This blog was guest-written by Gabriel Elvery
The sunlight is fading, you hear the cicadas hum and the waves lap upon the shore. You’ve had a hard but satisfying day. You tended to your garden, caught a fish and even unearthed a fossil which you donated to your local museum. You have worked hard, but it hasn’t been draining. You had the satisfaction of choosing the tasks you wanted to complete, resting as much as you liked and taking a break to converse with your neighbours, who you exchanged gifts with. At the end of the day, you even had the luxury of returning to a home that you own, in its entirety, after paying off your mortgage by doing the work that you chose to do, at your convenience. Now, you are in the process of selecting the perfect outfit to wear to a party that a friend has invited you to. Perhaps you will even design it yourself: you’ve got time.
You wish that every day could be like today, though there was nothing extraordinary about it. It was an average day comprised of tasks that should be mundane, yet the freedom you had to work towards goals of your choosing made every moment feel as if it mattered and was worth your time. Everything you did was to your benefit and the benefit of the community that you have helped to build.
It was a normal day of simple comforts and companionship. Isn’t that what life should be about?
Yes, but this is only a fantasy.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Nintendo, 2020) is a Fantasy video game on Nintendo Switch that invites the player to inhabit a digital island alongside a cast of colourful animal characters who have their own distinct styles and personalities. The game has garnered media attention, but not for the reasons video games usually receive press (such as innovative mechanics or graphics); its gameplay is mechanically simple and follows the same pattern as earlier instalments of the franchise; its writing is minimal, and its graphics are unintensive. New Horizons has become so prominent because the game is being used as a social and emotional tool, playing a pivotal role in helping its players cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Due to the glacial pace of academic publishing, no academic papers have been published on the game; however there has been an influx of games journalism dedicated to the phenomenon. Louryn Strampe of Wired magazine has written of the game’s positive impact on her mental health and multi-award-winning game designer Jennifer Scheurle of Polygon published an analysis of the game’s meditative ‘gentle progression’ playstyle and its encouragement of mindful behaviour. The game even received coverage from The New York Times: Imad Khan has written a literature review-esque article which borrows from other news outlets to give a broad overview of the game’s rise to prominence.
But why now?
There is nothing unique about the concept of the game. One could argue that the Animal Crossing franchise has always been beneficial to the mental health of its players, but few outlets wrote about it – it was much more in vogue to contribute to the moral panic surrounding video games, which culminated in the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) addition of ‘Gaming Addiction’ to the DSM-5 (2018). Now the WHO’s online DSM entry is nowhere to be found and it has attempted to course correct by championing a campaign started by the video games industry called ‘Play Apart Together’. In Digital Trends, Tyler Treese (2020) describes the campaign, which involves over sixty gaming companies, as promoting video games as a means of connection to ‘help players fight the urge to socialize in person’. The WHO, leading the media with it, has finally recognised what gamers and developers have suspected all along: that video games can be part of, and enhance, the well-being of those who play them. The pandemic hasn’t revolutionised the way that players are engaging with technology, but lockdown’s shifting of the social paradigm has intensified pre-existing trends.
Video games have gradually become a part of many players’ daily routines due to the advent of smart devices and more easily accessible technology. As psychiatrist Kourosh Dini (2012) observes, ‘games and virtual spaces have worked their way into the culture in its implicit functioning’ (p. 496). Social distancing has further intensified the collapse of the on/off-screen binary; as well as simply having more time at home in which to play video games, people are using them as a means of supplementing social interaction and living a more ‘normal’ daily life in a fantasy world. Though not technically ‘real’ in the off-screen sense, video game worlds are heterogeneous technological biomes that occupy a space between off-screen life and imagination: they blend Fantasy and mimesis to create a experiences of Fantasy worlds that feel real. Fantasy theorist Kathryn Hume (1984) describes mimesis and Fantasy as impulses: mimesis is an impulse which arises from the desire to ‘imitate’ and ‘describe’ whereas Fantasy arises from the desire to ‘alter reality’ (p. 20). Hume explains that these impulses are symbiotic and can be found in different proportions across form and genre; this theory can be applied to video games. As Malone and Lepper (1987) suggest in their paper on fantasy and intrinsic motivation, all video games create fantasy environments in the sense that they ‘[evoke] mental images of physical or social situations not actually present’ (p. 240). I refer to video games as digital fantasies to acknowledge the commonalities between fantasy environments and elements of the Fantasy genre (the Fantastic) whilst differentiating between them. Digital fantasies may be mostly mimetic (like realist literature), or there may be higher proportions of that which is generically recognisable as Fantasy. I propose that if elements of the Fantasy genre are used effectively in video games and are integral to the functionality of the gameplay or narrative, then a game can be said to express the Digital Fantastic – a theory that will be further developed throughout the course of my thesis.
Rather than simply being a depiction of something which is not present (as a digital fantasy is), the Digital Fantastic combines both mimetic and Fantastic impulses to offer interaction with a Fantasy world grounded by affective experiences not dissimilar to those experienced in off-screen reality. Using grounded cognition theory, human computer interaction specialist Katherine Ibister explains that games can create affect (elicit real emotions from players) because ‘they mirror the way our brains make sense of the world around us’ (p. 408), so not only is reality represented, but, via the player’s participation, mimesis is achieved at the level of neuropsychology (p. 427). This mimesis is present in its highest proportion in realist video games such as Heavy Rain, an action-adventure which features a segment that encourages the player to build a relationship with the protagonist’s family by completing mundane tasks. When there is a higher proportion of Fantasy, the mimetic aspects function like a skeleton encased in the flesh of the Fantastic – concealed, but essential to its operation. For example, if we apply Isbister’s reasoning to a common scenario in New Horizons, it would follow that when players make a purchase from Tom Nook, the familiar pattern of behaviour activates the same neural pathways as shopping off-screen: the transaction feels real, but the merchant is a raccoon which reframes the task, and allows for an often mundane chore to be experienced in a new way. The inclusion of mimesis in a video game enables players to buy into the verisimilitude of the digital fantasy environment by providing a familiar template over which Fantastic elements can be transposed and made plausible, enabling the elision of Fantasy with off-screen experience. At a basic level, Fantasy can be deployed for visual appeal, but, if game mechanics, Fantasy and mimesis are combined in a way which makes Fantasy intrinsic to the experience of the game, then the Fantasy elements evolve from being purely aesthetic to facilitating a deeper level of engagement with the Fantastic. I argue that the skilful use of Fantasy is an element that can elevate digital fantasies from just being video games that use f/Fantasy, to video games which evoke the Digital Fantastic.
The fact that digital fantasies offer interaction with Fantasy worlds which feel real creates a fluidity between the on and off-screen world that makes affective engagement with non-player characters (NPCs) possible. This fluid form of existence started early for those who had access to technology such as Furbys and Tamagotchis, which require affective engagement as a form of play. These digital pets invited users to complete mimetic actions (feeding/grooming) to keep the Fantasy creature from expressing simulated suffering. These creatures are virtual, but, as social science professor Sherry Turkle (2011) observes, they are considered ‘alive enough to be a creature’ by children and were included in their owner’s lives (p. 31). A generation who shared their childhood with mechanical Fantasy creatures, taking comfort in them and giving them the same level of care as ‘a pet or a person’ (Turkle, p. 38), may be more likely to view the inhabitants of New Horizons in a similar way.
To investigate how people have been interacting with the game during the pandemic, I asked New Horizons players on my social media to send me their experiences via a survey, then conducted semi-structured interviews to discuss their gameplay further. While this process does not have the rigour of a full-scale study, it provides some telling snapshots of the ways gamers are using video games to deal with this difficult moment.
When questioned about their interactions with NPCs, players discussed characters with a similar emotional nuance as one might describe an off-screen relationship. Pashmina was a notable favourite:
‘We have a very complicated relationship, but we have stabilized to a happy understanding.’
Participants were just as passionate when asked about characters they did not like. One player named Phyllis as their least favourite NPC because she is ‘always so unnecessarily rude and insulting’.
Puck was also identified as being as particularly irritating: ‘I hated his stupid hat and I’m glad he’s gone.’
As well as enquiring about their interactions with NPCs, I asked players to describe their experiences of using the game as a means of staying connected with their off-screen friends during lockdown.
‘Oh it’s so fun! Having a community of like minded people (Black) is excellent.’
‘I’ve definitely used the game as a substitute for physical interactions with my friends, since we can’t meet up and do the things we would normally do to socialise during the pandemic.’
One player utilised the game as a replacement for a social occasion and described their experience of using New Horizons as a venue for a date which, due to the pandemic, was cancelled.
‘I was supposed to take a flight to Miami. Animal crossing was already part of the plan, but since I cancelled my trip it didn’t happen. So, I got the idea and text him about it. I started really prettying up my island. By the time he came that night everything was set up, I had a picnic set up on a hill and my friend gave me a dozen white roses, which I gave to him. It just so happened a meteor shower happened that night too, so it turned out to be romantic as fuck.’
When asked about their experiences of playing alone, players noted their enjoyment of having the freedom to customise their own island and found the game and its small, repetitive tasks satisfying.
The Fantasy elements of New Horizons may seem surface-level at first, even just aesthetic, however the real Fantasy offered isn’t merely one of talking animals, but of freedom. In Animal Crossing, players are invited to indulge in the luxury of an autonomous life that has intrinsic meaning. New Horizons offers us the Fantasy of comfort, stability and of normality, not just from the pandemic, but of the social, environmental, political and economic pressures that have plagued a generation largely unable to benefit from the privileges prior generations took for granted. As Romana Razman of Glasgow Caledonian University so aptly puts it, the Animal Crossing world is ‘the universe you’ve always wanted but can’t get’.
But why can’t we get it?
Is wanting an income generated via meaningful work, our own house to live in and the freedom to manage one’s own time really that much to ask for?
Conversing with articulate raccoons seems a more likely prospect than experiencing that which we call a ‘normal’ life.
About the author:
Gabe Cohen is an LKAS funded PhD researcher studying Fantasy video games at The University of Glasgow. Gabe is a member of the Press Start journal editorial board and co-organiser of the Game Studies at Glasgow Reading Group and the Digital Heroisms symposium. To follow their research journey, see their blog at Digital Fantastic, add them on Facebook for memes, send them a tweet and follow them on twitch for livestreams of Fantasy video gameplay paired with live analysis and discussion. If you would like to collaborate with Gabe, please contact them via email.
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Dini, K. (2012). On Video Games, Culture, and Therapy. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 32(5), 496–505. https://doi.org/10.1080/07351690.2012.703586
Hume, Kathryn. 1984. Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature. Methuen
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Turkle, Sherry. (2011). Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Basic Books.