Jeff and Eric Rosenthal, brothers in their mid-30s who live in New York City, have been playing a whole lot of Super Mario lately.
The duo, who operate a comedy/hip-hop podcasting empire under the name ItsTheReal, told me that when they realized they’d be stuck in their apartment for a long time, they bought an old-school Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) console, preloaded with 30 classic games. They’d played video games on and off throughout their childhood, but gaming really wasn’t a big part of their upbringing beyond brief dalliances with games like Tetris and Super Mario, and separate forays into Grand Theft Auto in college.
“Ever since we’ve lived in New York City,” Eric said, “neither Jeff nor myself has really touched a controller, nor had a console in our house.”
That changed when the quarantine order came down. “I think there is a comfort in going back to a game that’s sort of safe and nostalgic,” Jeff said. “There’s this warm feeling when you’re like, ‘Oh right, that’s where you warp,’ or ‘Oh right, that’s the trick to get through this board.’”
In this vein, since the beginning of March at least half a dozen friends have asked me if they should get a video game system. These friends aren’t that into video games, or at least they haven’t been in years. They might have played the odd phone game. They might have pleasant, vague memories of Pokémon or Neopets. What they all definitely have is boredom, fear, and an implacable need, in this moment, for comfort.
My best friend Aude, who historically has totally ignored video games (and lightly bullied me and our shared gamer friends about our habits), commandeered her boyfriend’s new Switch during the start of quarantine in order to play Breath of the Wild, the sprawling open-world Zelda game. Her boyfriend sent our group chat a picture of Aude, toothbrush hanging out of the side of her mouth, hands clutched around the red-and-blue controls. I missed her so much in that moment, even though we’d been video chatting near constantly; I missed our life.
“I think one of the reasons I like this game right now,” Aude texted us, “is that you get to explore this big, vast, natural landscape. It feels a little bit like freedom.”
I’ve seen this sentiment echoed across the internet ever since the spread of the novel coronavirus took hold in the US and resulted in a vast swath of people self-isolating indoors. It’s not limited to the Switch, or even to specialized consoles — plenty of people have rediscovered The Sims on their computers, for one, while others are doubling down on iOS and Android apps for their phones.
Just realized in 25 years there’s gonna be an American Girl doll who lived through the coronavirus pandemic and her $86 accessories will be a little Nintendo Switch, a tiny thing of Clorox wipes and fake bread that she learned to bake herself from a YouTube video.— Caroline Moss (@CarolineMoss) March 21, 2020
In a time that makes truly no sense, the surge in gaming does. Of course we want escapism. Of course we want to be soothed. Of course we want to feel like the right combination of buttons and strategies will result in victory, whether that looks like a well-tended digital farm or the tidy conquering of a fictional nation.
It would be difficult to overstate what a huge chunk of my own brain space video games occupy right now. I’ve always loved games — I’ve been obsessed ever since I got a Game Boy Color when I turned 10 years old — but now they aren’t so much fun diversions as they are a handful of places I can go when I can’t really go anywhere else. I wake up and check my Animal Crossing island, I spend my downtime at work scrolling through Fire Emblem memes (in order to drop them into my Fire Emblem Slack and Fire Emblem Discord channels), I roam around the vast landscape of Breath of the Wild until it’s time to go to sleep. I write out paper lists of tasks I’d like to accomplish in each of my respective games, giving credence to Katie Heaney’s theory for the Cut that games are basically to-do lists you can play, in a good way.
I’m sure this sounds like an absolute nightmare to some people, but to me it’s a relief to have a series of small milestones I know I can reach, even when I’m finding it difficult to feed myself regularly or write emails any human would be able to parse. I’m having a lot of trouble with my IRL to-do list right now, with feeling like a permanent failure even though I know there is no endgame to quarantine productivity beyond whatever you personally glean from it, no moral vector in play here. Having a list of virtual to-dos, with no stakes, helps.
Many folks, including those who haven’t been into them their entire sentient lives, seem to be getting some measure of solace from video games right now. When I asked Jeff and Eric why they chose to buy an NES rather than something new like the Switch, Jeff said it largely came down to price. But that’s not all: “I looked into other gaming systems and it was like, you only get one game. The variety was really important to me,” he said.
Availability was an issue too. “All the Switches were sold out!” Eric said. “It was the weekend of Animal Crossing, which I guess has continued to be a month and a half of Animal Crossing, and the price [of the Switch] kept going up and up and up. I was like, fuck that.”
According to the NPD Group, Switch sales in March more than doubled from the year before, and PS4 and Xbox One sales were up more than 25 percent year over year, VentureBeat reports. This news comes in tandem with the fact that the Switch has been hard to get ahold of for months; the original version, which can be played on your TV (called “docked mode”) or handheld, is sold out from virtually every direct retailer, with some third-party prices reaching 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 available for purchase only as part of a more expensive bundle. (Nintendo declined to comment for this story.)
One reason for this run on consoles, as Eric alluded to, is undoubtedly the release of a Switch game that’s emerged as a metonym for gaming in the coronavirus era. Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a game that makes useless the term “much-anticipated,” came out on March 20 in a stroke of stunning timing. People on Twitter had been half-jokingly-but-not-really-jokingly calling for its early release as soon as the urgent need for social distancing became clear, and others were probably glad just to have the excuse to play more frequently.
Of the timing, New Horizons producer Hisashi Nogami told the Verge, “I am very disheartened and saddened by the events happening across the world. Considering the timing, we hope that a lot of the Animal Crossing fans will use this as an escape, so they can enjoy themselves during this difficult time.”
And enjoy themselves they certainly have. I live in a self-selected bubble, to be sure, but it’s been rare to open Twitter or Instagram in the past month without seeing screenshots from my friends’ Animal Crossing islands, the small, cozy homes they’ve built and furnished for their avatar-selves, the clothes they’ve customized to wear. The appeal isn’t just in the game itself, but in its social nature fully separate from the virus. As Allegra Frank wrote for Vox:
I hadn’t seen my friends in more than a week when the game finally became available; I had hardly gone outside. The headlines were giving me more anxiety with each push alert. But on March 20, I emerged on a desert island, where the beach is right there, animal friends are always close by, little shops are open for business. All my friends were as excited as I was to play, staying up until midnight on release day to delve in at the same time. It was a new conversation topic, a point of unity in our lives that we could coalesce around, bridging the social gap that has been created by a global health crisis.
That social element hasn’t been entirely positive, but it has certainly been robust. The explosive popularity of Animal Crossing has spawned a miniature cottage industry of writing about whether it’s actually a capitalist hellscape, a twist on the stereotypically colonialist island-paradise fantasy, or the game we really need right now at all. These opinions are all varying degrees of valid; still, the game is giving plenty of people plenty of things to talk about that aren’t mounting death tolls or the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical professionals or the lack of leadership from the people who are supposed to make all of this better.
You could blame the uptick on the hot-take industrial complex, sure, and the fact that seemingly every journalist is struggling to get a foothold, however oblique, in the biggest story of our lifetimes. But I’d like to think there’s something purer in play: the need to come together even when we can’t do it physically, to have conversations and arguments and remind ourselves that we are, for now, still alive.
That groundedness, that connectedness even when you’re playing by yourself, is the essential quality I think video games provide, despite the fact that they themselves are hardly essential. (Case in point: GameStop attempted to declare itself an “essential” service in a bid to remain open during coronavirus lockdowns, only relenting after significant public outcry. This move, in my opinion, was not only tone-deaf, short-sighted, and dangerous to both employees and customers, but also wicked embarrassing for gamers.) Having that ability to focus in on a game, not to mention the time and money to play right now, is, of course, a massive privilege. For some, it’s also the thing that’s providing a foothold in a time with precious few.
Playing video games has taken on a new and quiet urgency for me in this indoor time, the same way brushing my teeth or going outside to take a walk has — something I used to take for granted as part of the fabric of my day but that now feels somewhat integral to my sanity, my rhythm, my continued grip on reality.
I need to check in on my “horny magic war school” students and my turnip prices the same way I need to check my bank account, my temperature, my heart rate, and my dwindling-but-holding-strong supply of antidepressants and chickpeas. I want a place that’s not here, a set of problems that aren’t these, something I can talk about with my friends and co-workers and strangers that isn’t going to claw me apart with anxiety. Games are designed to provide exactly that.