In a time of isolation, video games are proving to be an outlet for control, connection, and creativity. What should gaming brands be doing to attract and retain new players?

We’ve seen a dramatic increase in people reaching for digital entertainment as a means to cope with what the new-normal COVID-19 has imposed on the world. While many categories are faced with a rapidly declining user base in this unprecedented time, the video game industry is seeing a steep increase in users, faring far better than the market average. Verizon reports gaming usage is up more than 75 percent in March, and online video game platform Steam is hitting record-breaking concurrent usage week after week, with more than 20 million people logged in at once.

We spoke with a sample of both seasoned gamers and new players from across the US to better understand how this pandemic has begun to shift the way they feel, behave, and think about gaming. Sheltering in place orders have given many who were historically opposed to gaming – due to time limitations, lack of interest, not having anyone to play with, etc. – permission to play. Similarly, experienced players are being encouraged to expand and break away from their typical playstyle.

The World Health Organization (WHO) – the very same organization that added “Gaming Disorder” as an international classification of disease a few years ago, sighting a growing concern about lengthy gaming sessions – has amended their stance, praising gaming a being a wonderful way of not only connecting with others, but saving lives in the process. Their hashtag #PlayApartTogether has been picked up by dozens of game industry leaders, with some brands adopting their own – like Electronic Arts’ #stayandplay – encouraging their networks to play their part to flatten the curve.

Video games serving as an outlet for control, connection and creativity


Gameplay has become an unparalleled outlet for sheltering in place. The impact of their usefulness, and the very motivations to choosing a game over other forms of entertainment, seems to be providing players with a needed outlet for control and the rebuilding of trust. “During load and quiet times, we talk about the coronavirus and what we’re going through. I don’t think I’d talk about what’s going on otherwise. This puts it in a casual context, for lack of a better term,” said Casey, 30 from Florida.

For experienced gamers, gaming is serving as a life raft of familiarity. Within a matter of a few weeks, Dominique, 20, had his university close, his track team suspended, his job furloughed, and out of necessity, moved back in with his parents in New York. He is finding comfort in the routine and mastery of gameplay. “Gaming used to be about escape, a fun power fantasy. But, it’s different now because everything is different. My life has been upended, but I still have my PC rig, I still have my PS4. Gaming is really my only constant right now… It’s my only real connection to the world.”


For more established players, a gaming community has always been the anchor of much of their social lives. And while they may be playing with the same groups and clans (business as usual), many have expressed that these online connections are becoming more meaningful friendships as players are increasingly showing up for one another in this unprecedented time. “The people I’ve been playing with for a long time are people I have always cared about, but we’ve been friendly, not close,” says Sean, 32 from Colorado. “We are really supporting one another now. I have a buddy in my ARMA unit who asked me to check in on his great aunt, who lives alone, and I found out is only a short drive from me. I’ve been able to get her groceries and actually do to help right now.”

Players new to gaming are buying gaming consoles at a record pace. Nintendo Switch consoles are sold out at most retail locations, with their new game Animal Crossing on track to be the best-selling game on Nintendo Switch of all time. While the world is at home, entering a virtual world like Animal Crossing – in which you can visit someone’s farm, host parties, and “see people” you know – is serving as surrogate for social currency and low stakes interaction. Role-playing games (RPGs) like this, and other titles that offer new players an easy in, or a forgiving multiplayer experience, are making gaming accessible.

“Now that my sister and I have moved back home when our universities closed, my parents bought a Nintendo Switch, looking for things we could do together as a family,” says Dominique, 20. “And man, they love it! I am catching them play Mario Kart when I’m in the other room doing something else…This is now something we have to do together that goes way beyond sitting and watching a movie. It gives us something to talk about, to compete over.”


Gaming is also offering players a much more engaged and active experience than other forms of at-home entertainment currently vying for share of our screen time. Game play not only enhances the day’s routine, but provides a sense of creating something. “Watching TV is passing the time, but after a while it feels mind-numbing,” said Kay, 33 from California. “When playing games, I feel a sense of accomplishment. I’m actually physically doing something… I’m using my brain.” Gaming requires participation; it requires self-expression. And unlike other forms of entertainment, game play requires a level of focus and mental acuity. At a time when traditional participation is discouraged, gaming provides an important emotional and psychological stopgap.

What gaming brands can do to attract and retain new players

In this unprecedented moment – stacked with unknowns, mounting recessionary worries, and physical stagnancy – gaming brands need to actively find ways to show up for their expanding player base in meaningful ways. What should gaming brands be doing to understand to get ahead of this evolving player base and gamer communities?

There are five key strategies that game brands should be considering to better position themselves for the “new normal” of gaming:

1. Promote mentorship

Whatever their motivation to play might be – to be entertained, to get closer to their kids, to make or maintain social connection, etc. – new players need to feel a sense of agency in the experience of play. “Figuring it out” is not only part of the fun but a rite of passage; but the learning curve can’t be exclusionary.

When the audience is increasingly atypical, the rules are hard to understand, and the established culture is difficult to navigate, new players can get intimidated and frustrated. They won’t stay in the game long enough to enjoy themselves. Consider systems to incentivize mentorship, like they currently do in Square Enix’s, Final Fantasy XIV, to help new players get acquainted, find their footing, and establish themselves in the MMORPG community. This also gives established players something to do to help and connect with the new player community in a time when so many desperately need an outlet to do so.

2. Enhance online game matching algorithms

Similarly, as player motivation and skills continue to stratify, online match compatibility becomes important in giving players the opportunity to find the gaming experience they are looking for. This means:

  • being matched with other players both at a similar skill level and seeking similar experiential advancement
  • being matched with titles that are appropriate for a similar level of skill and play experience
  • meeting players halfway between self-personalized input and AI

Players seem to be increasingly willing to share more information about their motivation, play style, and personality in order to get matched with other players and games that complement them. Providing better “swim lanes” can help keep both new and experienced players engaged. Other media categories are currently showing how this can be done, from MSFT Word and Netflix to TikTok and Pornhub, and gaming is uniquely poised to participate.

3. Showcase value

With the unemployment rate in the US at its highest level since the Great Depression and the world divided over how to dole out recovery aid, players will be needing content to stretch further. Consider extending these software offerings:

  • Trial periods and subscription offing: Longer trial period or suspending/reducing subscription fees. Digital subscription models like Xbox Game Pass, EA Access, and Google Play Pass are well suited to provide these offers in a cost-efficient way. They allow a player to tap into a constantly updating, immediately downloadable, content.
  • Player-generated play mods: As many serious players continue to dedicate more time to gaming, and eager to have an outlet for expression and purpose, consider creating more opportunities for user-created content. A sandbox game like Garry’s Mod or Minecraft could help players feel generative.
  • Content and free-to-play modes for existing franchises: Small updates offers, expansion of storyline, and exposure of the development process will tide players over and generate needed conversation starters. With continued COVID-19-related isolation termination delays, providing players with a creative peek behind the scenes can add engagement and empathy among the player community.

4. Increase capacity and bolster server infrastructure

Due to the influx of new users coming online and the increased usage by existing players, online games and communication services are getting hammered by outages and lag. Supply chain issues are also making it more difficult for many new users to secure the hardware needed to play. So far players seem to be taking this in stride (uncharacteristically), but the longer it goes on, the less forgiving they will be.

5. Integrate and untether the experience

There will be a point when COVID-19 isolation restrictions will be lifted and life will settle into a new normal. The public will return to being outdoors and visiting with others IRL.

It will be important to find ways of untethering the gameplay experience from merely a homebound event. On-the-go, face-to-face play engagement and Pokémon Go-like scavenger hunts could bring a continued life to gaming for some players. Similarly, finding ways to remind those new to gaming why they’ve enjoyed playing and educating them on how to integrate play into their day-to-day schedules will be influential in making gaming a part of a player’s new normal.

While this pandemic is not merely an “opportunity to capitalize on,” it’s a time to reflect on the rapidly evolving relationships that exist between player and gaming companies, player and player, and culture and category. The new values, practices, and relationships that we see emerging from a world sheltering in place, will have an indelible impact on the video gaming market. Exploring the intersection of player behavior and emotion will be necessary for brands to stay relevant.

Danna Kress is Vice President, Qualitative Insights at Maru/Matchbox.