SINGAPORE: Two conversations stood out for us this week, now seven weeks into the circuit breaker period.
The first was when Andrew’s 4-year-old son, Noah, told his cousin – a 9-year-old boy he has not seen in person for more than a month – to “meet him at the playground”.
The second was when Noah took the other one of us, Jeremy, on a “tour” of his family’s Island, asking if we would like to head to the local museum to check out a new species of beetle recently added to the collection.
These are some ways those playing the Nintendo Switch game, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, hang out.
RISING POPULARITY OF VIDEO GAMES THIS CORONAVIRUS OUTBREAK
Animal Crossing: New Horizons was launched on Mar 20 amid the COVID-19 pandemic and became one of the top-selling video games in the Nintendo Switch library.
The premise of the game is simple, and anyone can play: You move to a deserted island after purchasing a holiday package from a Japanese raccoon dog.
On this island, you can purchase, renovate, and upgrade your home, fish, catch bugs, contribute to an art and natural history museum, shop, and customise your island in any way imaginable.
You can also invite friends to your island to hang out or visit their islands by booking a flight out of yours.
Video games like Animal Crossing have become incredibly popular during the pandemic. In Singapore, Carousell and Lazada have reported a surge in searches or transactions involving consoles and other gaming products.
PC game platform Steam, video streaming services used by gamers Twitch and more have seen record-breaking numbers in players and usage around the world.
Even the World Health Organisation, which warned of the risks of too much gaming just last May, has thrown its weight behind video games. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu lauded the organisation’s partnership with gaming sites and launch of the #PlayApartTogether campaign to encourage people to stay home.
BEING SOCIAL IN THE TIME OF COVID-19
Research shows video games offer a way for people to fulfill psychological needs without venturing out of the home.
While television has been a passive form of solo entertainment, multiplayer video games in particular allow people to cope with isolation and connect amid mandatory safe distancing.
In one Animal Crossing session between Noah and his cousin, they sat outside his virtual home doing silly emotes with their avatars and laughing hysterically, similar to how they would have acted if they were physically present in the same room.
Researchers have labeled this social presence: The feeling of being there in the game with someone else. Experiencing the presence of loved ones can offer reassurance and comfort when feelings of loneliness set in, facilitated by shared experiences and common activities in video games.
Video games can also expand one’s social network among like-minded individuals and establish deep friendships.
Many online Animal Crossing-related interest groups are buzzing with activity. Players have connected on platforms such as Discord (a chat application used by many gamers), Reddit, and Facebook to talk about visiting new islands and trade customisation tips.
Besides fostering social interaction, video games also offer a sense of control and competency, critical when COVID-19 has perpetuated a loss of autonomy en masse, with stringent regulations imposed on once taken-for-granted activities such as visiting the supermarket or exercising at the park.
With daily routines disrupted, people may feel helpless and defenseless against a virus we know little about. Yet life simulation games like Animal Crossing can ease your stress, provide feelings of autonomy and reinstate a sense of normalcy.
In Animal Crossing, we are free to make our own decisions: Dress ourselves as we wish, decorate our homes as we want, and explore any lands we like. The array of customisation choices available allows players to truly make the islands their own.
Players have designed their islands in a wide range of different ways, from luxurious beach and mountain escapades to complete replicas of fantasy worlds.
They also complete quests, with achievements in-game giving them a sense of accomplishment and competency, providing welcome relief from the uncertainty plaguing the world.
NO MORE THIRD PLACES
In the social sciences, the “third place” refers to a social space that is neither home (first place) nor workplace (second place).
People can relax, interact with friends, and make new acquaintances in these third places – which include hawker centres, cafes, pubs and parks.
Some researchers have argued third places are crucial to the health of individuals within a community, in which frequent participation can contribute to stronger connections, a sense of togetherness and overall, better mental well-being.
READ: Commentary: Putting in 50 hours while WFH, it’s a struggle to draw the line between work and home
Yet one of the aims of the circuit breaker measures is precisely to prevent this sort of congregation and dissuade people altogether from heading to many third places.
So it’s no surprise some are coping by turning to virtual spaces – like Animal Crossing – for comfort and connection.
While the proportion of players diagnosed with clinical addiction to video games is very low, it can be easy to get swept up and become over-dependent on video games.
Such over-dependence, or problematic video game-use, can manifest for instance, when players start to spend excessive amounts of money for in-game purchases and other add-ons, or if they replace other important life activities with gaming.
Adults should be cognisant of when we might be giving up other important activities like work for gaming.
Parents should pay attention to their children and be willing to negotiate and set rules together about video game use. Restrictions on video gaming during bedtime and when schoolwork is due can help.
READ: Commentary: Why excessive gaming is a mental health condition
They should also guide their kids and watch their use of online communication platforms used by gamers, which can be exploited for grooming.
Frequent and open discussions between parents and children about their online activities will help, but more important is an open line of communication.
BOOSTING WELL-BEING IN THE TIME OF COVID-19
While games like Animal Crossing provide a convenient form of escape, more importantly, they can be critical platforms keeping us sane and allowing us to connect in new ways where safe distancing and circuit breakers may be the norm for a while.
Even after COVID-19, there are and will be individuals who, at certain points in their lives, feel a loss of autonomy, competence, and relatedness due to a variety of reasons.
For these people and those who are unable to venture to physical hangouts, video games like Animal Crossing can offer solace and a virtual third place to meet old friends and make new ones.
So if you do find yourself playing more video games like Animal Crossing during this coronavirus outbreak, enjoy the experience!
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Dr Andrew Yee is Faculty Early Career Award Fellow at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. His research aims to understand how different strains of media use affect children and young people’s learning, well-being, and health.
Jeremy Sng is a PhD candidate at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information. His research examines how digital media such as video games influence our perceptions and behaviors.