As a U.S. military member stationed in the Kingdom of Spain, I couldn’t manage to avoid the restriction of movement, quarantine, lock down, house arrest (whatever you wanna call it) implemented across pretty much the whole world during the past few months. This is all in an effort to stop the spread of the Coronavirus (or COVID-19, as the disease is called), which has become a global pandemic and a general pain in the ass—as you probably already know.
That being said, when it comes to me, I guess I have always been a bit of a rebel. During the global lock down period, I visited the museum a few times, went fishing, got into bug catching and even tried my hand at flower breeding—all of it outdoors! I did some Easter egg hunting for—you guessed it—Easter, threw a few dance parties with other people at my house, enjoyed some cosplay, chilled with neighbors, and pretty much ignored all warnings and recommendations about this thing that other people out there are still rightfully afraid of.
Honestly, the entire planet could’ve been on lock down for all I cared. Because there was never any quarantine in Avalon, my Animal Crossing island.
For anyone out there living under a Bell rock: Animal Crossing is a social-simulation video game series developed and published by Nintendo. In the game, you play as a human who lives among adorably anthropomorphic animals. Your goal in the latest entry on the Nintendo Switch, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, is to develop an initially-deserted island into the best place to live.
The player has free reign to modify the island as they please and most of the time is spent doing tasks such as fishing, bug hunting, socializing with other villagers, gathering resources to improve the island and the player’s home, and so on. The series is known for taking advantage of the console’s internal clock, so that events happen in real time. That is to say, if it’s night time in real life, it’s night time in the game, and vice-versa. The weather matches the seasons. Different events happen during specific holidays…you get the point.
Now, in my opinion, most gamers would probably agree that video games serve as a means to escape real-life, if only for a few hours at a time. Through video games, you can be anything and do anything. Your life can be whatever you want it to be. The setting of whichever game you choose to play becomes your world. Your home can be wherever your player character lives.
The villagers on my island don’t need to wear face masks. They’re not confined to their houses. They suffer no stress except for the occasional flea, wasp nest on a tree, or tarantula bite—and even those are quickly taken care of with a swift swing of a net. One of the villagers on my island actually got sick at one point. I went to the only shop in town, bought medicine for 400 Bells, delivered it to him, and that was that.
Life in Avalon (a name I was able to choose myself) is simple. Ironically, your goal as a player is to make your island a place others would want to live in—and who in their right mind wouldn’t, considering the alternative at this moment in time?
So yes, the prevalent concept of video games as escapism is on full display during these times. The Nintendo Switch went out of stock worldwide for a very long while except for the Lite variant. That, to me, is as strong a sign as any. I spent most of my free time during the lock down in Avalon, managed to stop smoking for weeks, and my obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) symptoms remained in check for a pretty long time too. I don’t know how much of this was because of the game, to be honest, but I gladly took it.
I’ve been an on-and-off gamer for pretty much as long as I can remember. Escapism through video games is not something I’m just discovering now. However, what I found out recently was something I hadn’t thought about before.
Most video games nowadays have online functionality. Players around the globe can play together in real-time. This is pretty common stuff, but with Animal Crossing, at least in my experience, it provides something I honestly never considered.
As a Sailor, being away from loved ones is my bread and butter. During this pandemic and consequent lock down, even interacting with local friends is off-limits. Loneliness and homesickness can strike hard. Relationships can struggle and friendships can fade.
But here’s the thing: remember all those fun activities I mentioned I was doing while virtually rebelling against COVID-19’s worldwide lock down?
Well, one of my museum trips was actually a date with my girlfriend, who happens to be another Sailor stationed in Japan. The other museum visit was with my best friend from my college years—he lives in Colorado and I haven’t seen him in real life in almost a year. He was also at my island’s dance party, along with my sister with whom now I’ve been able to hang out in-game a few times after a long while without seeing her too.
Some of my flower breeding was at a garden I built with my friend on his island, which I visited simply by going online and flying my character over with Dodo Airlines. During the Easter egg hunt, both my sister and my friend helped me collect the eggs I was missing. And the cosplay thing? That was with my girlfriend too. We designed Jedi costumes and posed for photos in front of one of my island’s buildings.
I suppose I should count myself lucky that they all happen to have the same video game. Interacting with them almost as if we were occupying the same physical space definitely made these times a lot easier to bear. But the real value of this whole thing has been something I hadn’t realized before and won’t soon forget.
Sure, video games are a solid way to kill time, and an even better source of that escapism we all need sometimes. But every now and then, I guess they can offer more than just a chance to get away. Because as I’ve learned through my experience with Animal Crossing: New Horizons during this pandemic, they can also be an opportunity to come back home.