Helping his seven-year-old daughter Romy set up the Nintendo Switch she got for Christmas, Paul Cliff managed to get himself hooked on Animal Crossing. “I’ve somehow played over 600 hours on it since January,” says Paul, 56, of the life simulation game where villagers carry out daily activities such as gardening, furniture arrangement and gathering fruits.
“I love the collecting in it, it’s so gentle and oddly rewarding,” he says, recalling an afternoon spent fishing together when Romy finally caught the Stringfish she’d been trying to catch for ages. “She couldn’t wait to show me. We’ve been amazed at each other’s achievements and creativity. I’ve found it an immersive and relaxing experience. I love my wee island, it’s a wonderful escape from what’s going on outside our four walls.”
While gaming was already expanding well before Covid-19 upended normal life and confined many to their homes, its popularity soared this pandemic. Ofcom found 62% of UK adults played some form of video game in 2020, and research from GlobalWebIndex found the 55-64 age group was the fastest-growing market, rising by almost a third (32%) since 2018. With gaming increasingly counted as “family time”, it also uncovered the rise of gaming parents and grandparents, affectionately coined OAGs.
“Video games have been an important source of help for many during these difficult periods of restricted movement,” says Prof James Newman, a video games and gaming culture academic. Part of the pleasure comes from being in the world of the game, whether that’s the reassuringly mundane daily routines in Animal Crossing providing continuity in such uncertain times, or being able to roam free in vast open worlds at a time of limited access to real-world spaces.
But as well as providing much-needed fun, stimulation and escape from the isolation and monotony of the past year, video games have helped connect friends, families and people of all ages across the world, Newman says.
“What we’re seeing a lot is parents and grandparents being taught by their children and grandchildren to keep in touch, and this gathering around a common interest creates quality inter-generational interactions and connections, even at a distance,” says Dr Lynn Love, a lecturer in computer arts at Abertay University.
Video games can have manifold benefits for older people, including boosting cognitive and problem-solving skills, she adds, and the pandemic has opened up new audiences to different kinds of games. “Many are finding video games aren’t what they thought they were, and are seeing that there are different types of games they can connect with. It also seems to be giving many a new lease of life.”
Jane Boon developed her new hobby after her son moved home from university last March and she asked him to teach her how to play. “I’d always thought it looked fun and it was something we could do together during lockdown,” says the 62-year-old. “I was useless but I persevered,” she says of her first try at action-adventure game Hollow Knight. Before long, she was playing through the game entirely by herself and kept playing on her son’s old Xbox when he went back to uni.
She loves the sense of achievement it gives her, from the sheer joy of single-handedly killing a major boss in Hollow Knight, to de-stressing with a long game of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. “It’s taught me that I can do new things and not give up,” she says. “It’s very easy when you’re older to start to assume you can’t learn new things and it’s not true.”
John Reed, 74, agrees, having found his skills as a chess player highly transferable to his new addiction, Call of Duty: Warzone solos. He’s so far gained five outright victories in the first-person shooter game. “It’s gained me enormous kudos with my grandsons,” Reed says. “And it’s nice to think that all these highly rated players are being taken out by a grandpa in his dressing gown.”
Playing games with her children and grandchildren made the third lockdown “far easier” for 66-year-old Julie Mason. Chatting on FaceTime while they played the cooking simulation game Overcooked and the strategic maze-based game Bomberman helped them enjoy much-needed family time when they couldn’t see each other. Now even her husband, always “a very reluctant gamer”, plays Dr. Mario with her every day. “It took him a while to be confident but he’s pretty competent on it now – not as good as me though haha!” Mason says.
Playing Minecraft with their grownup children also kept Angela and Bernhard Heidemann, 55 and 57, sane during lockdown. The sandbox construction game helped keep them connected as a family, giving them shared experiences, adventures, and even life events – they held a virtual graduation ceremony for their son last summer, building their own graduation hall, a virtual certificate, and a restaurant and nightclub for the afterparty. “We’re now thoroughly hooked,” says Angela.
The pandemic has shown a thirst for different types of experiences, particularly with the level of customisation in games such as Animal Crossing and Minecraft, says Love, who believes the upward trend is here to stay and that people will continue to fit video games into life beyond the pandemic.
Karen Davis*, 59, found the freedom of open-world games such as Skyrim, Fallout and Oblivion hugely comforting. From Pembrokeshire, Davis hasn’t seen a city since 2019, and the Dishonored series became her favourite because of its urban setting and appropriately dystopian storyline. Every day she’s spent hours immersed in difficulty settings, skill sets and character attributes, but with life moving closer to something like normal, will she have time for her lockdown hobby? “I’ve just bought The Witcher and Red Dead Redemption,” she says. “So this isn’t over.”
*Name has been changed.