Why games like Animal Crossing are the new social media of the coronavirus era

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Released in September, Kind Words was originally designed as an antidote to an increasingly vitriolic internet environment, says co-creator Ziba Scott. In recent weeks, though, it’s taken on an additional role as a comforting, safe way for people to communicate. Last week, the game saw an increase of 17,000 messages from the week before, many of which included words like “quarantine,” “covid,” and “sick,” says Scott.

Chris Ferguson, a video game researcher at Stetson University, says that games like Kind Words and Animal Crossing are following in the footsteps of microniche online communities that have popped up over the past few years. Much of the game play is built around the relationships that gamers can form with like-minded players. That’s especially important in the coronavirus era.

“I think the value proposition is a lot clearer,” says Scott. People who had never played games before the current crisis could now suddenly see how games could help them connect, he says. Even the WHO is now encouraging people to stay home and play video games, using the hashtag #PlayApartTogether. That’s certainly helping to erase some of the stigma around games and the specter of video-game addiction. “It’s incredible,” says Kowert. “They’re switching the narrative of moral panic.”

Video games, particularly the soothing ones, also offer safe spaces for marginalized people or those seeking solace in the simple joy of meeting someone new. They offer a possible way for us to show our digital selves, our personalities, without having to show our “real selves”—making connection less scary, both physically and emotionally.

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For Imam, games are also a portal into what could have been. “I grew up during the 2008 recession and am about to graduate into an economic downturn,” she says. “Moving into a place in this alternate reality where I can control everything, from my basic survival to going where I want to meeting people—it’s kind of perfect.”

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