You’re lying on a beach in the Northern Hemisphere. In a dream a cartoon dog named DJ KK is softly strumming the guitar and telling you that when you open your eyes. Soon you’ll awake to a new reality.
“Crafting is quite simple, provided you have the right recipes,” the Raccoon Leader Tom Nook from Animal Crossing: New Horizons tells you after you make your own DIY flimsy fishing rod. It provides a sense of control — a sense of I-can-do-this — that, to be honest, nothing else in the world can quite provide right now with all the uncertainty and fear surrounding the current coronavirus pandemic.
You may have noticed ACNH specifically has popped up all over your various timelines recently, partly because people are using it as a way to find relaxation.
“My anxiety has been through the roof and it can be overwhelming thinking about the long term effects that this pandemic will have,” says Jennifer, a 25-year-old gamer, whose anxiety has been assuaged tremendously through calming games like ACNH. “Jumping back into a video game lets me forget about all of that — at least for a little while. My day to day hasn’t changed much since I already work from home, but now instead of worrying about a pandemic, I find myself thinking during the middle of my workday, ‘Man, I wish I was playing Animal Crossing right now.’ Just taking a breather every now and then and focusing on something else does wonders for my attitude.”
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Much is said about the neurological effects of playing games. But one recent study on the social impacts of gaming found that playing video games with elements of social interaction has often led to friendships and long-term romantic relationships. The study found that 67 percent of those surveyed have formed some sort of positive relationship via gaming (friendship, dating, or long term relationships). Many of those were able to meet more people via gaming than in person, which feels even more crucial now with social isolation in place. Some formed lifelong relationships, or friendships that lasted at least five years or more.
With how uncertain the future of social interaction feels right now, studies like this one provide a glint of hope that — even if we’re all stuck inside — there are ways for us to love each other through our screens.
Besides the social benefits provided by ACNH and Stardew Valley, both of which I’ve been playing obsessively the last week or so, and which many gamers I spoke with have been playing, it’s also easy to set goals and achieve them in these “slice of life” games. It’s easy to feel productive. And as a bonus you can hang out with friends that can’t physically visit — even if they’re geographically close to you. Crucially, you can also do kind things for your friends and for yourself. You can buy tools or make things: acts of service that most of us can’t do in real life right now.
One 15-year-old girl I spoke with, Claire, who’s been at home with her mom and 18-year-old sibling, has found solace in keeping in touch with friends from school through ACNH and Stardew Valley.
“A friend group of mine all has Animal Crossing. We’ve been playing a ton and we love going to each other’s islands and hanging out,” she explained. ”It’s like getting to be with each other without having to actually be with each other physically. We have matching bunny pajamas in it. It’s amazing.”
Another of Claire’s friend groups used to meet every week, back during The Before Times, but has been taking the social distancing pretty seriously. Now they’re starting a Stardew Valley farm with each other. They haven’t set it up yet but “have high hopes” that it will keep them connected.
Video games like these, that let us build our own worlds, also provide us with specific things to look forward to when most have no idea when we can look forward to seeing loved ones, going to parties, or even stopping by our favorite bars or restaurants for cheese fries and a drink at the end of a hard day. A number of video games gave us the ability to do all of these things and more — just in time, too. The world is our oyster (uh, sea bass? Carp?). It’s ours for the taking or simply living within.
“As a society, we can’t occupy the same physical space as one another for the first time in our lives, and while it might feel like putting a band-aid over a bullet hole, it’s crucial that I can hang out on a peaceful cartoon island with a virtual avatar of someone I know and love whenever I want, no matter where they live,” says tech writer Alex Perry, of why playing games like ACNH has helped. It isn’t a replacement for traditional intimacy, but it’s the best we’ve got right now.”
Most folks I spoke with explained that part of the mass appeal of ACNH is that it allows people to experience a game at the same time as everyone else, which mimics a party or another kind of real-time hangout with friends. There’s a sense of community, making gaming a kind of self-care and socialization tool. Even if it’s “just another video game being played,” it’s easy good at providing you with an urgent distraction from what’s going on in the outside world right now.
As one of my favorite viral ACNH tweets put it last week, “The whole quarantine/Animal Crossing is the exact opposite energy of the summer of Pokemon Go.” Here we all are, separately playing our favorite games, together, trying to find some solace in our separated closeness.
Clinical Psychologist Aimee Daramus further confirmed for me that video games can be, contrary to popular belief, extremely helpful for our mental health. That’s especially true during periods of duress and despair. According to her, playing games allow us to build something — to help us find a sense of control and stability when we’re struggling. Sometimes that’s a town. Sometimes it’s an idealized hero. Other times it’s a world.
“Video games can help you get away for a while,” Daramus explained. “There are research studies showing that people who play games for a while have more focused attention afterwards, especially visual attention.”
In recent research on traumatic stress, studies found that the ability of a game (in this case Tetris) to grab people’s attention actually reduced rates of post-traumatic stress in laboratory experiments. This suggests it may be useful in preventing PTSD after a traumatic experience. Hopefully this means we’ll continue to feel the importance of games after the pandemic calms down.
Daramus also points to Pete Etchells, a psychologist who wrote about using video games to manage grief after his father’s death when he was 13. His book Lost in a Good Game explains the merits of using video games to create a more controlled sense of self when our illusions of control in our life are shattered, like they are for many of us now.
The most soothing thing about video games right now, however, is that if you keep trying, you’ll win eventually — which isn’t always the case in real life. While there might still be curve balls, difficult levels, or hoops to jump through, sooner or later you’re going to level up (or something similar). That can be calming when we live in a world where this often isn’t true of our efforts to grow or succeed.