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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

November 27, 2020   |   Ithaca, NY

ColumnsPopped Culture

Video games offer escapism during pandemic

Right now, the world is in a constant state of unrest, and life as we know it seems to be coming apart at the seams. But even amid all of the uncertainty and fear, some people have found their own way to cope with the dire situation — by playing video games. 

One of the most mainstream examples of a video game people have turned to recently is Animal Crossing. Animal Crossing is a lifesimulation game that follows the progression of real-world time. It requires players to build a town from scratch with the help of adorable animal nonplayer characters (NPCs). The first game in this series was released in the United States in 2001 on the Nintendo GameCube. Since then, there have been four main-series Animal Crossing console games, one free-to-play app game and two spinoff games. The most recent release from the series is Animal Crossing: New Horizons on the Nintendo Switch console. In this game, the player flies to a deserted island and is tasked with making it as beautiful and habitable as possible. 

Before New Horizons, the series had a modest following but had been growing in popularity with each main-story game release. Animal Crossing: New Leaf was one of the top 10 bestselling Nintendo 3DS games as of September 2020, and it has sold approximately 12.82 million copies since its release in 2012. New Horizons has already dwarfed this number in the eight short months since its release. As of September 2020, Nintendo has sold approximately 26.04 million copies of New Horizons, making it the most popular game in the series and the second most popular game released on the Nintendo Switch console. 

So why has this silly little life simulation gained so much fame so quickly? Well, for one, the game’s release date couldn’t have been more perfect. New Horizons dropped March 20, 2020, right around when COVID-19 began to take its toll. The impact of this is supported by a fairly straightforward hypothesis — people, stuck and bored at home, are purchasing more video games. Nintendo and other video game giants like Microsoft have seen significant increases in revenue during this time. 

Furthermore, there is evidence that games like Animal Crossing bring about positive mental health benefits. The game relies heavily on virtual social interaction with NPCs and real-life friends, an internal clock that matches up with real-world time and season progression and daily goals and challenges. All of these integral gameplay elements work together to develop a sense of ritual and structure for the player. Maintaining a daily routine can improve mental health and lower stress levels, and in a time as uncertain as this one, even a virtual routine can be helpful.

Another title that has grown in popularity during the pandemic is Among Us. Among Us went from having virtually no monthly players to now having over 400,000 players on Steam alone. On the app store, the game has maintained its position as the No. 1 top action game on the charts as of Nov 6. 

The premise is a lot like the social deduction game Mafia, also known as Werewolf, that many of us played as kids. In Mafia, one or two people are selected secretly to be mafia members, and the job of these members is to “kill” all of the other players without being caught. Among Us has almost the exact same setup, except it takes place on a spaceship, and “imposters,” who are randomly selected by the game, need to kill the real crewmates before getting caught. 

Obviously, judging by the violent premise of the game, Among Us isn’t the relaxing, routine-building experience that Animal Crossing is. What makes it so beneficial is that it requires group collaboration and conversation. At a time when communication has been severely limited by circumstance, many of our social skills are probably rusty. Among Us has been important in maintaining social communications among friends and strangers. Other than that, Among Us is also just a fun time.

By bringing joy and filling a gaping social void for many, New Horizons and Among Us have made this difficult moment just a bit more bearable. While everything may seem uncertain and stressful, it is comforting to know that there are virtual worlds to fall back on when life gets hard.