Two years ago, the United Kingdom entered a national lockdown to combat the COVID-19 coronavirus. In an unprecedented measure against a burgeoning pandemic, we were all told that apart from food shopping or exercise, we had to remain in our homes. We’re still not totally out of the woods even now but this week, we’re reflecting on the video games that helped us stay sane during lockdown.
Welcome to the games that got us through the pandemic.
‘From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home’.
Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom – 23rd March 2020
Here we are then, two years down the line from probably the most extreme change any one of us has ever felt to our collective daily lives. Two years ago, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the UK was to be placed under restrictions akin to those we’d seen across Europe and the world. These changes would mean staying inside, not socialising, seeing no one in person, and getting very well acquainted with your own chosen living quarters.
We all reacted differently, for many the change was a novelty, albeit one set against the backdrop of some horrific stories of widespread illness. For many, it was a huge challenge to adjust to. Personally, I relished the idea of a lockdown to begin with: as someone who can get fairly socially anxious, and suffers from chronic FOMO, removing the possibility of any social interactions whatsoever meant I felt remarkably relaxed in many aspects of my life. However, I was aware I would be bored. Very bored.
A confession, then: I didn’t own a games console prior to March 2020. Sure, I had a PlayStation growing up in the 90s, and a PS2 in my early teens, but after that, console gaming sort of drifted away from me. My partner and I had long toyed with the idea of getting a PS4 – me for FIFA, her for Spyro; we’re simple folk here – but we could never justify the cost for something we didn’t feel we’d get too much use out of. But no sooner had the words “stay home, protect the NHS, save lives” left the mouth of our leader, Lucy and I were onto the Curry’s website, looking at PS4s.
Don’t get me wrong, we initially questioned if we should even be doing this: surely we were just making people drive about during a major pandemic solely to deliver us an expensive toy, when they should be staying safe at home. We discussed it and decided we needed something, something to keep the cognitive wolves at bay. So the next day I took delivery of a brand new PS4 Pro and my delight could hardly be contained. I’d long been denied the joys of modern games: The Last of Us, Spider-Man, God of War, so many huge, influential titles had been released since I last gamed, and suddenly this whole world was back open to me once more. But where to start? Then one day, Joe said to our group chat: “has anyone played Fortnite?” That, dear reader, was only the beginning.
I was hesitant, very hesitant; everything I knew about Fortnite revolved around weird teenagers dancing like twats on TikTok. However, as the world turned to Zoom quizzes, Houseparty, and FaceTime to continue some form of social life alive, our group of friends thought of ways we could the same. So I downloaded CoD Warzone, tried it for a bit, died a lot, hated life, and turned it off. So I thought back to Joe’s question about Fortnite and we all agreed we’d give it a go. We spent ages trying to work out how to get the logistics right: do we use PS audio, or do we do a WhatsApp call? Is my WiFi alright, or do I need a mad long ethernet cable? Why does this tiny PlayStation earbud make basically no sound but simultaneously make my ear feel like it’s being torn off?
Eventually we had a crack at it. It was a crazy world, I didn’t even know how to start a game at first, but once I’d mastered the *very complex* menu system, we were away, jumping off the Battle Bus and into a whole new world of entertainment. We chatted (on a WhatsApp call, by the way) as we worked out together how to navigate the map, how to build stuff, how to shoot the guns, and what all the mad characters were about. It started off, dare I say it, as a sort of ‘ironic exercise’ but I think we all came to enjoy it quite a bit. We all had differing levels of experience with shooters, but it didn’t really matter, and you know why? Because it was four mates, chatting, laughing, having fun. What we were doing sort of didn’t matter, but we’re not the sort of people who would just jump on a phone call to each other and chat. The game gave us a focus, a reason to get together once a week and just feel a bit more connected in a rapidly disconnected world.
Before long, this had become a near-religious activity; we’d play with amazing regularity, and no week would have properly started before someone popped “are we gonna Pew this week, lads?” into our group chat. You see, we’d adopted our own vocabulary now – playing Fortnite was ‘playing Pew’, affectionately named after the puerile noises one might use to mimic a gun. Not only that, but we had a name. You heard me. We were a crew now, a family, we’d do anything for each other – we’d ride together, we’d die together: we were the Pew Pew Boys. I even went as far as ordering us all small vinyl stickers for our PS4 controller Lightbars, displaying our newly formed crew name.
We had nicknames, too: Joe was Dr. Circle, on account of his Storm based anxiety *every damn time*; Tom was Map Daddy, as he always picked where we landed; our other friend Joe was The Boatman because, well, he liked the boats; and I was Longshot, due to my deft hand at sniping, and not at all because the chances of me getting any elims were slim.
I should point out at this stage, we’re all in very happy and committed relationships with real humans.
The point is this: Fortnite was the most important game for me during the pandemic, not because of the game itself particularly, but because of what it allowed me to do. It connected me to my best friends. No one was further away from my Manchester home than London, but they might as well have been in New Zealand during a time of national lockdown. And yet once a week, for an hour or two, we could get together, shoot some n00bs, talk about life, about the world, about our jobs, make each other laugh, divulge crude, personal details about [REDACTED]. We had a social life again, and that, at that time, was absolutely invaluable.