Jeff and Eric Rosenthal, brothers in their mid-thirties who live in New York City, have been playing a lot of Super Mario lately.
The duo, which operates a comedy / hip-hop podcasting empire under the name ItsTheReal, when they realized they were stuck in their apartment for a long time, they told me that they bought an old-school Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) console preloaded with 30 classic games. They played video games throughout their childhood, but gaming wasn’t really much of their upbringing, apart from short dalliances with games like Tetris and Super Mario, and separate trips to Grand Theft Auto in college.
“Since we live in New York City,” said Eric, “neither Jeff nor I have really touched a controller, nor a console in the house.”
That changed when the quarantine order came. “I think it’s nice to go back to a game that’s a bit safe and nostalgic,” said Jeff. “There is a warm feeling when you think, ‘Oh well, that’s where you deform,’ or ‘Oh well, that’s the trick to get through this sign.” ”
In this vein, since early March, at least half a dozen friends have been asking me if they should get a video game system. These friends don’t like video games, or at least they haven’t been in years. Maybe they were playing a strange phone game. They may have pleasant, vague memories of Pokémon or Neopets. What they all have is boredom, fear, and at the moment an irreconcilable need for comfort.
My best friend Aude, who completely ignored video games in the past (and had slightly bullied me and our shared gamer friends about our habits), has advanced her friend’s new Switch during the start of quarantine to play Breath of the Wild , the sprawling open-world Zelda game. Her friend sent our group chat a photo of Aude, a toothbrush hanging from the side of her mouth with her hands clasped around the red-and-blue buttons. I missed her so much at the time, even though we had been constantly video chatting; I missed our lives.
“I think one of the reasons I like this game right now,” Aude texted us, “is that you can explore this vast, expansive natural landscape. It feels a bit like freedom.”
I have seen this sentiment echo throughout the Internet since the spread of the new coronavirus in the United States and resulted in a large number of people isolating themselves indoors. It’s not limited to the Switch or even specialized consoles – many people have that The Sims rediscovered on their computers, for others, while others double it iOS and Android apps for their phones.
I just realized in 25 years that there will be an American Girl doll that has experienced the coronavirus pandemic and her $ 86 accessories will be a little Nintendo Switch, a little thing of Clorox wipes and fake bread that she herself learned how to bake a YouTube video.
– Caroline Moss (@CarolineMoss) March 21, 2020
In a time that really makes no sense, the wave of gaming does. Of course we want escapism. Of course we want to be reassured. Of course, we want to feel that the right combination of buttons and strategies will result in a win, whether that’s like a well-maintained digital farm or the neat conquest of a fictional nation.
It would be hard to overestimate what a huge chunk of my own brain space video games now occupy. I’ve always loved games – I’ve been obsessed with getting a Game Boy Color when I was 10 years old – but now it’s not that many fun distractions because it’s a handful of places I can go to if I can’t go anywhere else . I wake up and check out my Animal Crossing Island, I spend my free time at work browsing Fire Emblem memes (to drop them into my Fire Emblem Slack and Fire Emblem Discord channels), I wander through it expansive scenery of Breath of the Wild until it’s time to go to sleep. I write paper lists of tasks I’d like to perform in each of my respective games, believing Katie Heaney’s theory for the Cut that games are basically to-do lists that you can play, in a good way.
I’m sure this sounds like an absolute nightmare to some people, but for me it’s a relief to have a series of small milestones that I know I can reach even if I find it difficult to feed myself regularly or parse emails from people to write. I’m having a lot of issues with my IRL to-do list right now, feeling like a permanent failure even though I know there’s no endgame quarantining productivity beyond what you personally get out of it, no moral vector in the game here. Having a list of virtual tasks, with no commitment, helps.
Many people, including those who have not experienced their entire conscious lives, seem to be getting some comfort from video games right now. When I asked Jeff and Eric why they chose to buy an NES instead of something new like the Switch, Jeff said it was largely down to the price. But that’s not all: “I looked at other game systems and it was like getting only one game. The variety was very important to me,” he said.
Availability was also an issue. “All switches were sold out!” Eric said. “It was the weekend of Animal Crossing, which I assume was a month and a half from Animal Crossing, and the prize [of the Switch] kept going up and down. I was like, damn it. ‘
According to the NPD Group, Switch will sell in March more than doubled from the previous yearand sales of PS4 and Xbox One rose more than 25 percent year over year, VentureBeat reports. This news comes along with the fact that the Switch has been hard to come by for months; the original version, which can be played on your TV (called “docked mode”) or calculator, is sold out at almost every direct seller, with some third-party prices being as high as double the original. The Switch Lite – which retails for a hundred dollars less, is smaller and doesn’t have a docked mode – is still somewhat available, but even then it’s scarce at major retailers or only available as part of a more expensive bundle. (Nintendo declined to comment on this story.)
One reason for this performance on consoles, as Eric said, is undoubtedly the release of a Switch game that has become a gaming metonym in the coronavirus era. Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a game that rendered the term “long-awaited” useless, came out on March 20 in a time of astonishing timing. People on Twitter had said half jokingly, but not really jokingly the early release as soon as the urgent need for social distance became apparent, and others were likely happy to have only the excuse to play more often.
From the timing, New Horizons producer Hisashi Nogami said the edge, “I am very discouraged and saddened by the events that are taking place all over the world. Given the timing, we hope many Animal Crossing fans will use this as an escape so they can enjoy themselves in this difficult time. ”
And they certainly enjoy themselves. I live in a self-chosen bubble, of course, but it was rare to open Twitter or Instagram in the past month without seeing screenshots of my friends’ Animal Crossing Islands, the small cozy homes they built and decorated for their avatar- themselves, the clothes they have adapted to wear. The appeal is not only in the game itself, but in its social nature completely separate from the virus. As Allegra Frank wrote for Vox:
I hadn’t seen my friends in over a week when the game finally became available; I had barely gone outside. The headlines gave me more fear with every push warning. But on March 20, I came to a desert island, where the beach is, animal lovers are always close by, small shops are open for business. All my friends were as excited as I was to play and stayed on the release day until midnight to dive in at the same time. It was a new topic of conversation, a point of unity in our lives that we could merge and bridge the social divide created by a global health crisis.
That social element was not entirely positive, but it was certainly robust. Animal Crossing’s explosive popularity has led to a miniature cottage industry writing whether or not it is actually a capitalist hellscape, a twist of the stereotypical colonial fantasy of the island paradise, or the game we really need now. These opinions are all valid to varying degrees; yet the game gives many people a lot of things to talk about that do not require a death toll or the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical professionals or the lack of leadership of the people who should do everything this is better.
You could certainly blame the revival of the hot-take industrial complex, and the fact that seemingly every journalist is struggling to gain a foothold, however skewed, in the greatest story of our lives. But I would like to think that there is something purer in the game: the need to come together, even if we can’t physically, to have conversations and arguments and remind ourselves that we are alive for now.
That grounding, that connection, even when you play alone, I think is the essential quality that video games offer, despite the fact that they are hardly essential themselves. (Example: GameStop tried to call itself an “essential” service in an attempt to stay open during coronavirus locks, but only admitted after significant public outcry. In my opinion, this move was not only deaf, shortsighted and dangerous for both employees and customers, but also embarrassing for gamers.) Having the ability to focus on a game, not to mention the time and money to spend on this playing is a huge privilege. For some, it is also the thing that gives a foothold in a time with few.
Playing video games has taken on a new and quiet urgency for me during this time, much like brushing my teeth or going outside for a walk – something I always took for granted as part of the fabric of my day, but that now feels somewhat integral to my common sense, my rhythm, my constant grip on reality.
I have to check in on my “horny magical war school“Students and my turnip prices the same way I have to check my bank account, my temperature, my heart rate and my dwindling, but persistent, supply of antidepressants and chickpeas. I want a place that is not there, a series of problems that are not, something that I can talk to my friends and colleagues and strangers about that will not drive me out of fear. Games are designed to provide just that.