School is out and the children are trapped at home – could those much-maligned video games be the answer? Sandra Dick sits down, straps in and takes a closer look
Someone is mortally wounded, shot to bits by a stormtrooper, hacked to pieces by a zombie, legs crushed by a Sergio Ramos tackle, or crippled when their go-kart careered into a cartoon tree.
Under normal circumstances, parents might be tempted to step in and unplug the games console before it all gets too out of hand.
However, video games – the bane of many parents’ lives for their often addictive and sometimes violent nature – now look set to become the unlikely saviour for children, parents and everyone else facing weeks of isolation.
For while parents across the country may be fearing for their children’s health right now, many young gamers are in the grip of their own battles, played out in fantasy worlds and a much-needed escape from the real-life terrors of coronavirus.
In many cases, logging on to their Xbox or PS4 profile to disappear into Minecraft, Fortnite or FIFA 20 will be a rare chance to laugh with pals, talk through fears and leave the stress of living through an age of pandemic behind.
According to Glasgow-based Joe Donnelly, author of a new book, Checkpoint: How video games power up minds, kick ass and save lives (404 Ink, published May 14), even parents who usually loathe their children’s obsession with their gaming console could find themselves quietly appreciating the benefits it brings to young lives … and they may even be tempted to try it for themselves.
“Playing a game like Fortnite online at a time when children can’t go outside gives them a chance to interact with people from all over the world,” says Donnelly.
“It’s a chance for them to stay in touch with friends and have fun.
“It’s also a good time for parents to sit down with kids and learn what it is about the game that they like – it’s easy to condemn something without fully understanding what it’s about.”
As well as being hugely valuable as a business – the industry is worth an estimated £145 billion globally, with Scots companies alone contributing nearly £172 million to the UK’s GDP – Donnelly, 33, believes gaming can be just as significant at an individual level.
“I lost my uncle to suicide in 2008 and that impacted my family in a big way – and my own mental health suffered,” he recalls. “One of the most important things at that time was the escapism that video games gave me. I used video games as a coping mechanism, just by losing myself a little bit in the games.
“I discovered a number of video gamers who I could talk to and games which tackle the kinds of feelings I was experiencing.”
One game in particular, The Company of Myself, helped pave the way for him to open up about some of his own struggles.
As a result, he suggests we might all receive some comfort from exploring the online gaming world.
“There are games out there that deal with personal themes – it’s a misconception that all video games are like FIFA or Call of Duty,” he adds. “There are some that really push the envelope in terms of their subject matter.
“The Company of Myself talks about broaching the subject of mental health problems. Playing that game helped me be prepared to ask for help for myself.
“While there is a danger of ignoring how you feel because you become so absorbed in the game, at the time it was something I needed.”
Games, he adds, can be wholesome and fun – it’s not all monsters, prostitutes and gangster killings. No-one really dies in Mario Kart, after all.
While non-gamers may question how a video game can be so engrossing, those who play can find comfort and support – often from fellow gamers around the world who they will never meet.
“Parents might read scare stories around video games, but it is far better to play the game with children and understand what they are about,” adds Donnelly. “If you’re worried about how much time kids are spending playing video games, play with them for half an hour and engage them in conversation.
“That’s a lot different from them being locked in a room and parents not knowing what is happening.”
Seven great games for lockdown
Explore fantasy worlds, battle for control of the Wild West, teach Cristiano Ronaldo a thing or two about scoring goals – it’s what gamers have been doing for ages.
Now we’re all stuck at home together, what are the best video games to help take our minds off what’s happening outside?
Minecraft (available across all formats, all ages)
To non-gamers, Minecraft looks like the world’s most basic game. However, it’s been an obsession for millions since its launch in 2011 and has led to entire online worlds being crafted from blocks representing dirt, tree trunks, water, lava, stone and ores.
Very “kid-friendly” – play in “Creative” mode to avoid being attacked or killed. Socialise and chat online while constructing a new world for us all to escape to.
Animal Crossing: New Horizon (Nintendo and Nintendo Switch)
Good luck buying a Nintendo Switch – smart parents cleared the shelves as soon as someone said “schools to close”.
For those who have one, Animal Crossing: New Horizon is a gentle escape into a lush island to enjoy a relaxing life with your cartoon animal buddies.
The game evolves as its played, with new characters popping up each month to keep young ones’ interest going during the long isolation ahead.
FIFA 20 (Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch and PC)
With no real football, fans of the beautiful game may find solace in FIFA 20.
Play in ‘street football’ mode or go big with full-scale champions clash, make your own football hero character and buy packs of players – a bit like collecting football stickers.
Be careful, the cost of packs can add up. Set a spending limit to avoid nasty surprises.
Fortnite (available across all formats)
Free to download – good news for parents right now – there can’t be a young person in the land who’s not heard of Fortnite.
Not a million miles away from Minecraft, gamers build forts from materials they find and set about obliterating each other.
It’s not as horrific as it sounds but some children (and adults) can find it hard to step away leading to tantrums and family stress.
Brothers: A tale of two sons (Xbox, Nintendo Switch PS4, PC)
A gentle and absorbing tale of two brothers travelling across land and water trying to reach the Tree of Life to save their ailing father.
It might not sound too cheery, but the game takes the characters on an engaging journey which earned universal plaudits from critics when it was launched.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (all platforms)
A first-person shooter game that on surface may look like little more than wanton violence, but players quickly get engrossed in the story of a CIA officer and British SAS forces teaming up against the baddies.
Various options to play, but definitely not one for young children.
Plague Inc. (Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PS4 and PC)
We’re living through it, so playing a game about it might not be to everyone’s taste.
However, this 2015 strategy-simulation game has surged in popularity since Covid-19 popped into our lives.
You control the plague and its impact, trying to outwit the humans as they try desperately to develop a cure. The game developers have just added a new level, enabling players to save humanity – let’s hope they win.