How Co-Op And Multiplayer Gaming Gave Us Connection When We Needed It Most

There’s this outdated image of what a gamer looks like, a caricature that’s been held up by pop culture and social media. It trades in some of the more harmful stereotypes and myths about what gaming is and who it’s for. It usually centers on lonely, emotionally stunted men living in their parents’ basement whose worst instincts are emboldened by the anonymity of a keyboard and WiFi connection.

To whatever extent those types of gamers exist, they in no way make up the bulk of people playing online, especially not in 2020.

It’s almost ironic, how a pastime once mocked for being the reason so many people struggled to maintain a healthy social life is now the preferred mean of connecting with friends, family, and sometimes, complete strangers on the internet. Some are happy to point to the global pandemic (and the months-long lockdowns we’ve all had to endure because of it) as the reason why these multi-player spaces have become so popular. They look at mind-blowing numbers — Microsoft’s reported 130 percent increase in multiplayer engagement across March and April, and Nintendo’s 22 million sales of Animal Crossing: New Horizons — and blame it on boredom and the side-effects of self-isolation. The most cynical might even predict that once vaccines become widely available and we’re able to frequent bars, restaurants, and friends’ backyards without the fear of a deadly virus looming over our get-togethers, these socially-minded gaming experiences will be discarded for the “real thing.”

But if 2020’s taught us anything, it’s that we should have more faith in, and a bigger appreciation for, co-op gaming.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons was the first sign that the multi-player gaming verse had crossover potential. Sure, titles like Fortnite and Halo had been around for a while. but it’s easy to pinpoint why they lacked broader appeal among first-time players. Expensive hardware, a certain level of experience and competitive drive, and an understanding of rules and objectives are a daunting list of prerequisites for even the most determined newbie. But in 2020, multi-player games, especially co-op friendly experiences like New Horizons, sidestepped the gatekeeping of better tech and skill-driven play for a more communal, collaborative, and frankly welcoming form of gaming.

Suddenly, buying turnips at a virtual market and picking up sticks on your personal island drove the discourse of multi-player gaming. Animal Crossing: New Horizons made it easy to create life-sim environments and share those experiences with others. And while New Horizons’ local co-op play drew controversy earlier in the year for limiting the number of shared islands per console to just one, the game’s multi-player promise paid off.

By introducing new designations and allowing up to eight players to visit an island at a time, the game created space for creativity and community to thrive. Friends could now invent virtual past times, create scavenger hunts, competitively net-bonk, terraform obstacle courses, dig up prizes together, and more. These weren’t traditional co-op experiences like the bank heists of GTA Online or beating back zombie husks in Fortnite: Save the World, but they managed to achieve the same end-game: a shared virtual adventure. They encouraged people to interact, to explore the social capabilities of gaming in a low-stakes setting, and it didn’t hurt that they added a bit of escapist whimsy to the whole thing.

Escapism has become gaming’s superpower this year, giving us all a needed distraction from the real-life chaos forcing us indoors. But while traditional single-player games can sometimes reinforce reality — or at least inadvertently reminds us that we can’t visit a bodega with a cat in our backpack a la Miles Morales or that Marvel hasn’t released a movie in theaters all year despite Earth’s mightiest heroes debuting a new title — multiplayer verses and co-op experiences, in particular, can offer a different kind of immersive experience. They require our full attention and participation, a level of engagement that comes from knowing others are counting on you, a social component that rewards communication and cooperation. When you’re hunting poltergeists in Phasmophobia or investigating a murder on your ship in Among Us, you’ve got to fully commit to living in the game to survive, to win. That opens up new channels for chatting and interacting with each other — it adds another dimension to play that encourages gamers to invest and spend time in this shared setting.

In a report from Flowplay, 36 percent of respondents (and almost half of Generation Z and Millennials) said they were most interested in the social community aspect of online games. One-quarter of respondents stated they rely on online games for social interaction, which means gaming has caught up to other forms of social media like TikTok, in terms of how younger generations connect. Online platforms like Roblox, where users can create their own games and invite others to collaborate on them, became a hit with younger gamers looking for ways to connect with school-friends once learning went virtual. Easy-to-play battle royales like Fall Guys took on new life with first-time players, letting them engage in single-player competitions while sprinkling in team dynamics with certain arenas.

Streaming, which has exploded since the pandemic began, earned legions of newcomers. Some were looking for more personal interactions in their gameplay sure, but plenty more tuned in just to watch over-the-top personalities and talented gamers compete for fun. People scratched their heads at how Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could earn 400,000 views on a live stream of Among Us. Those people didn’t understand that co-op gaming extends past the people maneuvering inside a multi-player universe. There’s a second-life that co-op gaming enjoys — from memes to fanart to Reddit forums — that feels inclusive and inviting in a way single-player games just don’t.

Once you’ve been on a Phasmophobia team where members abandon you in the observation van, once you’ve gone into debt over turnips or watched a crewmate’s pet mourn over their owner’s body in Among Us, you want to talk about the experience, or tweet about it, or craft a TikTok in honor of it. Your experiences in co-op gaming aren’t solely your own, which fosters a sense of community that transcends whatever device you happen to be playing on. And these games tend to infiltrate pop culture because of that, in ways even beautifully rendered, story-rich titles like The Last Of Us Part II just can’t, which only furthers their popularity and invites more prospective players to their worlds.

We’re not claiming co-op gaming and multiplayer gaming is better than single-player modes — preference depends on what adventure you’re looking for — but in 2020, these experiences gave us things we desperately needed: Connection, the opportunity to work together towards a common goal, a way to bridge divides, meet new people, and interact on a different level.

That won’t just go away once this pandemic ends … and we’re thankful for it.