Why games like Animal Crossing are the new social media of the coronavirus era

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Gentle, comforting games like Nintendo’s latest hit are perfect escapist entertainment, but they’re also helping us to connect in these strange times.

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.

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um, so, u wanna play animal crossing?

A post shared by Lil Nas X (@lilnasx) on

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, graduationswedding ceremoniesprotests, 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.

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).

Source: Technology Review

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