How Gamers are Leading the Way for Virtual Escapes During Lockdown

For decades gamers have lived vibrant lives within online spaces. Stripped of physical contact during a pandemic, the world is catching up.  
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Nintendo’s timely release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons allowed Jennifer Stavros to organise virtual Black Lives Matter protests. Photo courtesy: Jennifer Stavros

When much of India was struggling to stay stimulated with sourdough experiments, filmmaker and Mumbai resident Mohit Israney attended a hip-hop concert on an island. Before you object, he didn’t flout social distancing. No, it was all very kosher, and exciting. The artist was American rapper Travis Scott, and the venue was a simulated island-stadium inside Fortnite, a popular online video game.

 

Art in the time of COVID-19

“Gaming has always been about community. The pandemic has only alerted the world to it,” points out Israney, who attended the April 25 event with friends, roughly a month after he stopped meeting them in person. The motley crew included colleagues from an e-sports company he co-founded, as well as rookies who downloaded Fortnite just so they could “headbang to Travis Scott.” When Israney aka Tsuki (game name) says headbang, he isn’t being euphemistic. ‘Headbanger’ and ‘rage’ were some of the emotes that could be used to make your avatar groove to Scott’s music, which, in keeping with real-time experience, swelled and faded in sync with your movements within the stadium. All he had to do was “log into the game, scout the arena for a good spot, and prep my avatar in a customised Travis Scott ‘skin’—the digital equivalent of slipping into your prism t-shirt (or a Roger Waters bodysuit, if you’re cool) before Pink Floyd takes stage.

With the final blip of the countdown clock that attendees could see from any part of the stadium, Scott’s avatar appeared, looking like a luminous, transcendent alter-ego of himself. Cast in music and ambient purple haze, about a million people from across the world forgot that they were really just lounging on desktop chairs, beds, or couches. It helped that the stadium periodically morphed into outer-space and underwater settings, where one could swim or float alongside the artist. “Try catching that high in a physical concert,” laughs Tsuki, dubbing it the best 15 minutes of his lockdown. Unless you count the screening of Christopher Nolan’s movie trailer, which he attended next month.

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Online video game Fortnite’s in-game entertainment has proved a great antidote to lockdown blues. Photo courtesy: Mohit Israney

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Animal Crossing player Reetam Majumder’s avatar rafiqi surveys his idyllic island. Photo courtesy: Reetam Majumder

 

The screening, which offered an exclusive dekko at Nolan’s upcoming film Tenet, was also hosted on Fortnight’s hip island, a feature on the game’s ‘Party Royale’ mode. Mind you, this art-and-entertainment-spawning magical island is a far cry from the usual landscape of the strategic survival game (Fortnite’s latest version is called Fortnite: Battle Royale), and it’s probably not for nothing that developer Epic Games decided to give players a break from shooting and ducking. “I think they anticipated the need for a more relaxed, artful environment early on,” reasons the 29-year-old, noting how such an event straddles the nifty Venn diagram of gamers looking forward to a lockdown movie sesh with friends, and Nolan fans suddenly warming up to the game. Whatever the math, it’s working. Financial Times reports an 84 per cent spike in global app downloads for mobile games during the months of March, April and May as compared to the same period a year ago, accompanied by a 24 per cent increase in in-app purchases (think paid emoticons, virtual items or extra lives). “Not everyone will pay for a virtual hug, but truth is, it’s the safest kind of hug right now,” quips Israney.

 

Marches and memorials

Los Angeles-based writer Jennifer Stavros, who describes herself as an “old-school gamer drawn to art, death, and politics,” admits to clocking formidable hours on her console these past months. Besides usual suspects like Sims, she’s developed a soft spot for life simulation games such as Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing. Especially Animal Crossing.

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The avatars of gamer siblings Jennifer and John bask in a virtual reunion. Photo courtesy: Jennifer Stavros

To understand Animal Crossing, envision an idyllic world where you can cultivate anything from turnips to relationships with Christmas-vested penguins. Or squirrels, wolves, hippos, and alligators, the list is eclectic. Sceptics be warned, these fully fleshed-out personalities will have none of your human half-heartedness—try sneaking in a dull present on their birthdays, and you’ll learn your lesson. Like in life, the digital friendships are solemnised slowly, over days of sun, rain and snow (the game’s season cycle is synced to your hemisphere’s); over building barns or terraforming, picking oranges or planting hyacinths, or just puttering around, trading town gossip. Unlike in life, the relationships are guaranteed to be the potent mix of sincere and unwreckable. If simple gratification is not your thing, reach out to fellow-players, strangers or offline friends. Invite them over on your isle for a fishing expedition, or visit them when cherry blossoms have turned their town pink. For players like Stavros, the reward is more than companionship. It is the mundane magic of carrying out low-stakes chores, over and over again, a routine that’s reassuringly predictable. “Growing up in Illinois, I’d help my grandmother in her garden, rake leaves, and get my hands dirty,” she remembers. With the world coming undone, the 38-year-old found meaning in the clockwork predictability of farming—so what if it’s virtual?

But contentment the colour of peaches (native to her island) doesn’t adequately describe the Nintendo game, whose latest version Animal Crossing: New Horizons released just in time to deliver our pandemic-stricken souls. Since March, Stavros’s island ‘Misfit Toy’ has been the venue for everything from protests to chance reunions. Unlike other plot-based simulation games, New Horizons does not push quests or end goals, but it also doesn’t prevent players from using the platform more constructively. Perhaps it is this blend of productivity and elevator-music-like unobtrusiveness that hit the sweet spot, propelling a 13.41 million sale in the first six weeks of its release in Japan, where the developer is headquartered.

 

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Jennifer Stavros populated her virtual island with gnomes, as a symbolic tribute to a loved one she recently lost. Photo courtesy: Jennifer Stavros

 

For Stavros, the cheer of bucolic friendships didn’t get in the way of rallying friends for the protests that have swept America in the wake of George Floyd’s death. “Living with an immunocompromised person, I couldn’t physically join the Black Lives Matter protests. So in the anniversary week of my sister Jessica’s death, I hosted one in the game instead,” she says. Born into a family with White and Hispanic members, Stavros always felt strongly about racial fault lines disenfranchising people of colour, especially African-Americans. That Jessica, who also enjoyed gaming, found joy in serving the community, suffused the movement’s power with a sister’s loving remembrance. The game only allows eight people to commune at once on an island, so Stavros put out the message on a local Facebook group, and hoped for the best. Friends who turned up included neighbours, real ones whose avatars chanted ‘No Justice, No Peace!’ holding custom-made placards with BLM artwork, and digital characters like Diva the frog, who dropped in to express solidarity. Like many others, Stavros shared visuals from the protest on her social media, a one-click conversion of momentum, virtual to real.

Not that it’s easy to distinguish the two anymore. Sometimes the lines grow smokier, and sometimes, that’s sweet. Like the time Stavros’s brother came to see her in the game, after the siblings went through a rough spell. “We weren’t speaking at the time, and then one day, he visited me on my island,” says Stavros, her voice lighting up. The distance between his Indiana and her Southern California was still thousands of kilometres, but for their avatars Red and John, it was an easy walk to the island museum. There the siblings watched fireflies glow and tarantulas skulk in the bug section, and in another wing, the hulking fossils of mammoths and T-Rexes. The virtual reunion turned out pretty real.

It is just as real, when on stuffy suburban nights Red goes stargazing with her island’s resident gnomes, a symbolic tribute to a friend’s mother who passed away. “I couldn’t go to see her in Illinois because of COVID, so I filled the island with little gnomes,” Stavros says. “She thought they were pretty cool.”

 

The importance of being idle

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Gamer Nitin Rao enjoys the vibrant birthday parties common in Animal Crossing. Photo courtesy: Aman Biswas

 

If you happen upon the island of ‘Nako,’ named after a Himalayan village but lined with lanky coconut trees, you’d probably run into its owner rafiqi. Outside of Animal Crossing, rafiqi is a PhD scholar disentangling questions of Statistics. But when Reetam Majumder can catch a break from his varsity schedule, you will find him in the game room. One from where he plays, the average bedroom-slash-game pad of a Baltimore apartment, and one that adds character to his island residence—“a massive attic which is both music
and game room, with pianos and guitars and arcade machines.”

Beyond the satisfaction of building himself a cool den, the 32-year-old admits to not “engaging actively with the island.” Once in a while rafiqi will travel to the plateau of flowers where tulips and lilies plunge the horizon in vivid chromatics, admiring his handiwork. For days when he’s feeling particularly social, there’s “Rex, the chilled-out lion.” But it’s not nearly enough to get him cracking the island’s social scene. Why does he play, then? “Honestly, it’s hard to tell. It’d be fair to look at my island activities—idling, or agenda-less hang-outs with visiting friends—as mundane,” he reflects. Some of the friends that visit Majumder’s island are part of his offline cosplay circle—a small bunch of gamers and geeks, many in costumes that reference fictional characters from other video games. Typically they’d troop in to unwind in the easy company of overlapping fandoms. Their engagement with the game is similar to Majumder’s in that they see it as neither an extension of real life commissions, nor a bubblegum escape. The island is just a backdrop, a neutral, if pandemic-friendly space, to simply be.

“In a game like this much of the impetus lies with the user base, so players can choose what they want out of their virtual world,” points out Majumder. And sometimes, what they want is to be idle.

 

Turnips and other takeaways

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Trading turnips can be your big ticket in Animal Crossing—their prices fluctuate over time to mimic real-life stock markets. Photo courtesy: Nitin Rao

 

It’s not that Nitin Rao does not see the point in building an idle island. In fact, the 24-year-old, who hosts tournaments for the another Nintendo game called Super Smash Bros., chalks up Animal Crossing as “something like life, where a lot or little can happen.”

Yet philosophy can rarely match the rush of action, and his ‘Ice-cream Island’ has been seen thick action since its inception in March. “It’s been oddly therapeutic,” admits Rao, who has even cracked game hacks like cross-pollination—mixing white with pink chrysanthemum or yellow with red cosmos to create a tropical look for his isle. Sure enough, it turned out dreamy, with soft-serve lamps and glowing conversations, and none of that Bengaluru smog he hates. The conversations, whether with Marina the octopus or Fauna the deer, may hinge on deeply diverse cultural exchanges or a shared appreciation of palak paneer. But they are almost always dipped in the same inexplicable warmth of his surprise birthday party, which the game hosted on June 25. Unbeknown to Rao, his furry friends conjured up a cake and piñata, and even cheered his avatar into blowing out candles. “It happened because I’d entered my birth date, but it was still a nice thing, and it still made me happy,” he insists. Three months without the small indulgences, it’s not hard to understand.

Someone who might appreciate this is American actor Elijah Wood, who back in April tweeted out to a stranger, asking about his turnips. He wasn’t being weird, only trying to boost his shares in the in-game ‘stalk market’, where turnips equal stocks. By all evidences Wood got his stocks, and the gamer, a curious memory of turnip-picking with Frodo Baggins. Like Rao, the gamer’s takeaway that day was a tad more precious than its star vegetable.

 

Architects of memory

When Minecraft released in the summer of 2009, the world was a full 11 years away from phrases like ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-quarantine.’ Kolkata resident Aman Biswas started playing in 2011, and it soon became essential to his adolescent routine, much to his parent’s consternation. By the time he revisited the Sandbox game this year, his parents had warmed up to his identity as a gaming professional, and a pandemic had paralysed the world.

 

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Sandbox game Minecraft is an old favourite of creative virtual builders.Photo courtesy: Nitin Rao

 

Biswas, 24, explains that ‘Sandbox’ refers to the style of fluid, open-ended video games where you are free to build creatively within a given element. “In Minecraft, the given element is that everything is a square block,” he adds. While far more stripped-down than most of the life-sim games that emerged as lockdown favourites, building creatively in Minecraft—which can be played on either survival or creative mode—can be hugely rewarding. Don’t believe me? Look up the private project engaged in recreating J.R.R. Tolkein’s fantasy world of Middle-earth, block by block. Dol Amroth to Isengard, turns out stubby squares can be used to create stunning visuals. “Then there was someone who simulated the entire map of San Francisco,” remembers Biswas, who for his part is leading a group laying foundation for a post-apocalyptic Kolkata, on a server titled ‘India 3020.’ The premise is far from reassuring. “100 years on, we discover that COVID-19 has never left our system. Instead, the virus has mutated into zombie-like antagonists that one must vanquish in order to survive and build back the city,” he cackles, announcing that his troop has got a headstart on the Howrah Bridge and Indian Museum.

Whatever the purpose or purposelessness of the game, an optimist might be tempted to point out a common thread. From virtual memorials and vigils for loved ones who couldn’t be grieved, to in-game graduation ceremonies improvised by fireball students—in the amniotic stillness of the world outside, we seem to have remembered to seize the day. Perhaps Hisashi Nogami (director of first three Animal Crossing games and producer of New Horizons) was being more prophetic than wishful when he said,“After they finish playing, I would like that something remains in them from the game.”

 

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  • Sohini Das Gupta travels with her headphones plugged-in and eyes open. While this doesn't stall the many accidents that tend to punctuate her journeys, it adds some meme-worthy comic relief. She is Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.

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