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The two main characters in Genshin Impact. Image: Mihoyo

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Mobile games have quietly exploded

Among Us and Genshin Impact have boomed in a time when most people aren’t “mobile” at all

Every day on the internet, new micro-trends emerge, only to become old news five minutes later. In Polygon’s new series The Next Generation of Everything, we’re looking at what’s blowing up in the worlds and fandoms we follow, and what the latest shifts say about where Extremely Online life is going next.

Mobile games are great at keeping us distracted for awkward cracks of time in our schedule, from commutes, to waiting in line for seats at a restaurant, to the few conscious minutes before we finally doze off in bed. Rather than keep players captive for long hours at a stretch, most are designed for quick, short bursts of play. Take the absurdly captivating cat-watching game Neko Atsume, or the rapid-fire rounds of the hit deception game Among Us — most sessions take fewer than 15 minutes.

But now that staying home and avoiding crowds are crucial to keeping a global pandemic at bay, mobile games are scratching a different sort of itch. They’re seeing increasing popularity even among core gaming circles. More than just the mindless time drains of yesteryear, today’s mobile games aren’t just fun, but also worthwhile social experiences: they let players stave off the one-two punch of isolation and “always online” fatigue.

No other game has heralded the arrival of mobile games as a “core” genre more than the meteoric rise of Genshin Impact. A free-to-play RPG in the vein of its most obvious inspiration—The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the WildGenshin Impact is notable for being an exceedingly intricate mobile title that’s bursting at the seams with activities, from finding ingredients to cook with, to completing a plethora of quests and adding new heroes to your party roster. At a time where many players are confined at home, it’s a game tailor-made for extended periods of play.

Lisa character Genshin Impact Image: Mihoyo via Polygon

But Genshin Impact isn’t a meaningless loop of repetitive content. In stark contrast to the cyclical tap-tap-tap cadence of harvesting your rewards in other mobile games, it also tells a deeply riveting tale that has not only found an audience outside the typical mobile gaming demographic, but also among new players without the hardware to play more conventional and resource-hogging RPGs. In its first week, Genshin Impact saw 23 million mobile downloads. Perhaps we may soon see similar success in this year’s bumper crop of triple-A mobile experiences: the potential juggernauts like Diablo Immortal or Nier: Reincarnation, the latter being so popular in Japan that it’s already the top-grossing iPhone title since its release on February 18.

Even as a largely single-player experience, there’s also a social aspect to Genshin Impact, allowing players to embark on good ol’ fashioned looting and hacking quests alongside friends. With the pandemic looming over us, recent titles are latching even more heavily onto such social features, allowing players to express themselves beyond customizable avatars and weapon skins.

One such title is Epic Games’ Fortnite. Before being banned from the App Store and Google Play in August last year, it was downloaded more than 129 million times in these marketplaces. What’s more, its virtual world has evolved into an expansive, sprawling metaverse beyond its battle royale and survival modes. Here is where players can blow each other to smithereens, or vibe to concerts by the likes of Marshmello, Travis Scott and Deadmau5 — a development that follows the surge of popularity around virtual and streamed concerts on platforms like Twitch and Facebook. Travis Scott’s virtual gig in Fortnite, for instance, was watched by more than 12 million players.

Along with these games’ social elements is a growing communal lexicon of words and expressions, some of which are influenced by and seeping into popular culture. Take the wild popularity of Fortnite emotes, which have become a form of personal expression for players, as well as the game’s most recognizable yet controversial symbols — often appropriated without credit to the original artists. These emotes can be used as a victory dance to taunt defeated players or, in the case of rarer emotes like the “Rock Out” and “The Floss” moves, serve as bragging rights for players who have been playing since the early days. Their popularity has even been tapped by Epic Games for an emote competition, which encouraged Tiktok users to create dances that may be forever immortalized as a Fortnite emote.

A similar lexicon can be seen in Sky: Children of the Light by Thatgamecompany, the studio behind the critically acclaimed art game, Journey. But unlike Fortnite, Sky is predominantly centered around “expressions”—collectable actions that allow players to silently communicate with each other, from common ones such as bowing, to time-limited expressions like hair tousling and play-fighting. Its popularity is evident in the 35 million downloads since its release on Android last year.

Two characters pose in unison in Sky: Children of the Light Image: Thatgamecompany

And of course there’s “sus” in Among Us, used to slander an innocent crew member or bring to light the game’s most heinous crime: wanton murder. The catchphrase captures the essence of the mobile game: a convenient shorthand for the word “suspicious,” and a meme that’s centered around some of the game’s funniest moments. It came into popular use with Among Us’ focus on social interaction and cooperation, coupled with simple, straightforward mechanics that make the game incredibly easy to pick up. The result is a title that has skyrocketed in popularity to become the most-played game ever, with roughly 500 million monthly users in November.

Like Sky and Fortnite, Among Us feels like a game that’s made for this era: a salve for self-isolation and online fatigue. These mobile games fulfill their players’ needs for social connection in the midst of the pandemic.

But one game is succeeding in spite of those global changes. Conventional wisdom suggests that the pre-pandemic popularity of Pokémon Go, a game that’s explicitly about getting people together to explore every nook and cranny of the urban jungle, would have crumbled today. Yet 2020 was its highest-earning year so far. Developer Niantic tweaked its features to allow players to go Pokémon hunting from the comfort of their couch, all while still helping players connect with each other via remote raids. It is the exception that proves the rule: Mobile games are flourishing because they are crucial to making and sustaining personal connections, while also agile enough to adapt to monumental shifts in the zeitgeist.

2020 felt like the banner year for mobile games. As they go through phases of reinvention, or see renewed popularity during this period of self-isolation, it’s likely they’ll continue to remain on this trajectory, exploding in popularity in the years to come. You may soon see elements of Among Us’ bluffing feature in a console game, or encounter more social aspects in future RPGs. Their ubiquity — and their cultural impact — can no longer be ignored.