Gaming offers ‘new horizons’ to a socially distant landscape

Original illustration by Matthew Marinello.

By Kyle Kirby, Contributor

With soaring sales during the first month of its U.S. release on March 20, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” claimed one of the strongest launches of Nintendo’s entire game catalog, as technology media outlet VentureBeat reported.

For Virginians, the game’s release was conveniently timed with Gov. Northam’s stay-at-home order issued March 30. Harrisonburg users told The Citizen they were attracted to its appealing graphics, low intensity gameplay, and its ability to connect friends and family via the internet. In the game, the player takes on the role of a customizable character, and has endless options for building up their virtual community by crafting, fishing, and other activities.

Wren Snyder, an alum of JMU’s School of Media Arts and Design, said that before quarantine went into effect, she was playing “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” and “the ol’ classic,” “Fortnite.” She was not playing with specific friends, just random online players. Since then, Snyder has enjoyed Animal Crossing for its cute aesthetic, and she makes a point of traveling to her friend Kait Diggs’s island to trade items at least once a week. Diggs, Snyder’s former roommate, now lives in Portland, Oregon.

“This game happened to come out at a really conducive time to be used as a social connection platform … I have a couple other friends I play with, but Kait’s my main squeeze,” Snyder said. “It’s been a good excuse to video chat.”

Bert Sifuentes, a 2020 JMU graduate who’s currently laid off from his job at The Little Grill Collective, said he was very excited when Animal Crossing came out, and played it for about six hours every day of those first two weeks.

Sifuentes even went on an Animal Crossing date with his girlfriend while practicing social distancing. He said that one downside of the game is that it requires the user to complete “small tedious tasks to advance,” so it’s best suited for someone prepared to invest a lot of time into gameplay.

“The overall aesthetic of the game is very cute, but the game requires a large amount of commitment. I’d only recommended the game to people who would spend 30 hours on games a week… any casual gamer, ‘Minecraft’ fan or ‘Stardew Valley’ fan would enjoy the game,” Sifuentes said.

Jake Cochran also uses video games to stay in touch with loved ones. He is half of the musical duo Illiterate Light, which formed in Harrisonburg and signed to Atlantic Records last year. Cochran said that ‘Catan Universe’ kept him connected even before COVID-19: he and his wife Lani would play on the app together while he was away on tour. 

“It is a fun way to get on the phone and chat and be silly while apart,” he said. 

‘Catan Universe’ is an app version of the board game Settlers of Catan, which centers on growing your civilization in competition with others. Since the Cochrans moved from Harrisonburg to Nashville, Tennessee last year, they’ve been keeping up with friends from back home in Virginia through Catan Universe. 

“Everybody feels distant since quarantine started, and this is a fun way to gather together and make jokes and have something fun to focus our attention on together. It’s a way to keep building new memories even though we are all apart,” Cochran said.

Michael Apsley, a manager at the Local Chop & Grill House, also used video games to socialize before the onset of the pandemic. He said that most of his friends have spread across the country, and that they grew up playing games together, “so it was a very natural move to set up a few chat servers and just log in when we wanted to play a game with someone.” 

Apsley and his friends play League of Legends, a team-based online strategy game where players choose from different characters to battle and take over each other’s forts. He said that before quarantine there were about 25 people on their main server, and about five used it semi-regularly. Now there are about 40 people on the server, and there’s almost always 10 people online to play with.

Apsley and Sifuentes both said that Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. is one of their favorite offline games. 

“I play almost all of my local [offline] games with my boyfriend, and sometimes with my neighbor,” Apsley said. “It’s been shocking to see them approach my skill level so fast, but without much else for us to do I understand why they’ve gotten so good.”

With all this free time, Apsley has gotten a lot of online gaming practice as well; he said that he used to be the worst player in League of Legends, but is now on more even footing with his teammates. 

His relationships haven’t changed much during quarantine, largely thanks to gaming.

“If I wanted to see a friend before quarantine, my first thought would be to schedule a day trip. Now that I no longer can, being able to talk to my friends on a daily basis is great,” Apsley said. “Even if we don’t talk about anything besides the game, we’re comforted by the fact that we’re still here for each other.” 

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