As the months of pandemic restrictions drag on, some Montrealers are finding comfort exploring fantasy worlds inside video games.
"Video games were a good way to escape into a small world," says Sizhao Shi, a 22-year-old Montrealer who has been playing massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), like Guild Wars 2, throughout the pandemic.
"Especially in Montreal during the winter, with all the curfews, and like, it's cold outside, you can't see anyone," says Shi.
For others, like 30-year-old Charles Chouinard, it wasn't just about the dark weather, but the need to stay socially connected during a period of isolation, while he was struggling emotionally.
"I went through some heartbreak so I had to move from that, and I also had to move from my parents' house, which was also another big step in my life," says Chouinard. "And I kind of did really feel alone, so it was really important for me to seek out people."
For Chouinard, wanting to make those social connections meant playing MMORPGs where he could interact with other players and make friends.
A way to connect and escape
Connecting with others through these games is very different from regular phone calls and video calls, according to 26-year-old Corinne Morin. She enjoys creating a character, and then using it to interact with other players.
"Because now you have like, kind of a physical representation and you feel like you can interact more with a person because you have an avatar of yourself," says Morin.
Morin also mentions how the vast environment in another game she played, called Sea of Thieves, helped her get through the dark winter season, by just spending time in a "virtual ocean" with a "nice clear sky."
For Ariane Le Comte, a 38-year-old Montrealer who has also been playing Guild Wars 2 throughout the pandemic, it's simply nice to tune out the world through these immersive games.
"We don't feel like we're going anywhere, not just literally, but like our goals in life," says Le Comte. "So it feels nice also to have, like, smaller goals in the game, things that you can achieve either easily or with a little more work over time."
'Set aside the fears of daily life'
According to Mia Consalvo, the Canada research chair in game studies and design at Concordia University, the view on gaming has shifted from being a bad habit, to an acceptable way to socialize during lockdown.
"Last year, about this time or maybe a little later in the spring, you saw this, especially with the rise of Animal Crossing," says Consalvo.
Consalvo says these games not only give people an activity while stuck at home, but they can interact and work with others, too.
"You can, you know, set aside the fears of daily life, that you're doing things wrong, that you have to wear a mask, that you shouldn't be with any people outside of your household and just kind of think back to the fun activities you could do with your friends," says Consalvo.
Gamers like 22-year-old Simon Lussier say this is especially true in open-world gaming where there's so much to do.
"You're constantly engaged in the world, constantly progressing. You're doing quests with your friends," says Lussier. "You're always interacting."
The ability to share these experiences with others is what makes them valuable and helpful to gamers who participate in them, especially during the pandemic, according to Consalvo.
"I think they will endure post-pandemic, even as we go outside more, just because they come to mean so much to so many people," she said.