A coronavirus diagnosis can keep you inside for a long time, so when Kevin Learst’s mother tested positive in March, he needed to get creative to comfort her during her recovery. He dropped off a Switch and a copy of Animal Crossing: New Horizons at her Michigan home, and beamed to her live over FaceTime to get her up to speed on the horticulture, paleontology, and entomology basics that define Nintendo’s interpretation of anthropomorphic island life. The quarantine and self-isolation periods of a Covid-19 resolution can take as long as a month. What better time to become a gamer?
“I figured it would be challenging teaching her how to play. Especially since we weren’t physically in the room with each other and she’s never been the best at playing video games,” says Learst. “So it was a lot of telling her what buttons to hit. Now a few weeks later I wake up every day and see that she’s already online and is doing really well. She’s figured it all out and even tries to teach me new things about the game.”
Dawn Learst, Kevin’s mother, tells me that the last time she seriously played a video game was the first Legend of Zelda in the late ‘80s. Her Animal Crossing experience was a sudden jump into the dictums and languages of the modern industry, skipping over the previous three decades of trends, ideas, and contextual information.
For the record, Dawn has the same complaints we all do with New Horizons. “It seems like I travel to the same islands over and over, and don’t acquire things I can’t get on my island,” she says. “Also if I throw fish bait I would hope to get something more than a bass.” (That being said, Dawn has caught more turtles than Kevin. It’s a point of pride for her.) But after she decoded all of Animal Crossing’s furtive nuances, Dawn discovered an open secret that’s long been shared among gamers for generations: when the outside world closes its doors, communion with loved ones is only a Dodo ticket away.
“Recovery from Covid-19 was lonely. Playing the game with Kevin and his girlfriend helped me feel connected to my family,” says Dawn. “We have shared a lot of laughs these past few weeks and it has been the closest I’ve felt to my son in a long time.”
It is easy to lose one’s sense of self during a pandemic. These past several weeks of quarantine are marked with moments of mania and disassociation; we’ve all attempted to stay sane by sharpening old hobbies, or discovering new ones. My Instagram feed is now full of amateur bakers kneading their sourdough into obedience. Dormant Goodreads accounts have sprung back to life, as the New Year’s Resolutions we established in January seem more tenable. Freshly dyed pink hair is laying siege to out-of-date Twitter avis all over the country; what’s the worst that could happen? It’s not like we’re going to a bar anytime soon. There is nothing to do, which has opened up a whole universe of things we’ve always meant to do.
And so, the world’s game-curious people have finally found their Eden. Gamer culture has traditionally been calcified in an exclusionary icky attitude, one that has turned off a countless number of potential customers due to a toxic milieu of elitism, sexism, and oily nerd rage. Already though, those gatekeeping forces were atrophying away in the past few years. The Switch, in particular, has attracted more women and a wider age range of customers than its console contemporaries. Coronavirus has only kicked that trend into high gear; Switches are increasingly difficult to find in the wild as a new demographic of lockdown gamers assert themselves in the community.
Take 27-year old Sam Reed, who has quested her Blood Elf mage to around level five. She made her look like Stevie Nicks, and decamped to the verdant forests of Quel’Thalas. The last time Reed was playing video games, she was in middle school and messing around with a Game Boy Advance. Her prodigal return to the hobby, in the form of World of Warcraft, arrived after she was at the end of her rope in quarantine.
“My boyfriend downloaded [World of Warcraft] and was playing it all night, and he was like, ‘Do you wanna play it tonight?’ Literally, it was the last thing I would’ve considered. But it was either that or watching another episode of The Sopranos, or cleaning,” she says. “So I said, sure, why not. I wasn’t expecting to get into it at all.”
Reed enjoyed Azeroth in two distinct ways: It was nice, she says, to participate in a culture her boyfriend was already steeped in, and she was surprised by the quality of Blizzard’s worldbuilding, and how much the developers fleshed out the plight of the Blood Elves. World of Warcraft carries perhaps the most infamous mainstream reputation in the history of PC gaming; one tempered by horrifying stories of addiction and a South Park machinima crossover. Naturally, Reed was surprised to unearth a much different vision of the MMO. She spent years believing that something as mythic as World of Warcraft would naturally be diffuse and complex. Instead, Reed learned that she was more than capable of navigating nerd territory.
“It wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be. I don’t want to touch video games usually, because of how complicated they look. But once you figure some stuff out, you can kinda just do whatever. It was more laid back,” she says. “I pictured dudes wearing headsets and screaming at the television with no contact with anybody for days. Instead I could just hang out. That was really surprising to me. I was better at killing the Mana Wraiths than my boyfriend, which was really encouraging.”
Nathan Smith was similarly sequestered from the games industry as a kid. He grew up in a very religious household, and was only allowed to install Civilization IV and Rollercoaster Tycoon on the family PC — after convincing his parents that they were “educational.” In high school and college, he weaned himself on split-screen skirmishes on his friends’ consoles, but generally, Smith regarded video games as something similar to anime or comic books: a hobby that required a thorough dedication of one’s mind, body, and soul to fully appreciate.
It was only in quarantine, at the age of 25, where Smith dusted off a seldom-used PS4 to dive into Call of Duty: Warzone. Smith was completely new to online multiplayer, but his friends were beckoning, and he quickly found himself routinely up to 4 a.m. every night dropping into Boneyard. “I was hooked,” he says. “I was like, ‘Jesus this is a bit embarrassing, but I guess I’m a gamer now.’”
Smith has quickly gotten to work coloring in the vast back catalogue of the games he’s missed during his lifelong sabbatical. He’s finished Wolfenstein: The New Order, he’s put a ton of time into Burnout Paradise, and he’s started Death Stranding, The Last of Us Remastered, and Resident Evil 2. Smith says he’s been overwhelmed by the titanic amount of lore baked into all the corners of modern game overworlds. He’s the kind of guy who spends a Skyrim playthrough reading every scrap of paper. “I feel like I approach games like books,” he says. “[There’s] Endless items to customize, constant text to read and infographics to analyze, just so much detail and information compared to the games I grew up on.”
Isolation won’t last forever, and when the economy finally opens up and we all have plans for weekend evenings again, Smith thinks he will continue to explore the culture. “I do think I’ve moved from game-curious to full-blown gamer,” he explains. “Gaming feels like a much more satisfying use of time than it used to, but it’s also still really fascinating to me on an intellectual level as someone who is still relatively new to this world.”
Reed is less convinced. When the stay-at-home orders expire, she expects herself to sink back into her old routines — gaming, to her, is a product of a shocking overabundance of free time. “I kinda like to zone out and have things done for me, like watching something,” she says.
But Dawn Learst doesn’t expect to put her Switch down anytime soon. She will continue to furnish her island, and she intends to schedule her priorities like any true gamer; squeezing in a few hours of Animal Crossing in between work and chores. “The one thing I keep hoping is that [my son] doesn’t finish and stop playing,” she adds. “Because I like our game time.”
Let that be one ray of light during this pandemic. The news is chronically dark, and many of us have never felt quite this isolated before. But at the very least, our parents will never ask us again why we play so many video games.