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The Accidental Female Gamers of Coronavirus Lockdown

In quarantine, video games are an unexpected respite from coronavirus panic — as long as they’re far enough removed from toxic gaming culture

Eilidh, a 27-year-old student in Ireland, doesn’t typically count video games among her hobbies. “I have no hand-eye coordination, and so, I do not, as the kids say, ‘game,’” she jokes. “I don’t get how to make the things do what I want them to do.” There was, however, one exception to this, many years ago. “I played Sims 1 back in the heady days of like, 2000 to 2002, when I was about 9 years old,” she continues. “It combines the storyline aspect with my one true love, which is inexplicably becoming very rich and building a dream house.” 

And now that Eilidh’s on lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, she’s rediscovering the joys of the video game she used to love as a kid. “Before quarantine, I was thinking about getting a Sims game, but avoided it because, well, who has the time?” she tells me. “But then my boyfriend bought me a secondhand Sims 2 game for like $7.50. The other night I played it for three hours straight, which frankly I find a little terrifying.” 

Christina, a 31-year-old web developer in Miami, has also become an accidental gamer because of the lockdown, and like Eilidh, she finds her new habit surprisingly addictive. “I got a PS4 before the lockdown when all the news of COVID started coming out,” she says, “and now I play Fortnite every night until 3 a.m.”

Video games have quickly stood out as a salve for many people experiencing lockdown or quarantine because of the spread of COVID-19, and jokes about people becoming gamers for the duration, some for the first time, have proliferated on social media. Animal Crossing has stood out as a particular hit, with Vox calling it “a virtual world where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts,” and Axios dubbing it “the game for the coronavirus era.” “I was never a gamer — in fact, I never understood gamers — but last week I ordered a Nintendo Switch so that I can play Animal Crossing,” says Georgie, a 22-year-old union organizer in Australia. “I saw that everyone else was doing it, and I’m so unbelievably bored — if I watch anymore TV, I may lose my mind.” 

There does seem to be a particular appetite among new gamers for games that are gentle, nostalgic, domestic and non-violent right now. “I dug out my old Gameboy Advance and started playing Pokemon Gold in a flurry of boredom and mania, and holy shit, it worked a treat,” says Marie, a 27-year-old advisor in New Zealand. “The gameplay is so basic and pleasant, and I remember the background music by heart — it’s so universally remembered and beloved that my roommates actually told me to turn it up!” She describes the game as a “perfect mix of calm distraction material and nostalgia for the 1990s, when everything had a Y2K aesthetic and nothing hurt.” 

For Christina, Fortnite appeals because it’s “a first-person shooter game that isn’t gory or bleak — it’s cartoony and goofy and there’s dancing and silly outfits.” She says she tried the new Call of Duty, but it didn’t hit the spot. “It’s exactly the same as Fortnite,” she says, “only there’s tense music and it’s a more realistic, bloody war setting.” And in this climate, whose nerves are up to that? 

Part of the joke about becoming a gamer for the lockdown is that it’s, well, a little bit embarrassing. Gamers have a less than stellar reputation, especially among women. Christina says that if she “had to make generalizations, gamers are generally men, and generally introverted,” and Georgie says that when she thinks of gamers, she thinks of “people with light-up keyboards.” Eilidh agrees, and doesn’t mince her words. “Look, some of my best friends are gamers,” she jokes. “But the word ‘gamer’ does conjure up an image of a white dude who doesn’t shower.” 

It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with enjoying video games, but the culture around gaming has long been associated with toxic misogyny, à la Gamergate. “I have to say I’m not super into the culture around it, especially first-person shooters and Grand Theft Auto-type stuff,” says Eilidh. “You hear horror stories about how every woman who plays online multiplayer stuff plays with her mic off to avoid the inevitable harassment, so that’s not a super positive association for me.”

Another reason there’s some reticence about admitting to being a lockdown gamer is that there’s an enormous amount of pressure from “rise and grind” types to use this time productively. No one should be gaming during lockdown, these evangelists say, when you could be writing the next King Lear. This makes some gamers feel sheepish, guilty and defiant in response. “I’m aware of having internalized the ‘good neoliberal citizen’ ideology, so I’ve been feeling both defiant to the productivity discourse and extremely tempted to buy into it,” Marie says, a situation that makes her feel like she can’t win. “Everything feels like you’re buying into it.”

Georgie, however, isn’t letting the rise-and-grind crew get into her head. “I definitely don’t feel guilty about my gaming,” she says. “I’ve done my fair share of cleaning and exercising over the last three weeks and I’m also still working from home, so I’m putting zero pressure on myself to abide by this bizarre concept of productivity — we’re living through a pandemic, and I think everyone should just get through that however they can.”

Still, these gamer converts aren’t sure whether their new hobby will outlast the lockdown. Georgie thinks she might make it a “once-a-week rather than daily thing.” Christina’s somewhat committed after investing in a $300 gaming system, but she describes gaming as “a huge time suck” that would, in regular circumstances, make her feel “kinda shitty.” Eilidh has similarly mixed feelings. “It’s not something I’m going to try to do more of, since it’s kinda pointless and I have a degree to be doing,” she says. “But also, who can resist the allure of creating a dream house and endless interpersonal drama?”

Marie, however, is sure that her gamer phase is temporary. “Honestly, nah,” she says of the prospect of playing her Gameboy post-lockdown. “I’m already bored of it.”

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