Six years ago, Kristopher Alexander was ranking globally in Street Fighters III and ranked first in Canada for competing in Lightseekers, an online trading game.
He’s always told people that the esports industry was the future for education, but many people didn’t believe him — until schools in Toronto went into lockdown for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, Alexander is an assistant professor at Ryerson University, whose research stems around video games and esports infrastructure. According to him, this year saw a drastic rise in people playing multiplayer games.
“I seemed crazy until March 12 [this year],” said Alexander. Since then, media outlets across the GTA have been reaching out to him to talk about the non-violent components of video games and how they’re benefiting students by keeping them connected through quarantine and rising social regulations.
“I, myself, as [both] audience and consumer, can understand a lot of the consumption that is going on out there,” said Alexander.
One of the few things that has kept students connected throughout self-isolation and lockdowns in Ontario is not just Zoom calls to relatives or online schooling —it’s video games.
“Video game playing has gone up 75 per cent,” he said. Just one week after Ontario had issued a two week lockdown, it was reported that video game playing had dramatically gone up due to quarantine.
According to Alexander, with people holed up in their homes, there has been a sharp hike in people playing video games on live streaming platforms such as Twitch.
“[This year]Twitch viewership is up exponentially,” said Alexander. “In 2019, at any time of day, there was an average of roughly 978,000 viewers.”
Steam, an online gaming platform that has over 17 million users, hosts over 30,000 video games and allows indie developers to release their games to broad audiences. This allows more users to use their services when they are just starting out with online gaming.
It goes without saying that the pandemic has taken a toll on students across the globe. It’s an even more bitter pill for Ryerson students to swallow as some are still coping with the fact that they might not be returning to their classrooms until Fall 2021.
“Video games are saving tons of people right now,” said Alexander. According to him, people are using games to form connections with other human beings, sans physical contact.
“Part of the return to video games has stemmed from this idea of ‘I’m not allowed to go out, how else can I connect with people?’”
Online gaming has been a great way for students to not only stay connected, but to destress from the pressure of online classes.
“It’s replacing the social interaction we would have in class by just playing games together with people,” said Julian Sanchez, a second-year Ryerson mechanical engineering student.
Sanchez has been playing multiplayer games ever since he got his first Xbox 360 console in 2011. He is also a member of the Ryerson eSports club, joining the club last month in order to meet new people with the same interests.
“I never knew [Ryerson eSports] existed until recently, to be honest,” said Sanchez. Due to quarantine, live tournaments have been transferred online exclusively, yet that hasn’t stopped the club from competing against other schools.
This year, one of his go-to games has been Among Us, a 2018 indie game developed by InnerSloth. According to him, the game is a favourite among engineering students at Ryerson.
By playing the game, Julian says that he went from knowing five people in his program to almost 20, and it’s all because he joined different Discord servers to play Among Us.
Among Us, released in 2018, is a social deduction game that allows up to 10 players to work as members of a space crew who must complete tasks to finish a mission.
The catch is, there is an imposter on board. You have to complete tasks to win the game with your crew, but the imposter’s mission is to kill off each crewmate. The game’s popularity skyrocketed during the summer of 2020.
“It allows us to participate in a space that we can do things that we actually couldn’t do in real life, without the social repercussions of the real world,” says Alexander.
What makes a popular multiplayer game?
There are major differences when it comes to these video games. According to Alexander, games like Animal Crossing and Fall Guys have lots of similarities due to its friendly and easygoing atmosphere that attract similar audiences.
Meanwhile, those who play Among Us are a part of an audience that clearly enjoy the “backstabbing nature without any real-life consequences”
“It doesn’t matter if we’re chopping trees [or] swapping fruits. It doesn’t matter if we are stabbing each other behind the back,” said Alexander. “We are doing something together and that is a sense of companionship, one of the only mediums that can provide that right now is video games.”
Regardless of gaming preferences, it’s clear that 2020 has seen a dramatic rise in the use of multiplayer games as a way to connect with others, both experienced and beginners.
Leah MacLaughlin, a first-year journalism student at Ryerson, has been playing multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games with her friends for the last five years.
“Multiplayer games are nice, because it’s like you’re playing together,” said MacLaughlin. Having her senior year of high school and first year of university shadowed by a quarantine and strict health regulations, MacLaughlin has used multiplayer games to stay connected with her friends and her boyfriend.
By playing various games like A Town of Salem, Mafia and various role-playing games (RPGs), it allows her to connect with smaller groups of friends, rather than using the larger platforms that are offered by Among Us and Animal Crossing.
“I do like single player games, but I get really bored alone. Even if I am in a single player game, I just always love having somebody to talk to.”
Alexander explained that there are two areas of interest that attract both beginners and experienced gamers to these games: accessibility within gaming consoles and price.
“The fact that [Among Us] is on so many platforms, there is a lower barrier to entry to play it, rather than Fall Guys and/or Animal Crossing,” said Alexander.
The appeal behind Among Us is that it’s free for iPhone and Android and only $5.69 on Steam, making it more financially accessible for large groups of people to download these games and play together.
One of these groups is the My Networking Club (MNC) at Ryerson, a club that is dedicated to helping its members establish connections with other students to encourage network building. Students have used the game to keep members of the club connected during virtual schooling.
“I started out with playing Fortnite with my friends,” said Emily Chan, a second-year accounting and finance student who started gaming more since joining MNC.
Chan believes that multiplayer games have allowed members to see a different side to one another, one that is not seen everyday behind laptop screens through zoom meetings.
“Considering that I don’t know a lot of people because I’m relatively new to the club as well, [Among Us] allows a stronger bond and a stronger relationship. I’m not afraid to approach new people from different departments.”
Waqar Syed, the vice-president of internal affairs at MNC, sent out a post asking students if they would be interested in playing Among Us.
Waqar has had a lot of experience playing multiplayer games like Call of Duty and FIFA and he thought Among Us would be a great way to build working relationships with everyone in the group, especially when it comes to building team chemistry.
“A lot of people had a positive response back and they wanted to join in and talk to more team members or meet new people,” he said.
Daniel Sun and Bryan Reinoso, co-presidents of MNC and third-year accounting students, noticed the great impact of inviting students to play games together.
“We think that Among Us is that centerpiece that allows us to be expressive and communicate who we are,” he said. Sun also found himself playing more games this year then he has in the past.
“There are multiple factors, and we can’t just zero in on just one,” said Alexander when talking about what draws in new gamers. The community aspect plays an important part when newcomers start a new game, he says.
To Alexander, the thing that draws many gamers to multiplayer games are the communities that are behind it. The internet has played a major role in connecting people unlike the Atari, Sega Genesis and Sony era of gaming.
While these gaming companies gained popularity for defining the gaming industry, in-home gaming consoles and establishing single-player games, online gaming has surpassed that through one factor alone: online communities.
Even for the most obscure games on Steam, chances are there are communities online that can be joined. Online gaming is seeing engagement that is unprecedented because there is something for almost any type of gamer.
“You figure out what you need and you find a game that connects you directly to what that need is,” said Alexander.
For him, he found out that he was globally ranked in Street Fighters by playing against a higher ranking gamer.
But playing Street Fighters was never about climbing up the ranks or the community behind the game forAlexander. He simply played because he loved the game and was fascinated by how it works.
Online multiplayer games have changed the way students are connecting and learning, as universities have had to adapt to asynchronous learning. They are making adjustments in an age that is focused on isolation for health and safety.
Alexander has used his research to help build virtual simulators for electricians and paramedics to use during their education and training.
“All games that allow you to make mistakes and learn without the threat of death, like Among Us, is a rich source for video games and education, ” he said. He believes that the pandemic has accelerated respect for video game components amongst academics, who are now trying to incorporate video games into training new skills and hands-on learning.
The pandemic has allowed for the discovery of a new route for people to connect digitally, one that will remain relevant even after the pandemic slowly runs its course in due time.
“I think that the respect for video games has changed exponentially,” he said. Since the beginning of exclusively online learning, he has used Twitch to stream lectures and keep his students engaged.
“Because of the pandemic, people are realizing that ‘Oh wait a second, there’s gotta be something outside of just addiction to have people playing games like this.’”
Alexander also runs his courses on Discord, where students can easily reach out to him with questions and he is able to connect with them using gaming channels.
“When we get to the end of this pandemic, I don’t know how we can revert to suggesting that video games are not useful in any way,” said Alexander.
As more new gamers start to shift towards online gaming as a form of maintaining social interaction, one thing is clear: like every great video game era, the pandemic has allowed for people to recognize the inherent good that comes with video games.
This year has allowed people to recognize that the internet and isolation go hand in hand and it’s no surprise that students are seeking companionship online.
Whether it’s through fishing with friends on a virtual island of their own creation, or getting a thrill off of being an alien imposter among a crew of space jelly beans, games have brought people together during uncertain times and remain a beacon of comfort for students battling isolation.