With much of the world stuck indoors in 2020, video games have been experiencing a boom – in fact we are spending more time, and more money, on gaming than ever before.
And if you’re imagining that it’s lifelong gamers who are leading the surge, you’re wrong. All kinds of people have discovered – or rediscovered – a passion for video games: from retirees with extra time on their hands to stressed parents looking for something to do with the kids. And now, with a socially distanced winter looming, the halting of big gatherings and the possible threat of more lockdowns, video games have quickly become one of the safest – and most popular – ways to socialise.
There are whole worlds to be discovered in gaming: you can garden, ride dragons, go deep-sea diving, hunt ghosts, have a wild romance or even work as a barista in a town full of vampires. (That last one is called Coffee Talk and it’s well worth checking out.) There is really something for everyone, so here is how to get started.
What kit do I need?
If you have a relatively recent smartphone or tablet, you can download plenty of amazing games to play solo from the App Store/Google Play – such as Monument Valley, a puzzle game in which you guide a little girl through fascinatingly beautiful Escher-esque buildings. You can play games on PCs, laptops or Macs too, but it’s a little more complicated. The simplest and easiest way to play as a family or on your home TV is by using a games console: a PlayStation, Xbox or Nintendo Switch.
How much will a console cost?
New versions of the PlayStation and Xbox consoles are arriving this year, which means the current ones are cheaper than ever, as are the games. A PlayStation 4 or Xbox One will cost you GBP200 to GBP250, and you can pick up most of the greatest games of the past five years for GBP10 to GBP20 – or less. Nintendo’s latest, the Switch, is a bit more expensive at GBP280, but you can play it at home, like a PlayStation, or out and about, like a Game Boy. Xbox and Apple offer good value, Netflix-style monthly subscriptions (from GBP5 to GBP10) that give you access to hundreds of games on an Xbox or iPhone/iPad.
The aforementioned new consoles – the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X – are likely to be very expensive. The Xbox models will start at GBP250 and go up to GBP500. There’s no reason to have the absolute latest thing. Tens of millions of people will be enjoying games on older consoles for years to come. Retro games are great options too. You can get a mini SNES, NES or Mega Drive on the cheap on eBay and play really great games you might remember from the 90s.
What games are good for families and people of all ages to play together?
For families, I recommend Nintendo because it’s the Pixar of the video game world, putting out approachable, characterful games that are always age-appropriate and high-quality. A classic beginner’s choice is Mario Kart 8, an easy-to-navigate racing game that’s brilliantly competitive and will have you jostling each other on the sofa. Mario Party is like a virtual board game where you compete to reach the end and collect stars, with plenty of devious options for sabotaging each other. The zany 1-2-Switch gets two players up and moving with the Switch controllers in hand, pretending to milk cows, strut down a runway or fight with swords. Clubhouse Games has fun virtual versions of many classic family and board games from Connect 4 to bowling to chess. For parents with a bit of gaming experience, most Nintendo games allow your child to join in with you, using a second controller, while you remain in charge of the game. For instance, Yoshi’s Wooly World, a super-cute game where you jump a little dinosaur through handcrafted levels made of paper and yarn, and Super Mario Odyssey, which has you whizzing about a surreal cartoon galaxy in a spaceship shaped like a top hat, landing on different planets and jumping on the heads of the weird creatures you find there.
For non-Nintendo options, the classic is Minecraft, a long-running and enormously popular game where you explore a world made of blocks and build your own creations from them – but be prepared for your kids to leave you in the dust with their knowledge and enthusiasm for the game. Minecraft Dungeons is a simplified take that is a bit easier to get into. Just Dance is exactly what it sounds like, a dance game where you copy the effortlessly stylish choreography on the screen; it makes even the most self-conscious dancer feel carefree. And if your kids are into Lego, there are loads of funny, cute Lego games designed for two players, from Harry Potter to Star Wars to Batman.
What games are good for absolute beginners?
In general, it’s best to veer away from action games and go for ones that don’t require you to master 18 different buttons. On iPhones, touch controls make most games simple to play. Try Florence, a short narrative game that takes you through a young romance from meet-cute to moving in to bitter fights; or The Room, a series of atmospheric puzzle games in which you poke and prod at mysterious trinkets to uncover their secrets; or 80 Days, a literary game about a fantastical journey around the world. For simple and fun action, there’s Crossy Road (help a chicken cross a road) and Alto’s Odyssey (surf across endless sand dunes).
On consoles or a PC, try Tetris Effect, a trippy, modern version of the block-stacking puzzle classic; Untitled Goose Game, a comedy romp about being a horrible goose in a pleasant English village, honking at gardeners and stealing people’s pints; or if a magical-realist take on modern Americana sounds like your jam, Kentucky Route Zero is one of the cleverest games around, and all you have to do is walk around and listen to people talk.
What can I learn from gaming?
You’re not going to learn how to play guitar from Guitar Hero, or become a real-life urban planner from playing a city-building game such as Cities Skylines – but there is lots to learn. In Assassin’s Creed Discovery Tour, you can walk the streets of ancient Athens or climb the pyramids. Recently, more games are being made about real-life issues. Before I Forget imagines what it is like living with dementia, letting you walk around a flat trying to summon a patient’s memories by looking at photos and everyday items, playing detective in her life; when you make a breakthrough, whole areas of the flat suddenly flood with colour. Bury Me, My Love is based on the real-life experiences of a refugee fleeing Syria, a story told through the text messages between a husband and wife. You get to choose what happens next, but beware some of the devastating endings. I think games help you stay curious and inquisitive, and to broaden your experiences through travelling through imagined worlds.
Are there any games that can help my children‘s learning and development?
Overtly educational games tend to be as boring as they sound, but that doesn’t mean kids don’t learn from games: a friend’s five-year-old taught himself to read playing Pokemon. Minecraft is used in schools across the world to teach kids about physics, geology and architecture.
The best way to make games educational is to follow your kids’ interests and look for games that will encourage them. For budding oceanographers, Abzu and Beyond Blue let you dive beneath the waves and swim among marine life. There are games with strong environmentalist messages: in Flower you reclaim the natural, controlling a gust of wind that brings flowers and trees back to urban spaces; Unravel is a puzzle game that also shows how the Swedish countryside has been taken over by buildings and factories. By playing any game at all, especially ones such as Super Mario Maker that let you create art or build your own levels, kids will be working on their focus and fine motor skills, and using their imaginations. Older kids and teens, playing with their friends online, will often gravitate towards the games that they get something out of: a sense of achievement or adventure, or games such as Fortnite (yes, really) that are just great places to hang out together and strengthen social bonds.
Preschoolers learn best through play – Sago Mini and Toca Boca are developers that create brilliant open-ended games for phones and tablets that let the youngest kids experiment with cause and effect. Try Toca Kitchen, Sago Mini Apartment, Toca Nature or Sago Mini Trains. A warning: steer clear of any game or app that claims to be free: it will probably bug them to spend later, or halt their play after 20 minutes to ask for money. Instead spend a few quid on a high-quality game that they can play as much as they like.
I don’t like the idea of shooting people in the head. What games should I play?
There is an abundance of good games for pacifists. Animal Crossing lets you escape to a deserted island, potter about fishing and gardening, and make and buy furniture to decorate your paradise with; Life is Strange is a coming-of-age choose-your-own-adventure-style story where you can rewind time to undo embarrassing teenage decisions; Stardew Valley has you escaping to the countryside to build a new life on a farm, planting and harvesting crops, tending to cows and chickens and making friends with your new neighbours. In The Sims 4 you can build dream houses and guide computer people through their daily lives. Driving game Forza Horizon 4 takes you around the most stunning areas of the British isles.
If we go into another lockdown, what are good games I can play with my friends when we’re all isolating?
Almost every multiplayer game lets you play with friends online now, so distance is no barrier. Animal Crossing was the star game of lockdown: it’s very relaxing and eight people can hang out on the same island, chatting, catching fish and trading furniture. If you’re up for something competitive, Fall Guys is a hilarious It’s a Knockout-style gameshow parody you can play together. In Sea of Thieves you can play pirates, sailing the seas, hunting treasure and firing cannons at other ships. Minecraft, yet again, is a low-pressure place to hang out and explore. In Rocket League you play football with remote control cars, which is as hilarious as it sounds. You can even play Mario Kart online in different houses.
How about playing games on my phone? Does Candy Crush count?
Candy Crush is one of the most popular and profitable games in the world – but that doesn’t mean it’s one of the best games out there. There are many more interesting things to play on a phone, such as Assemble With Care, in which you repair beautiful objects and learn about the people they belonged to; or Sneaky Sasquatch – be a yeti, don’t get caught; or the very relaxing Sky: Children of the Light, where you fly around beautiful dreamy places, taking in the sights.
Is there a way to gamify your existing lockdown hobbies – say, running and baking?
If you’re posting your bakes to Instagram, you’re already gamifying it – what are likes and views but points and high scores, really? Pokemon Go is a good way to gamify your walks by collecting critters as you go. Zombies, Run! lets you turn your runs into rescue missions in a viral post-apocalypse (although that one might be a bit too real in the current climate).
Will I need better wifi if people are playing games in the house?
When I was a teen, I would get kicked off the modem because my parents needed to make a phone call; now teens have to wait ages for their Fortnite update to download because of work Zoom calls. A connection speed of 10-20 Mbps is best for playing games online and streaming video without stress, and a wifi extender or ethernet cable connection from your router to your console will ensure coverage.
How can I best manage my gaming so it doesn’t affect my mental health?
Gaming disorder is rare and poorly understood, affecting 1-3% of players, but it does exist. If you or someone you know veers into playing compulsively rather than for enjoyment, to the extent that it starts to affect professional or personal relationships, GPs are able to refer patients for specialist help.