1 July 2020

The corona lockdown has changed our gaming patterns


Across the world, markedly more videogames are being played during the corona lockdown than before. A new study shows that our gaming patterns have changed during the lockdown and opens a discussion about gaming addiction.

Gaming (photo: pexels.com)

When the corona epidemic became global in mid-March and countries locked down one by one, users across the world logged into the videogame platform Steam to play. The USA has had a 75% increase in gaming, while Italy has seen a 70% increase in internet usage, mainly attributed to games such as Fortnite and Call of Duty. Steam, a popular gaming platform used world-wide, has beaten records with more than 20 million users online at the same time.

A new study in game use on Steam brings this trend into focus. The study recounts that the number of concurrent users on Steam increased by approx. 30% during the lockdown period.

Anna Sapienza, postdoc at SODAS and principal researcher of the study, sees the increase in gaming as an expression of this form of entertainment being both including, engaging, and social.

“If Zoom can be compared to going to a café with friends, gaming can be compared to meeting one another over a social activity. Several people have told me that they began to game again to chat with friends.”

More people are online on Steam during weekdays

The study also shows that the patterns of being online on Steam have changed. Before COVID-19 became global in mid-March, more users were online on Steam (see figure: n. users in Steam) during weekends than during weekdays. During the lockdown period, this difference has completely vanished when considering the number of users online on Steam. The weekend-weekday pattern is still clear when considering users actively playing a game though (see figure: n. users in Game), suggesting that Steam is kept open in the background even when we are not playing.

When a growing number of people have the gaming platform Steam open in the background, both during weekends and weekdays, how does this affect our ability to stay focused?

“Although gaming in most instances is nice and fun, we need to keep possible negative aspects in mind,” Anna Sapienza warns.

“Gaming can disrupt our schedule and distract from our work. When we work from home, where there are no peers and fewer boundaries imposed on us from our immediate environment, it can be easier to get distracted and continue gaming.”

Figure 1: Daily concurrent users on Steam and In-Game

Figure: Number of dayly concurrent users on Steam (red line) and In-Game (orange line)
Figure 1: Number of daily concurrent users on Steam (red line) and In-Game (orange line).

Things other than popularity play a role in the games we choose to play during lockdown

Another remarkable find in the study is that a few very popular games account for a large amount of all players world-wide. The three most popular games, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Dota 2, and PLAYERUNKNOWNS BATTLEGROUNDS, account for a total of 37.5% of users on Steam.

However, it has surprised the researchers behind the study that these games are not the ones to see the largest relative increase in usage during the corona lockdown.

“We had expected that there would be a large increase in gaming, but at the same time we thought that this increase would be distributed somewhat evenly across all games. This turned out not to be the case,” Anna Sapienza explains.

“It is especially noteworthy that the three top-ranking games are so far down on the list. PLAYERUNKNOWNS BATTLEGROUNDS has even seen a fall in usage.” (see the figure below)

Anna Sapienza points out that this may reflect that things other than popularity play a role in the games we choose to play during lockdown.

The study also highlights that gaming companies have attempted to ride on the wave of lockdown boredom and they therefore also play a role in capturing our attention. As an example, the game Football Manager has been released for free, and the fact that many are spending more time at home has been used in advertising campaigns. Also the relative increases in usage of the games Stellaris and Cities: Skylines (see the figure below) are driven by new releases, free periods, and other marketing strategies.

Anna Sapienza sees the study as a possibility to discuss pros and cons of gaming:

“Games are made to keep people engaged. It is worth keeping an eye on whether the intense and drastic increase in time spent gaming during the lockdown may lead to later problems for vulnerable individuals – especially children. For us, this study is an opportunity to bring the discussion of distraction and gaming addiction into focus and have an open reflection of the pros and cons of the tendency we see.”

Figure 2:  Development in concurrent active users during the lockdown

Figure: the percentual increase in concurrent active users during the lockdown period compared to the period before locdown
Figure 2: The percentual increase in concurrent active users during the lockdown period compared to the period before lockdown.

Read the full blog post about the study on SODAS’ blog about the corona crisis.