Stay-at-home orders during the COVID pandemic have been a boon to the games biz — and may have altered consumer behavior for years to come.

About 55% of U.S. video gamers say they have played more during the pandemic, and 90% say they are likely to continue playing even after social distancing is no longer required. That’s according to the annual report released Tuesday by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the trade group that reps game publishers, developers and console makers.

There are now a total 226.6 million video game players in the U.S. of all ages, growing nearly 6% from 214.4 million in 2020, according to the ESA. That’s on the heels of the video-game audience swelling about 30% last year, up from 164 million in 2019.

Overall, the ESA’s “2021 Essential Facts About the Video Game Industry” study indicates that not only are more people playing video games than ever before but also that the gaming audience has grown more diverse and reflective of American society.

Per the study, 77% of gamers play with others online or in-person at least weekly (up from 65% in 2020). In addition, 74% of parents play games with their children at least weekly (up from 55% in 2020). That “speaks to the sense of connection that people have when they play games together,” ESA president/CEO Stan Pierre-Louis said. “More people are playing, and more people in each demographic are playing.”

During the pandemic, according to the survey, 55% of respondents said video games have been a welcome source of stress relief, and 48% said they’ve been a “distraction.”

Among other key findings from the survey: About 55% of those surveyed identify as male (vs. 59% last year) with 45% identifying as female (vs. 41% in 2020). The average video game player is 31 years old (and 80% of players are over 18), with 38% of gamers 18-34.

“This year’s report is a snapshot of the American video game playing community following a year of social distancing, just as the country was starting to open again,” Pierre-Louis said. “Players across the country embrace the ability of games to inspire, provide stress relief and mental stimulation or simply bring joy through play.”

Games remain among the most popular sources of entertainment among younger people. A Deloitte study earlier this year found that Gen Z consumers in the U.S. ranked video games as their No. 1 entertainment activity — while watching TV or movies came in fifth.

The ESA report is based on a survey of about 4,000 U.S. adults about their video game playing habits and attitudes conducted earlier this year. The survey, fielded from Feb. 15-26, has margin of error of 1.55%.

The study also included ESRB rating data. Of the 4,201 ratings assigned by the ESRB to physical and downloadable console games in 2020, 49% received an E (Everyone) rating; 21% received a T
(Teen) rating; 16% received an E10+ (Everyone 10+) rating; and 14% received an M (Mature) rating.

“People don’t realize the majority of games are recommended for kids and adults,” said Pierre-Louis. “More and more, we’re finding parents find games positive for children in how they work with others and learn.”