The couple that games together, stays together

For these millennial newlyweds, video games have offered a “sweet escape””during the pandemic, as well as a chance to discover new sides of each other.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Ayana Taylor and her husband Alex Hoeft — like millions of people around the world — hunkered down and stayed in. The couple, who met in college and have been married for three years, were home probably “80% more,” they say. And they were looking for ways to unwind.

“After a while, I was like, ‘You know, it'd be really great to go pick up a console and learn some of the games that are hot right now,’” said Hoeft, 27, who works as an engineer in the construction industry. He had played some as a child, but only at friends’ homes, and it had been years.

Taylor, who works as an actor and voiceover artist and who also has happy memories of playing sporadically in childhood, agreed. The couple bought a video game console they say has offered a “sweet escape” during the pandemic. And while they’re cozied up to each other in their California living room, it has given them something in short supply during the pandemic: fun.

Taylor and Hoeft are hardly alone in turning to gaming for leisure during lockdown. Video game sales are up 37% during the pandemic, and more people—particularly adults—are playing than ever before.

“It's just been really cool to see different sides of each other that we haven't seen before,” said Taylor, 26, of their new-ish hobby.

“Gaming has really brought us together,” Taylor said. “Even though we're adults, we can still be playful.”

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The relationship benefits of play

For couples, play can be a very good thing.

Studies show, for example, that when people in romantic relationships engage in “novel activities” that require cooperation and develop a shared experience (as is the case when couples sit down together in front of a game console or computer screen together) it brings them closer.

Having fun together also significantly impacts overall marital satisfaction.

And while negative headlines have long dominated mainstream media coverage of video games, research actually shows that playing video games can foster cooperation, encouraging players to be nicer and more helpful to one another.

Taylor and Hoeft definitely believe that gaming together over the past year has brought them closer, in large part because they’ve been able to get new insights about how each other’s minds work.

They play frequently. When the pair first got their new consoles (one several months into the pandemic; the second around Christmas 2020), they played for hours on end. Now they have dialed it back a bit, but still make a point to play together several days a week—although it’s not all, well, fun and games.

“Sometimes when you game, and it’s just one player, you can get a backseat driver effect,” chuckled Hoeft. “I think that Ayana is definitely more skilled than I am, so she'll make comments about what I should be doing better. And I’ll be a bit like, ‘Leave me alone. I'm getting better. OK?’”

“All in love!” Taylor quickly jumped in, laughing as well.

“There can be a bit of ‘No no, don’t do that!’” she continued. “But it’s such a fun experience. It really is problem solving—and it reflects how we work together in real life, but in such a fun, creative way.”

Meet Ayana and Alex

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Rediscovering the joy of gaming in adulthood

Although both Taylor and Hoeft are happy to consider themselves gamers nowadays, they did not grow up steeped in gaming culture.

When she was younger, Taylor’s grandfather bought her and her siblings a console that their parents permitted them to use on occasion, but they were pretty firmly steered toward playing sports or music in their free time. The one exception: Taylor and her siblings were delighted by the visits they made to their beloved “Auntie Rain,” an avid gamer whose home was full of options, and where they would play and laugh with family for hours on end.

“It was like Christmas every day when we were down there!” Taylor recalled.

Hoeft also grew up with parents who tended to view gaming with suspicion, though he does recall them both playing computer games on their own. “My parents had a little bit of a stigma towards playing video games,” he said. They were certainly in good company in the 1980s and 1990s, as headlines from the time warned they could cause everything from aggression to obsession.

Over time, that has changed. As gaming has blossomed from a niche form of entertainment to a massive, multi-generational cultural force (75% of all American households now have at least one person who plays, and 65% of adults play video games) those fears have eased. Nearly 90% of parents now say they believe video games can be educational, while more than 80% say they believe they can inspire creativity.

For players like Taylor and Hoeft, embracing gaming in adulthood has required them to unlearn some of the messaging they absorbed in childhood. They have had to give themselves permission to pick up their controllers and simply play — and to appreciate that the joy and relaxation it offers enhances their life together.

“I was like, ‘Oh, I’m an adult!’” recalled Hoeft, who said it really did take a global pandemic to make him and his wife appreciate the kind of escape that gaming could offer. “I could totally just get a console and play games now.”

And they are so happy about all of it — discovering new games and revisiting the ones they had a chance to play on occasion growing up. The connection they feel when playing together has spilled over into other parts of their relationship and strengthened their bond.

“It allows us to be playful with each other in real life. It doesn't have to always be so serious!” Taylor said. “It really does give you that amazing experience, one that carries on after the game is over.”