If you’d told Areeba Imam a month ago that she’d become obsessed with Nintendo’s Animal Crossing, she wouldn’t have believed you.
“I’ve never played video games before,” says the 23-year-old college student, who is currently hunkered at her parents’ home in northern Virginia as the pandemic tightens its grip on the US. “The only game I knew about was Mario Kart on the computer, because my sister used to play it. I didn’t even know there were different consoles.”
But last week, bored and stuck at home, Imam bought a Nintendo Switch Lite and downloaded only one game: Animal Crossing.
In the game, players are encouraged to build up a deserted island led by a potbellied raccoon real estate tycoon and his nephews and chat with a series of goofy anthropomorphic animals. Imam finds the game both an escape and a safe space to reconnect with friends. “I’ve met a couple of friends and visited their islands, which has been nice, kind of like seeing them,” she says. “We’re not talking about what’s happening in our lives, which is refreshing in that we don’t have to panic.”
She’s not the only one finding solace and connection on a digital island during the current crisis. Actress Brie Larson conducted an interview with Elle magazine from her “Dessert Island,” model Chrissy Teigen has tweeted about her obsession with the game, and singer Lil Nas X has put out a request on Instagram to connect with others.
Animal Crossing is not the only game to create a virtual escape for people frustrated with being locked inside; others include a similar land development game, Stardew Valley. Gentle, non-violent games have—along with baking elaborate loaves of bread, puzzling, and mastering the art of Zoom happy hour—become one of our coronavirus isolation coping mechanisms.
These games are more than escapist entertainment, though; they’re helping to reshape how we connect in a future where social distancing might become the norm. Video games are letting people chat, connect, and meet new people. In the past month alone, graduations, wedding ceremonies, protests, and virtual meetups with pals were coordinated on lush pixelated screens. Meanwhile, students in San Antonio and the Bronx have re-created their high schools in Minecraft, and Final Fantasyplayers organized a digital memorial march when one of their own died of the coronavirus. While the pandemic and ensuing lockdown have dramatically changed the way we live our lives, video games offer a way for us to safely indulge in our basic human need to connect.
Rachel Kowert, a research psychologist who has studied gaming for the past decade, suggests that the overwhelming urge is not fantasy and distraction so much as a desperate need to have control over something—anything. Imam says as much: “I can’t control what’s going on right now, but I can control the tasks I do on my island, and it’s calming.”
Many of these “comforting” games are classified as “life simulators,” Kowert says. The activities they involve allow players to feel a sense of normalcy. They aren’t grounded in fantasy; rather, they run on a frontier-like narrative of building the land and connecting with neighbors to create community, fostering an environment where players feel they don’t compete but work together. It also allows for communication—as you team up to gather fossils and fish, for example. Real-world dynamics come into play as well (annoying younger siblings can barge into your room here, too, see the TikTok below).
These games are also easy to play, lowering the bar to entry. “There’s not a lot of effort to play them—not a lot of buttons, no pressure, no stress, no one chasing you,” Kowert says. If you want to cultivate and sell vegetables, you can. If you want to spend an entire day decorating your house, you can. If you want to learn the neighborhood gossip, fish, or explore a forest, you can. There is no one right way to spend a day, and usually all it takes is moving a joystick one direction or another to see the world.
“In Animal Crossing, it’s going to another island and playing with your friends,” says Kowert. “In Stardew Valley, it’s getting to know the villagers around you. These are parasocial relationships.”
Kind Words is another game that helps players in lockdown communicate with strangers. In it, an avatar sits at a desk in a digital bedroom and types out questions about real-world personal problems. In return, other players respond with encouraging notes. The game takes place entirely within the space of a room, with players receiving and sending notes via digital envelope.
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Released in September, Kind Words was originally designed as an antidote to an increasingly vitriolic internet environment, says co-creator Ziba Scott. In recent weeks, though, it’s taken on an additional role as a comforting, safe way for people to communicate. Last week, the game saw an increase of 17,000 messages from the week before, many of which included words like “quarantine,” “covid,” and “sick,” says Scott.
Chris Ferguson, a video game researcher at Stetson University, says that games like Kind Words and Animal Crossing are following in the footsteps of microniche online communities that have popped up over the past few years. Much of the game play is built around the relationships that gamers can form with like-minded players. That’s especially important in the coronavirus era.
“I think the value proposition is a lot clearer,” says Scott. People who had never played games before the current crisis could now suddenly see how games could help them connect, he says. Even the WHO is now encouraging people to stay home and play video games, using the hashtag #PlayApartTogether. That’s certainly helping to erase some of the stigma around games and the specter of video-game addiction. “It’s incredible,” says Kowert. “They’re switching the narrative of moral panic.”
Video games, particularly the soothing ones, also offer safe spaces for marginalized people or those seeking solace in the simple joy of meeting someone new. They offer a possible way for us to show our digital selves, our personalities, without having to show our “real selves”—making connection less scary, both physically and emotionally.
For Imam, games are also a portal into what could have been. “I grew up during the 2008 recession and am about to graduate into an economic downturn,” she says. “Moving into a place in this alternate reality where I can control everything, from my basic survival to going where I want to meeting people—it’s kind of perfect.”