When the virtual world video game Destiny was first released in 2014 it was the single most-expensive video game ever made, costing half a billion dollars. It was to be the birth of a new type of online gaming experience on games console that allowed friends to play together by simply dropping in and out of each other’s games.
It was a huge success, becoming PlayStation’s most downloaded video game on its launch day and now has around 25 million active users (that’s more than the mega-franchise Call of Duty).
Those 25 million people spend an average of three hours playing every single time they log in, an enormous amount when you consider the average teen devoted just 6.3 hours for an entire week in 2013.
Since then, video games have become arguably the most popular form of entertainment on the planet. Last year alone, experts predicted the industry would rake in a staggering $115.06 billion [£79.6bn] in revenue – that’s more than the total $88.3 billion [ £60.9bn] in global revenue generated by the film industry last year.
The gaming phenomenon, which currently involves 1.2 billion players, is not only encroaching on the world of entertainment, but also the world of social media.
Two video games in particular are offering a realm of escapism that provides not just the thrill of exploring an alien world, but also the ability to help you become a better friend.
Destiny along with Activision’s other biggest game Hearthstone made $1bn in profit last year.
Analysis of gamer audiences tells us that the long-held image of a gamer being 16 and pumped full of energy drink is now desperately outdated. The average player is a successful adult over the age of 25, is more likely to be female than male. Importantly, they also have absolutely no interest in trolling equality advocates.
“With the average age of gamers now edging towards forty, it’s increasingly common for time-poor adult players to arrange a game with their friends after the kids have gone to bed,” says Matthew Barr, a senior lecturer at the University of Glasgow’s HATII (Humanities Advanced Technology & Information Institute).
And Barr believes the integral reason why these virtual reality games are so popular are their online and ‘social’ element: “After a day’s work, an hour or so on Destiny or Rocket League with your mates helps maintain that social connection without having to make any complicated arrangements.”
The average ‘video gamer’ is a long way from the pre-established stereotypes that have ruled for the last 15-years.
In a recently published report, Facebook’s engineers discovered that for all of its billion users, the average degree of separation between two people is just three and a half.
It’s not how many friends you have, but how close you are to each of them that matters.
While that figure might tell you that humans are becoming closer over social media, psychologists aren’t buying it.
‘Dunbar’s number’, developed by prominent psychologist Robin Dunbar, tells us that no matter how many people you add on Facebook, you might be able to manage just 150 friends. But if you want a friendship to actually mean something, then you’ll need to reduce that number even further.
It is impressively coincidental then that two video games just so happen to be offering so many adults an alternative to social media and the now monotonous routines of socialising full stop.
This new species of adult gamer wants ease of use, a compelling well-written storyline and gameplay that’s second to none. With Destiny now getting long in the tooth, game developer Ubisoft thinks it has the perfect replacement in its post-apocalyptic survival game The Division.
The Division boasts a fully ‘living’ recreation of midtown Manhattan that players can explore.
Announced three years ago, The Division looked like one of the boldest undertakings ever seen. It would be a game set in an ultra-realistic New York City after a biological attack was carried out against the population.
This chaotic vista is where you step in, a member of The Division, a covert ultra-secretive special forces organisation hidden in plain sight and designed to be activated should the government collapse. Sounds pretty bleak and of course it would be if you were on your own, but in the Division you’re with friends, so you can start exploring New York together.
The Division is a mirror of the entire social spectrum allowing a person to play in any number of social scenarios from being alone to the game’s maximum team size of just four.
Teams of up to four work together to explore Ubisoft’s ultra-realistic vision of a destroyed New York.
Creative Director Magnus Jansen explains saying: “One of the things that’s important to me is that it’s just like real life, so for example maybe you’re sneaking away from a party to check your phone and you’re private and then you go back to the party and you’re interacting, and then maybe there’s a dance-off and then finally you’re just talking to one person again.”
It is this diversity that Jansen believes will make The Division the first truly social game.
There’s other elements of it that encourage friendship as well. A part of the map called ‘The Dark Zone’ is inhabited by both computer characters and also other players around the world. It’s utterly lawless, which means that you can either all work together, or you can go rogue, killing other players and in turn creating a reputation for yourself.
The Dark Zone is a bold new world within which players can freely choose to work together, or turn on each other.
This level of social democratisation within a video game is a terrifying first in the world of Xbox and PlayStation, because if indeed all gamers are just emotional-fuelled 16-year-olds who hate everyone, then the Dark Zone is going to be complete chaos. Except of course, it isn’t.
“One thing to point out is that the Dark Zone is not all killing and people being nasty, that’s one of the things we found in the beta is that there were a surprising amount of neutral or friendly interactions.” says Jansen.
This isn’t just some glitch where actually people decide to be nice to each other, Barr believes the framework of these games to be truly educational.
“These games are often fast-paced, yes, and thus require fast reflexes and so on, but they also require a considerable amount of high-level thinking.”
“The most obvious (useful) skill players must exercise is communication: being able to communicate strategies, current status, and other key information quickly and clearly is an essential component of many online multiplayer games, where team-based collaboration is the most common mode of play.”
Teamwork is key if players want to succeed in The Division’s harsh environment.
These video games don’t just make you better at working as a team, they’ll also help you experience what it’s like to lead one as well.
“In a fast-paced raid or mission where strategic decisions must be made, strong and unambiguous leadership is often required. Players can gain experience of leading (often quite heterogeneous) teams in a game when their real life occupation doesn’t provide such opportunities. This, in turn, could help develop confidence and improve self-esteem, in some cases.”
Essentially what Barr is saying is that when a game gives you more than just a great storyline and an immersive way to escape the real world that’s when you start putting back in.
While you’ll meet new people in this world, research suggests you’re best sticking with current friends.
Cognitive psychologist Dr Eva Murzyn specialises in the psychology of dreaming and video games and believes there are some caveats to the idea that a video game can be a pure form of social exploration.
“Research suggests that online social ties tend to be weaker than face to face ones, but this is linked to the content of communications rather than the medium itself.”
And as tools of social interaction, video games like The Division are great for pre-established relationships but not so good if you want to meet someone new,” Murzyn explains.
“Basically, online friends are less likely to talk about personal or intimate issues – this is particularly relevant to video games, which are the ultimate task-focused environments, with little space and time left for personal communication that extends beyond the game requirements.”
In The Division, Madison Square Garden has been converted into a field hospital.
The Division’s premise is scarily plausible: A mutated form of smallpox is placed onto hundreds of banknotes and planted into New York the day before the infamous shopping bonanza that is Black Friday.
What’s so fascinating about this genre and about the current state of video games is that you can face these odds, and overcome them with people that you’ve grown up with and are now hundreds of miles away using nothing more than an internet connection, a small black box and a pair of headphones.
Gaming headsets allow players to communicate live with other team members from across the globe.
As Dr Murzyn points out, it is these small requirements that offer us a chance to maintain life-long friendships that otherwise would have died out.
“One key issue in the debate over whether virtual hangouts are as good as physical ones often misses out are cases where physically catching up with friends is not not feasible due to life circumstances such as distance or disability.
“Games present the opportunity to experience team-work, cooperation and a sense of achievement that is not offered by social networking platforms, and can offer a very unique way to maintain friendships in the absence of offline opportunities,” Murzyn says.
When you look at the positives and weigh up the negatives, it’s not hard to see why so many people are now swapping their weekly pub visit with a trip to an apocalyptic New York.
It’s not because they like the idea of swapping real-life for a virtual one that’s inherently out to kill them, it’s because they know they’ll be swapping it with their friends.