In recent days, outlets like the Washington Post and BBC published articles talking about one of the few bright spots amidst the pandemic. Kids are getting outdoors more and engaging with the world around them in new ways. It is clear that kids enjoy the freedom of being outside and the opportunity to express themselves. Families have reported that spending time together exploring boosts inquisitiveness and communication.
Of course, while this is wonderful, it certainly is not a universal experience. Many kids and families have not been able to experience this bright spot for a variety of reasons. Some families have physical and health limitations to contend with, and others simply do not live in an environment that would allow for kids to get outside and roam around safely.
Some kids and families rely on video games to give them an outlet during the pandemic. If you’re reading this site, you probably fall into the group of people who have learned to use gaming in new ways. We’ve had to use gaming to fill needs that have otherwise been occupied by activities like meeting up with friends or going for a walk.
Everyone is needing more from their games right now, especially people with disabilities. I want to articulate some concrete decisions that developers and consumers can make when it comes to games to support this shift. I think the changes in the cultural and personal significance of games will remain even after the pandemic. This is partially because the societal changes that the pandemic has necessitated will be needed in some form until a vaccine is widely available. Second, we have all become accustomed to games now filling such an important role in our lives.
To explain how gaming has changed during the pandemic, I want to start with a basic understanding of the motivations people have to play games. In 1996, Richard Bartle wrote a paper, proposing a theory that classified Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) players into a coordinate plane defined by an Y-axis ranging from Active to Interactive and an X-axis ranging from Players to World. This graph creates four quadrants that Bartle titled Achievers, Explorers, Socializers, and Killers, where he compared them to playing card suits. The Achievers are the Diamonds, who seek out high scores, collectibles, and other in-game rewards. The Explorers are the Spades, who like to dig around to experience the game world, learn about the environment, and experiment with new mechanics. The Socializers are the Hearts, who thrive on connecting to other players and interacting with people through the game. Finally, the Killers are the Clubs, who enjoy demonstrating skill and mastery over other players and rising to the top of the leaderboards.
I’ll include some resources to learn more about Bartle’s Taxonomy at the end of the article. One of the links I’m including is a fun quiz to help you figure out your Bartle type. Something I love about the quiz is it shows you percentages for each player category, not just your primary category. People are not archetypes, and it is important to acknowledge that individuals are much more nuanced and complex than even the most instructive theory. Bartle’s Taxonomy, even nearly 25 years later, has much to teach us about how games work and how we work while gaming. However, given the shift in needs during the pandemic, we need to learn how to use this theory in a new way that incorporates the full nuance and complexity of each player.
Adapting games to a changed world
As important as it is for parents to understand that children’s needs may have changed slightly, it’s equally important for game developers to understand this and act on it.
One of the most obvious differences in gaming during the pandemic is that we need new ways to socialize. People who aren’t normally Socializers have been looking for ways to connect. To support this need, large studios should think about implementing online and local multiplayer into games, thus beginning to abandon the single player genre. Even within multiplayer, we need additional options for how to play with others. Gamers may want to play with people they already know or play with randoms to try to make some new friends. Particularly now, it’s important to be able to adjust settings so that players of different levels of skill and game literacy can play together. These settings can allow parents and kids to play together as well as friend groups with gamers and non-gamers.
Beyond added opportunities to connect, everyone needs opportunities to explore and be creative, regardless of their primary Bartle type. This is particularly important for people with disabilities who may have limited opportunities to socialize. Adding story or creative modes that eliminate enemies or other hazards can be great when adding new ways for players to interact with the game. If those modes also allow multiplayer, those games can serve double duty as virtual neighborhood sandboxes that can encourage the same exploration and creativity kids get from playing outdoors.
Even simply finding ways to add replayability can go a long way to making games serve players better during the pandemic. I probably talk about Splatoon way too much, but Splatoon is a good example of what I’m talking about here. In the single-player campaign, the levels can each be replayed with one of nine different weapons. Once the player has completed the entire campaign with a particular weapon, that weapon is unlocked for use in online multiplayer. This adds hours and hours of optional content with relatively little effort. The rewards do not need to be large for them to appeal to the Achievers within us, particularly during a pandemic when we’re looking for opportunities to keep playing our favorite games and feel like we have a goal to work towards. Before the pandemic, we might have complained that similar mechanics were useless padding, but now we may welcome the extra content.
Packing games with mechanics that serve every possible desire of the player undoubtedly adds depth, but it’s also expensive and time-consuming. These strategies may be completely unrealistic for smaller studios, but there are still approaches that smaller studios can use to make games serve players better. Smaller studios may have more flexibility in designing their games because they aren’t tied to a major yearly franchise. This flexibility can be used to make games that are more quirky and experimental. I anticipate gamers will be more willing to try out new ideas, especially ones that can create interesting intersections of mechanics. Variety is one of the keys to living in quarantine. Opportunities to try out new and creative concepts can go a long way towards breaking up monotony. Games like Untitled Goose Game, Snake Pass, Octodad, Hyperdot, What the Golf?, I am Bread, Catlateral Damage, Surgeon Simulator, and Far From Noise are examples that come to mind.
Of course, it’s pretty difficult to give concrete ideas about how to make innovative games, but I do find it interesting that many of these games take inspiration from nature or outdoor activities. If I were a developer, and there is certainly a reason that I am NOT a developer, I would explore types of movement that aren’t possible in the home. I would also look for non-traditional playable characters to help spark some mental creativity from players.
Put together, gamers are looking for increased nuance and depth. We are looking for activities that will make us think, let us relax, connect with friends, meet new people, and help us feel accomplished. In essence, all of the experiences we needed before the pandemic, we are now seeking from games. This is a big ask of developers who are dealing with the same work-from-home situations as everyone else; however, I think there is more than enough evidence to make the business case for games that are tailored to pandemic gaming styles. I also hope that parents and consumers will take some time to think about the role of games in this post-pandemic world to ensure we support and play games that help us navigate these tough times.