Random Encounter #4: In Which the State of Things Affects the State of Play

I have to write these things in advance. 

Normally, that means thinking about a particular game or topic that will be relevant in the publishing window and putting together some kind of pithy commentary or academic dissertation on it. For reference, I was thinking about writing about the Final Fantasy VII Remake, something about commodifying nostalgia and remaking the past so it aligns with our memory of it. It probably would have been passable. Maybe for May.  

But you may have noticed the world isn’t exactly a place for “passable” at the moment.  

COVID-19 has hit us all, whether personally, professionally, or even just by disrupting the familiar rhythms of contemporary life. Remember when you could go to grocery stores without anxiously doing the math in your head to make sure that complete stranger is six feet away from you? Those were the Before Times, as my wife and I half-jokingly call them as the old normal recedes further into the past. Our country calls on us to stay at home, to serve our fellow citizens by coming nowhere near them.  

Games like Final Fantasy XII offer nostalgia and escape.  

Against this tableau, video games have never felt more trivial. Certainly, the industry is feeling the effects of the pandemic – last month the highly-anticipated (by me anyway) TurboGrafx-16 Mini retro console was delayed as a result of COVID-19 related manufacturing disruptions; the long-awaited sequel The Last of Us II was also indefinitely delayed from its original May release and is likely to herald a wave of similar postponements as studios struggle to decentralize the bandwidth-intensive process of game development and manufacturing. The industry’s biggest annual trade show, E3, was outright canceled, with some wondering if this might be the first nail in the coffin for an event whose utility was largely usurped by social media and online video. The cancelation and postponement of major sports is likely to have impacts on the annual development cycle for those games; the rescheduling of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics has led to amusing takes about the newfound status of the Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 game as an ahistorical document. Major games retailer GameStop tried (and failed, after significant and justified criticism and employee resistance) to pass themselves off as an essential service to keep stores open, likely due to concern over their long-term future. There is no denying there are hard times to come for the industry, but it feels like a blip in the unrelenting bleakness of the international news as a whole.  

The Last of Us 2
Maybe now isn’t the best time for a game about fighting for survival after a deadly pandemic. (Credit: Forbes) 

And yet games have never felt so important, either. It sank in somewhere around the time the World Health Organization recommended video game play as a means of dealing with the situation, less than a year after classifying video game addiction as a mental disorder. I could sit here and tell you that the research backs them up – that in a time where we are discouraged to physically distance ourselves video games have been found to act as a rich and safe social space for players of all stripes. I could point to researcher and game designer Jane McGonigal’s lauding of the palliative and prosocial aspects of games, from the recuperative power of her own Superbetter or the cooperative creativity of the World Without Oil alternate reality game. But these are high-minded academic concepts. What if they just let us pretend, for a moment, what it’s like to go outside and talk to our friends? 

A picture containing grass, outdoor, building, child

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We’re all very excited about the opening of this museum. 

The undisputed hero of pandemic social distancing is undoubtedly Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the latest iteration of the long-running Nintendo series and the reason so many people on your Twitter feed are mad at raccoons.1 The game’s plot is non-existent: you are a child/young adult/blank video game avatar who moves onto a deserted tropical island with some animal friends and then proceeds to build out a homestead and infrastructure through harvesting resources, catching bugs, and raising funds to pay off progressively higher home loans. Unlike most games, there’s no bosses to defeat and no conflict other than perhaps a creeping sense of FOMO (or the occasional game of musical chairs). Nor is there anything particularly game-like about it – much of the game is simply running around the island doing mundane chores like pulling weeds and picking fruit in the hopes that you can raise more money to do other mundane chores like decorating your house and building rudimentary bridges. In short: while most games are work, Animal Crossing is more work than most.  

But perhaps it’s this simulation of meaningful, simple, colorful work that we needed – the quiet toil of using the game’s systems to make the island uniquely yours is a welcome salve for an age of uncertainty and anxiety, where we are seeing the shortcomings of our real-world systems laid bare in ways both unprecedented and avoidable, where we are searching for purpose in days that start to blur together. We can’t do much about our current circumstances, but we can grow that peach orchard. We can’t hang out with our friends in real life, but their avatars can hop on the next Dodo Airlines flight and check out the new paving stones we put up between the Able Sisters’ store and Resident Services. In a real world that looks like the opening act of a horror movie, there’s something powerful about being able to visit a dollhouse world where nothing can hurt you, and the record-breaking sales and actual shortage of Nintendo Switch systems show that millions around the world want to visit a place like that.   

Highlights from the F1 Virtual Grand Prix, featuring real Formula 1 drivers and other athletes racing in the F1 2019 game.

All told, video games are serving a unique and powerful purpose in this current reality. Major sports and sports networks are using video games to attract lost audiences as esports more broadly grows in viewership and appeal. In the wake of their flagship August event being delayed, philanthropic speed-running collective Games Done Quick is hosting a Coronavirus relief event this weekend (April 17-19) to raise money for humanitarian causes. The pandemic has disrupted our rhythms of life for the foreseeable future and perhaps for years to come, but whether it’s letting us watch virtual sports or tend to our pretend gardens, games are giving us at least some level of structure, purpose, and escape. 

Until next time – be well, stay safe, and wash your hands.  

By Dr. Bryan Carr

Bryan Carr is an Associate Professor in the Communication, Information Science, and Women’s & Gender Studies departments. Among other things, he is the host and producer of “Serious Fun”, a podcast taking an academic look at popular culture on the Phoenix Studios podcast network. How do new fossils keep showing up on the island every morning?  

[1] Yes, it’s an Animal Crossing article in the end. I could talk about DOTA Underlords instead. Would you like me to talk about DOTA Underlords? I’ve been doing great in that game, I’ve got several first-place finishes under my belt and the new City Crawl is a great way to explore the game’s systems and solve puzz-hey, wake up.

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