During 2020’s wild ride, rediscovering video games

Why We Wrote This

The young male video gamer stereotype may have weakened further this spring as Americans turned to new games and old – as an activity in isolation, and to share online with friends.

Courtesy of Allegra Frank
The avatar for Allegra Frank, Vox culture editor, stands among townspeople in Ms. Frank's copy of the best-selling Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The March 2020 release of the video game's new edition coincided with more people staying at home during the pandemic.

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It’s not easy being a roller coaster mogul, but someone has to do it. At least, that’s what I told myself as I logged into RollerCoaster Tycoon for the third night in a row.

It had been 15 years since I played that classic video game, but during the pandemic, it has provided a crucial escape from the small Rhode Island apartment I’m sharing with three other people. Video games tend to have a bad reputation, but they’ve become a source of comfort for many in a time of physical and social restriction. Game sales spiked in March and April, and the influx of new and returning players is helping chip away at gamer stereotypes.

Allegra Frank, host of a video game podcast, has spent much of her down time playing the wildly popular island-life simulator called Animal Crossing: New Horizons. She sends pictures of the game to friends, and “Even if we’re not playing together, we’ll compare notes,” says Ms. Frank. “So games that aren’t multiplayer can still be social. And I think that’s also a really important part of why these games are so pleasurable right now.”

On day 60 of the lockdown things were not going well in my universe. My guests were starving. Families were trapped on a merry-go-round. And an ostrich named Ophelia was on the loose. 

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. My return to the RollerCoaster Tycoon video game after a 15-year hiatus was supposed to be an escape from the cramped Rhode Island apartment I’m sharing with three other people, an opportunity to regain the sense of power and control I felt playing as a kid. Instead, mayhem.  

But logging on to the classic amusement park simulator is still a refreshing change of pace, and it seems I’m not the only one finding comfort in video game nostalgia. According to NPD Group, U.S. consumers spent more than $3 billion on games, consoles, and accessories in March and April, as lockdowns spread across the country. While some folks are using this time to unplug, finish home projects, and bake bread from scratch, others are leaning into digital hobbies. 

Lindsey McGinnis/The Christian Science Monitor
In Atari's RollerCoaster Tycoon 3, players build simulated theme parks. Lindsey McGinnis designed this park while rediscovering her favorite video games during the pandemic. Experts say people can use video games as a form of escapism, build problem solving skills, and connect with other players.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

“A lot of people do play [video games] as a form of escapism,” says Jose Aviles, an assistant professor of communications at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania, who studies gaming. “In a time where a lot of people are stressed out, and not sure what’s going on around them, they could turn to video games” for relief. Used in moderation, says Dr. Aviles, video games offer a chance to build problem-solving skills and connect with other players – a bonus at a time when the masses are practicing social distancing.

This trend is no more apparent than in Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Like the Tycoon and Sims franchises, Animal Crossing has been around for a couple decades, but the latest edition has broken sales records since its March 20 release. 

It’s also been dominating the down time of Allegra Frank, Vox culture editor and co-host of the gaming podcast “The Polygon Show,” and a longtime Animal Crossing fan. In the six weeks after New Horizons was released, she clocked more than 125 hours on the game. 

“Which, compared to a lot of my friends, is actually not that much,” she says, “but for me it certainly is.”

The primary goal of Animal Crossing is to build a community on a deserted island. Players can spend their days collecting rare fish and fossils to build an island museum, or plant dozens of fruit trees to encourage visitors. Like RollerCoaster Tycoon, the charming island life simulator keeps the stakes low and encourages creativity. The newest installment also features multiplayer mode, where people can travel to other islands to trade resources, get inspiration for their own town layout, or just hang out.

Minus an officiant and the paperwork, some people have hosted wedding ceremonies on Animal Crossing, dressing their avatars in formal wear and relaying vows via speech bubbles. Others have used the platform to gather friends for parties or an island-wide game of hide and seek. People have even interacted with celebrities or elected officials. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., an active Animal Crossing player, delivered on May 8 what she called her “first ever commencement address” at a small virtual ceremony for a graduate from Tulane University in New Orleans.

But even without multiplayer mode, these games act as a social buoy by offering something novel to talk about.

“I will send pictures of my Animal Crossing islands to my friends, even if we’re not playing together, and we’ll compare notes,” says Ms. Frank. “So games that aren’t multiplayer can still be social. And I think that’s also a really important part of why these games are so pleasurable right now.”

The stereotype of an antisocial basement-dweller addicted to violent games is fading, and it definitely doesn’t compute with Ms. Frank’s Animal Crossing experience. And as the video game industry expands, different types of games and players are becoming more visible

“I talk to my parents and I tell them, I think you would like Animal Crossing. It’s so chill and cute. It has great music and funny writing,” says Ms. Frank. “And they’re not totally shocked to hear me say that.” 

But Animal Crossing is an investment – the game and the device it runs on are expensive and can be difficult to find. For beginners seeking an easy on-ramp into the video game world, Ms. Frank recommends Neko Atsume, a free mobile app where players take care of stray cats. The Untitled Goose Game is another popular option available on Mac and PC via Steam, a free-to-download gaming software that I use for RollerCoaster Tycoon. The game lets you play as a terrible goose wreaking havoc on a British town. There are puzzles to complete – pull the groundskeeper’s rake into the lake, trap the boy in the phone booth, steal the man’s slippers – but they don’t take too much time or controller savvy. 

“For people who are new to this, but want something to do right now that’s sweet, easy, and simple, those are my two,” she says. 

And of course, you could try moonlighting as a roller coaster mogul.

Problem solving and socializing, as much as childhood nostalgia, have certainly been a part of my gaming experience. All my park’s challenges, from escaped birds to deadly waterslides, I tackled with the help – or at least commiseration – of my brother, friends, and partner. That’s why I’m sticking with RollerCoaster Tycoon.

At least until the real world becomes a little sweeter, easier, simpler.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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