Video games are being prescribed as a recommended treatment for our ongoing homebound existence, brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Game makers from Activision Blizzard to Zynga on Saturday began kicking off a new World Health Organization (WHO) initiative entitled #PlayApartTogether to encourage people on how to entertain themselves and also practice physical distancing.
The initiative is particularly noteworthy because WHO previously designated video game addiction as an official mental health disorder.
But the group hopes that the industry can "reach millions with important messages to help prevent the spread of COVID-19," said Ray Chambers, the U.S. ambassador to WHO in a statement. Game companies will encourage players to stay distanced and observe other safety measures including hand hygiene, he said.
"We’re at a crucial moment in defining outcomes of this pandemic," he said in a subsequent tweet. "Games industry companies have a global audience – we encourage all to #PlayApartTogether. More physical distancing + other measures will help to flatten the curve + save lives."
Video games can be not only a good diversion, but also a way to connect socially with friends and family while at home. Many games played on computers game consoles, such as the the Microsoft Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PlayStation 4, have games you can play with others in the home or via online connections. And many games played on smartphones and tablets are social pursuits, too.
U.S. game companies supporting the WHO initiative see their products as a way for people to better make it through ongoing stay-at-home directives across the nation.
"We are in a truly unique and challenging time, one where coronavirus (COVID-19) is impacting every citizen, country, and culture worldwide," said Amanda Taggart, head of communications for Unity Technologies. Unity Technologies' real-time 3D engine powers 50% of all video games for game consoles, computers, and mobile devices. Among the games with versions made using the Unity engine are "Angry Birds 2," "Call of Duty: Mobile," "Mario Kart Tour," "Untitled Goose Game," "Disco Elysium," and "Wasteland 3."
"We’re learning from governments that the most important tool we have to help reduce the global death toll from COVID-19 is physical distancing," she said in a company blog post Saturday. "From California and Copenhagen to Munich, Mumbai and more, state officials are asking residents to stay home for the greater good of our friends, our family, and our global society at large."
Among the other game companies supporting the messaging campaign include the Amazon App Store, Big Fish Games, Jam City, Twitch and YouTube Gaming.
"It’s never been more critical to ensure people stay safely connected to one another," said Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision Blizzard, which has seen its newest online game "Call of Duty: Warzone" attract more than 30 million players since its March 10 release. "Games are the perfect platform because they connect people through the lens of joy, purpose and meaning. We are proud to participate in such a worthwhile and necessary initiative.”
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Riot Games, maker of "League of Legends," will be promoting the #PlayApartTogether initiative in its esports broadcasts this weekend. "Let's stay physically apart to help flatten the curve," said Riot Games CEO Nicolo Laurent on Twitter.
"For Rioters, playing games is more than just a game; it's a meaningful life pursuit. And now, for the billions of players around the world, playing games could help the pursuit of saving lives. Let's beat this COVID-19 boss battle together."
Game makers on #PlayApartTogether
Several other U.S. game companies are supporting the WHO #PlayApartTogether declaration in various ways:
• Zynga will make more content available free in its "Dawn of Titans" game (on Android and iOS) and will make a free BMW Z04 available within "CSR Racing 2," if players complete 250 million races over the next two weeks.
•Dirtybit will give "Fun Run 3" players extra rewards for completed quests.
• Pocket Gems is adding new features in its interactive storytelling app "Episode" and "War Dragons" game.
Developing new games
In addition to enhancing games, developers and publishers are also encouraging those who might want to learn to develop games themselves.
Unity is making for free three months of its Unity Learn Premium game development platform, the company said in a blog post Saturday. The game company's educational program includes courses, tutorials and live sessions, as well as a virtual class to teach to code. The seven-week class, which began March 23, has on-demand sessions so newcomers can catch up.
Unity's goal in partnering with WHO is "to create awareness and incentivize people to stay inside their homes by playing – and creating – games," it says on its blog.
Similarly, Riot Games has a free online game design curriculum for middle school and high school students. "These lesson plans are built for a classroom, but we bet they'd be great at home," the company said in a tweet Friday.
WHO has faced criticism for its praise of China's response to the coronavirus crisis and for its slow move to designate the spread of the COVID-19 virus as a pandemic.
The Geneva-headquartered organization's video game endorsement is somewhat unforeseen as the group last year designated video game addiction as an official mental health disorder.
The condition is included in its global medical guide, the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems or "ICD-11," which goes into effect in January 2022.
The guide will describe "Gaming disorder" as recurrent video game playing that leads to "impaired control over gaming" and an "increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities," despite "the occurrence of negative consequences."
It will be categorized along with "Gambling disorder" with disorders due to substance use or addictive behaviors.
The organization may have taken a stance in the past on video games' potential for harm, this new initiative makes sense, says Unity chief marketing officer Clive Downie told USA TODAY.
“While we can't comment on the WHO's historical stance, we do know that making and playing games bring people together, create joy and yes, bring a sense of relief," he said. "There's no better time for the games industry to band together than now. We're honored to be a part of this larger initiative that encourages physical distancing to help flatten the curve."
Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.