Jim Huntley, a lifelong gamer and professor in the #1-ranked games program in North America at University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He also consults for companies in the toy, consumer-products and gaming industries.
Do the extended restrictions on entertainment venues and limited travel because of the pandemic have you looking for new activities? Are you looking for new ways to keep in touch with loved ones? Video gaming could be an answer to both. It’s easy to run out of things to talk about on a Zoom call, but playing with remote friends and family is time well-spent.
There’s something for everyone, with today’s gamers immersing themselves in elaborate puzzles, rich fantasy worlds, prolonged creative expressions, driving and flying simulations, races and more. Game on!
GETTING STARTED IN GAMING
Step one is to find a game or games you think you’d like. Ask family or friends what they play and recommend. At GameDesigning.org, you can familiarize yourself with the dozens of video game genres, and at GameSpot.com and MetaCritic.com, you can read reviews for just about every game out there. When you see one that interests you, search its title plus the word “gameplay” on YouTube to watch videos of people playing. Most games with online multiplayer functionality have a feature called “matchmaking” that enables you to compete against other players from around the country or even the world. Then…
Choose a “platform”—the device you’ll play on and its ecosystem of games and features. Any platform lets you hook up a microphone to talk with loved ones as you play. Some games that work on multiple platforms don’t allow for cross-platform play (e.g., you playing on an Xbox against a friend on a Nintendo).
After you purchase the console and the game, use it in single-player mode for a while before trying to play with others to gain a sense of the controls. It’ll make your multiplayer experience much more rewarding.
CHOOSING A PLATFORM
Here is a breakdown of the most common platforms and three picks for the best games for “n00bs” (beginners) in each. All allow you to play with people you know IRL (in real life) as well as strangers.
Nintendo Switch ($299.99). I recommend the Switch to people who are just getting into gaming. The Switch gets its name from the console’s versatility—you can plug it into your TV’s HDMI port for a big-screen experience or take it with you as a portable rig with its own 6.2-inch screen. The Switch experience is far more engaging than on a phone or a tablet because of the quality of the content and being able to play with Nintendo’s beloved characters and worlds. Top game picks from Nintendo…
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe ($50). Every iteration of this wacky racing game outdoes the previous one. The controls are intuitive, the action is constant, and the playful graphics make for good clean fun. Up to 12 players.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons ($50). The concept is strange, but the appeal is massive: You take up residence on a deserted island inhabited by cartoon animals and build the fanciest/coziest/most impressive dwelling you can. You and other players visit each other’s homes to admire your handiwork. Points are earned based on how you upgrade your island and interact with in-game characters. Up to eight players.
Just Dance 2020 ($20). If you’re trapped at home with kids, a dance-off is a great way to blow off steam and do a little bonding while having a blast. It comes with 40 contemporary songs, with hundreds more available for a subscription. Note that this does not have an online multiplayer mode. Up to six players. Also on PS4 and Xbox.
Xbox One (starting at $299). Microsoft’s strength has always been its software, which maximizes how a game looks and plays, and its smooth connectivity when playing against other gamers. If you want a game so clear that it looks like you could walk into it, go for the Xbox One X, which has the best visuals money can buy. Top game picks…
Uno ($15). Now you can play the classic card game with friends without leaving your homes. Plus you’ll never lose track of the direction of play, argue about rules or struggle with keeping score. Up to four players. Also on Nintendo, PS4 and PC.
Portal 2 ($25). This hugely popular puzzler features a collaborative mode in which you can join forces with a friend. Having awakened in a futuristic laboratory setting, you’re equipped with a strange gun that creates portals you can teleport through to complete creative obstacle courses. Up to two players. Also on PC and Mac.
Forza: Horizon 4 ($38). If you’ve ever fantasized about racing a dream car through a picturesque landscape, you’ll love Forza. This fourth installment is set in a realistic yet fictionalized version of the British Isles. You can compete with other online players or collaborate with friends in a Team Adventure. Up to 72 players. Also on PC.
PlayStation 4 ($354). Sony’s PS4 is currently the best-selling console on the market though it falls slightly short of the Xbox One on graphical fidelity. The company delivers a high-powered, high-definition experience at a lower price than that of the deluxe Xbox One X. The overall number of games, including exclusive titles, make this a great pick for variety seekers. And its virtual-reality add-on, although not for beginners, may be an attractive feature down the road. Top game picks…
Rocket League ($20). You’re playing soccer in an arena with a giant ball in cars. That’s it. You get to defy gravity, crash into each other, pick up boosts of speed and so on, but it’s just a matter of getting that ball into the net. This one is a legitimate eSport but one of the easier ones to just pick up and play. Up to eight players. Also on Nintendo, Xbox, PC and Mac.
Stardew Valley ($25). Stardew is a lot like Animal Crossing, only with retro-style graphics. Your character’s grandfather has died, and you take over his rustic farm in a place called Stardew Valley. Gather points as you develop the homestead, grow crops, raise livestock, sell your produce and mingle with the locals. Up to four players. Also on Nintendo, Xbox, PC and Mac.
Fortnite (Free). The most popular game online for the past few years, Fortnite has blossomed into a full-blown cultural phenomenon. This shoot-’em-up game is like laser tag at a costume party. You parachute onto an island, recovering loot as you fight other live players in a last-person-standing melee. Up to 16 players cooperatively, 100 players online. Also on Nintendo, Xbox, PC and Mac.
PC. The beauty of a personal computer—desktop or laptop—is that you probably already own one, and you also can do your taxes on it! Of course, if it’s bogged down with lots of nongaming software, performance might suffer. You’ll want the Windows 10 operating system and the fastest processor you can afford. You’ll also want to check each game’s information page for its minimum specifications to make sure your PC rig can handle it. Visit
SteamPowered.com to browse through the universe of titles available on PC. Top game picks…
Halo: Master Chief Collection ($40). The MCC is a bundle of remastered classic Halo games that Microsoft is releasing one at a time through 2020. So far, it has launched Halo, Halo 2, Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach, which all are classic “first-person shooter” games. In Reach, set in the distant future, you’re part of a team of elite warriors battling sinister aliens bent on destroying your space colony. It’s a nice mix of appealing graphics and real excitement while keeping the gore within bounds. Up to two players in local co-op…online player count will vary. Also on Xbox.
Diablo III ($20). A squad-based fantasy/adventure game in which you and your companions learn spells and develop skill sets to battle zombielike creatures in a medieval-style landscape. If you’re the Dungeons & Dragons type, you’ll love it. It’s the kind of game a novice can pick up and work with if he/she just starts mashing buttons. Up to four players. Also on Nintendo, Xbox, PS4 and Mac.
War Thunder (Free). This popular title lets you do battle in authentic military vehicles—tanks, helicopters, airplanes, ships—from World War II and the Cold War. You can play one-on-one or in teams. Its sophistication makes it fun, where little things like the precise angle of approach, distance from the enemy and armor thickness affect outcomes. Up to 32 players. Also on Xbox, PS4 and Mac.