The pandemic happened to all of us. And while the early sentiment that we were all in this together fell apart in the United States due to the deeper diseases of individualism and capitalism, people still craved ways to connect with other humans. In the first weeks of the stay-at-home orders, these attempts to socialize took the form of “happy hour” Zoom calls. And they were awful. People need distractions and structure to mitigate the pressures of spending time together. You get that with TVs or games at the bar or with (I’m assuming) the racist jokes while golfing. And video games are the best way to re-create that experience online.
The reason we turned to video conferencing first, however, is that games can have a high barrier to entry. Zoom was appealing because you could simply send someone a link and they could join you from almost any computing device. You cannot send an invite for Destiny, Dota, and World of Warcraft to your grandpa and expect him to know what to do next.
While all of gaming saw gains across nearly ever metric in 2020, Among Us stands out as the key example of what people sought out of games this year.
Among Us works because it provides the exact right amount of structure that people want from a social setting. It’s a game about working together to complete tasks while one or two people are secretly trying to sabotage your team. Like a jukebox at the bar or golfing, the activity is fuel to keep people interacting. Our interactions with the structure give us more to talk about with one another. And as a game, Among Us isn’t much more than that. Its most important characteristic as a game is that, like golf or darts, it’s still fun even if you’re bad at it or if you’ve been drinking.
The success of Among Us is that it empowers people to connect in fun ways. This distinguishes the modern genre of “social games” from the Facebook and mobile apps that we used to give that designation. Those games were about leveraging your social bonds to unlock rewards in games. In Clash of Clans, you need to encourage everyone in your clan to keep coming back to ensure you remain competitive.
For those older games, the social hooks exist to benefit the developer by pressuring players to boost engagement. In Among Us, socialization is the reward.
Of course, all of this only works because Among Us is also easy to access. It’s available on Steam and Switch for $5, but it’s also free on mobile. So it’s just a matter of convincing friends and family with smartphones to download an app. And even if they’re on a phone playing for free, they can still join games with people on PC or Switch.
By removing the barriers and facilitating human interactions, Among Us is one of the games that defined 2020.
Among Us seems like the most democratic form of the social game, and it’s the one I am most likely to suggest when extended family try to get me on a holiday video call. But it’s not the only game that reflected the trend toward social experiences in 2020.
Roblox is a free-to-play platform for user-generated games that has millions of young players, and its success is baked into its DNA. While many people of all ages turned to Among Us, Roblox was also winning over a lot of school-aged children. And it did so for many of the same reasons as Among Us.
But Roblox is a game about expression. The kids in its audience designed most of the hundreds of games that you can play through the Roblox platform. This turns it into something like a metaverse with its own trends, unspoken rules, and fashion. And more importantly, it’s a metaverse that kids often understand much more deeply than their parents.
Children thrive on developing expertise in spaces that seem foreign to their caregivers. It gives kids the sense that they have a place in the world that they can own and control. Roblox takes that concept to an extreme.
Animal Crossing is similar to Roblox. It provides an environment for self-expression but one that also has strict rules and restrictions. And while that can make the act of moving your house in the game feel like a time-consuming chore, it also encourages communication between players.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is not a great online multiplayer game. Nintendo is still bad at that. But what makes it a social game isn’t about playing together. Animal Crossing thrives when players struggle against the game’s systems and then takes those frustrations, stories, and desires to discuss them with other people playing Animal Crossing.
The socialization of Animal Crossing comes from asking friends if they have a certain recipe or piece of furniture. It’s also about having an encounter with animal villager and relaying that story on social media to other fans.
Structure is crucial to providing the framework for humans to socialize, and Animal Crossing is nothing but rigid structures. We cannot help but want to compare and contrast our experiences with people also struggling to take control over these immovable systems.
The pandemic deprived us of so much, and through that these games found ways to fill the void.
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