply all year.
  • Virtual reality still hasn't broken through to the masses, but after years of underperforming expectations, it made important, if quiet, gains, led by the debut of Facebook's Oculus Quest 2. The Quest showed itself capable of delivering impressive exercise apps, virtual concerts and even some forays into workplace collaboration.

What's next: Expect gaming to return somewhat to its roots next year, as the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X become more widely available. The pricey consoles will sell in large numbers, but largely to those who have been attracted to console gaming in the past.

  • We'll be watching what happens to the pandemic gamers — whether those who picked up a controller or headset out of boredom will keep playing after they get vaccinated.

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