Gamers have us all beat when it comes to virtual interaction

Steve Rotstein, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In this Nov. 16, 2019 photo, Central Valley's Ameer Dudley looks to pass during the WPIAL Class 3A championship at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Ameer, 17, is a junior at Central Valley High School and one of the most sought-after quarterback recruits in the area. He treats every game of “Madden NFL” or “NBA 2K” just as seriously as he does playing in a WPIAL championship game at Heinz Field — as long as he’s competing against friends. (Steph Chambers/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

PITTSBURGH – Like millions of other high school students across the country, Ameer Dudley and Zach Magnotti’s lives were dramatically altered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

After their schools closed and all sports-related activities shut down, the two athletes switched to online classes. Every weekday, they wake up, boot up their computers and complete their assignments for the day – without face-to-face interaction with their teachers, coaches, teammates and classmates.

But when night falls, they flip the switch – literally. They turn on their Sony PlayStation 4 consoles, pull out their phones and exchange text messages with their friends:

“You on?”

“Yeah, you want to play?”

“You know it. I’m hopping on now.”

Keeping up with friends and family can be tough during a pandemic, but for millions of online gamers, chatting, playing and interacting via headsets is simply a way of life.

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“I think that’s what’s interesting is that gamers have been using this forever (as a means of staying in touch),” said Steve Kuniak, a Pittsburgh native, lifelong gamer and licensed counselor.

Ameer, 17, is a junior at Central Valley High School and one of the most sought-after quarterback recruits in the area. He treats every game of “Madden NFL” or “NBA 2K” just as seriously as he does playing in a WPIAL championship game at Heinz Field – as long as he’s competing against friends.

“I can’t play games by myself,” he said. “If nobody is online, if I’m not talking to anybody on the mic, I just won’t get on the game.… I don’t get any joy out of playing random people.”

Now more than ever, he and his friends use gaming as a form of socializing.

“Sometimes we’ll close the app and sit on our home screens and we’ll sit there and just talk,” Ameer said. “We’ll play music on our speakers and chill and talk to each other. It’s like we’re chilling in person, but it’s just all in the game.”

Magnotti, 18, is a senior at Peters Township High School who played football and lacrosse and finished out his football career as the school’s all-time sacks leader.

Although his senior season of lacrosse was canceled, he still hangs out with his friends and teammates constantly. Every night, he loads up the wildly popular third-person shooter “Fortnite” with a few of his Indians teammates – wide receiver Josh Casilli and linebackers Corban Hondru and Ryan Clark.

“Not a lot has changed,” Magnotti said. “We still connect every day, just through video games. I feel like I just saw them.”

Millennials and Generation-Z adolescents aren’t the only ones using gaming to stay connected. Neil Shader, 38, a Pittsburgh native living near Harrisburg, purchased a used Nintendo Switch from a friend right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Shader tried and failed to introduce his 5-year-old son to some old Nintendo classics, so he started playing the 1990 action puzzle video game “Dr. Mario” by himself. His wife, Eileen, walked in and immediately recognized the game as one of her old favorites.

“This was for a new thing for us,” Shader said. “I’ve had an Xbox throughout our relationship. So it’s been a part of our lives, but nothing we had ever really done together.

“It just hadn’t been something that came up, but it’s fun – put the kids to bed and get the controllers out.”

With the entire country searching for ways to pass the time and stay connected while staying home, video game sales have skyrocketed. Many consoles are sold out at retail stores and third-party websites are reaping the benefits. On April 6, eBay reported a 365% increase in console sales over the previous few weeks.

Companies such as Super League Gaming, which specializes in competitive video game tournaments – also known as esports – are seeing a massive surge in users and online traffic.

A handful of local gamers from Robert Morris and Slippery Rock universities have teamed up to raise funds to support the American Cancer Society by participating in a weekly bracket-style tournament called Gamers vs. Cancer. The players broadcast their gameplay on streaming platforms like Twitch and Mixer, and the team that raises the most money each week via donations to their stream advances to the next round.

“I think that’s what’s interesting about COVID times is that live sports for the foreseeable future are on hold, but there is one sport that’s still happening, and that’s virtual sports,” said Super League Gaming CEO Ann Hand. “We pushed about 4 million hours of gameplay through our platform in January and February. In March, we pushed over 6 million in one month. And April is continuing to beat daily and weekly records.”

Kuniak, 36, now lives just outside Harrisburg. He is a firm believer that video games can be used as a tool for improving mental health, especially during a time like this. He recently published an article on Yahoo!: “How Gaming can Strengthen Family Bonds during the Coronavirus Pandemic.”

“Kids in adolescence, (gaming is) their culture, and parents might miss opportunities to bond with them if parents are just shooing them away to do their own thing. There’s an opportunity to actually connect deeper with your family,” Kuniak said.

When he decided recently to purchase a Switch, he had trouble finding one at first. Finally, he managed to track one down at a Best Buy about 45 minutes away from his home. He said it was well worth the trip and the hefty price tag so he and his wife, Abby, could start their own island in the latest installment of “Animal Crossing,” one of Nintendo’s most popular game franchises. They recently welcomed their first child into the world.

“A lot of our friends, we haven’t seen them in a while because she’s been pregnant,” Kuniak said. “But we’ve actually been seeing people more than we used to now with the help of this game, even though it’s all virtual.”