2020 was the year of the casual gamer

The biggest titles this year weren’t just 'Call of Duty' and 'Cyberpunk.'

Kris Naudus / Nintendo

Unlike most other forms of entertainment, video games weren’t hit as hard this year. Sure, the big live events like E3 and EVO were cancelled, but gaming is an activity enjoyed by most at home. That means the majority of big releases — like Doom Eternal, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and Final Fantasy VII Remake — were able to go on as scheduled. But unlike previous years, them and their ilk didn’t drive the conversation in 2020. With live sports and movie theaters shut down, lots of people who normally wouldn’t consider themselves “gamers” turned to the medium for entertainment and solace. And the games they played weren’t always the big action-packed AAA titles.

One of the biggest selling titles of the year was Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which came out in March. It’s sold 26 million copies, making it the second-best selling Switch game of all time, outdoing franchise stalwarts like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. It’s even up there among the best selling titles on any system, period, sitting in the top 30 only 9 months after its release.

The timing was certainly ideal for the cute island-building game, as it came out just as many areas of the US were going into lockdown. People needed some way to pass the time, and the Animal Crossing series has always offered plenty to do in its candy-colored, slowly-paced world. Critics praised the new installment for being a comforting blanket during these troubled times.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

However, to just say it came out during the perfect window is to ignore the changes Nintendo made in the series that helped build its fame: the presence of the share button on the Switch made it easy for players to take screenshots and spread them on social media, and a more streamlined friend code system made it easy to visit both friends and strangers alike.

New Horizons would have still sold well even without a pandemic, but these new features gave it more visibility and made it easier for the Animal Crossing faithful to spread the word. And they did, with the game ubiquitous on social media for its first month or so, inspiring countless parodies, brand advertising and eventually, a talk show with celebrity guests like Sting, Elijah Wood and T-Pain.

Another title that got celebrity attention this year was Innersloth’s 2018 title, Among Us. The two-year-old game exploded over the summer for a number of reasons — not the least of which was its superficial resemblance to another popular title, Fall Guys. But it was also cheap to play, at $5 (or less) for the PC version and free on mobile, and it was super easy to set up games with friends or complete strangers.

The relatively simple game play made it a favorite of casual players, since it’s mostly just point and click, with the hardest part being the mind games you play on your fellow crew members. I’ve met a few people who don’t even bother with the larger goal of trying to suss out the imposter; they just enjoy being in space, doing their tasks and seeing how the whole drama plays out. It’s a fun game to watch — as evidenced by the 430,000 people who watched representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar face off against several prominent streamers on Twitch back in October.

Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout was also one of those titles where players didn’t particularly care if they won, though in this case it was because the game was super hard to beat. Players were pitted against 59 other competitors in a series of physical game show challenges that were often ridiculous and extremely unpredictable — many hardcore gamers found the title’s fickle controls a turnoff, but many more just lost themselves in the craziness. The ability to jump back into the game quickly after defeat made each loss less of a tragedy and, thanks to the spectator mode, it was another one of those games where it was fun to just hang around just to see how things ended up.

The social aspect of gaming definitely moved to the forefront this year. Streaming has been a big part of the medium for the past few years now, with people feeling an affinity for their favorite players and forming communities on YouTube, Twitch and Discord. But large multiplayer games have also played their part, and many casual gamers gravitated toward them not as a way to enjoy the game itself, but as a place they can screw around with their friends.

Both Minecraft and Fortnite served as big meeting places in the past, but 2020 saw a huge increase in Roblox players, an online platform where kids could create their own spaces — and their own games — to play. The biggest draw was that it was free to download, which meant any kid who owned a device could hop in, and parents were only happy to let them do so since it was less violent than Fortnite and encouraged their child’s creativity. The game gained enough cachet this year that Lil Nas X even held a virtual concert there last month, debuting his new single “Holiday.”

For adults, socializing in 2020 meant a lot of virtual happy hours, which got tiring pretty quickly. To try and give these events a little more structure, a lot of people invested in one or more of Jackbox’s Party Packs. Each pack contains a number of games, like trivia and drawing activities, that could be broadcast over a Zoom stream. Unlike a lot of other titles the players didn’t need to own the game itself or even a console: Players participated via their phones, entering the session’s unique four-character code into a web browser. Jackbox even has a spectator mode, letting people vote on some of the rounds even if they didn’t want to be a full player — the ultimate in casual gaming.

Jackbox Party Pack 7

None of this is to say that mainstream or “hardcore” gaming will fade or even go away — the biggest story this month has been the bug-ridden launch of Cyberpunk 2077, for one thing — but just that the idea of what we call mainstream expanded this year. Lots of people, deprived of their usual entertainments, decided to give gaming a try for the first time, while many others used it as a way to socialize with those they couldn’t see in person. Sure, some might return to their usual pastimes as things begin to open back up. But for some people their gaming habits have become essential and will likely stick around for months and even years to come. Regardless of where we all end up, 2020 was the year in which these folks were all more than casuals; they were just gamers.

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