On Thanksgiving, we stayed at home. On Christmas Eve, we stayed at home. But on New Year's Eve, we flew to Oreopolis.
Oreopolis — also known as "The Big Cookie" by some (uh, just me actually) — is the name of a close friend's island town in "Animal Crossing." Because 2020, our friend group hadn't gathered together much in person or online recently, so as soon as the invite hit our group text, my wife and I logged into our Nintendo Switches, packed our finest NYE attire (as well as an astronaut costume, just in case), gathered many fine gifts of odd furniture and toys for our host, and spoke to the dodo bird who arranges transport from one player's island to another.
Once we arrived at the New Year's party, we were greeted with glow sticks, party poppers and fun hats. We posed with all the goodies and the countdown clock, and got together for a group picture that hasn't been possible in more than a year.
If all of this is sounding completely alien — "Animal Crossing" is a long-running Nintendo series about moving to a new town, settling into your home, getting to know your neighbors and making a life for yourself. You fill your home with nice things, hunt for bugs and fish to display at the local museum, make friends with other villagers and, of course, fill out your wardrobe for social occasions. If that sounds very un-video game-y — no shooting, no points, no levels — that's sort of the point. Along with Zoom and sourdough bread baking, the game was uniquely embraced by the masses during the pandemic.
In a whole show about virtual space that we produced last year, Anne and I discussed why that might be. It could be because island life is considerably more serene than our real world, which was in the throes of lockdown, a tumultuous election season and economic collapse. And it could be because in this world, we have more control — to make bells (the in-game currency), to decide who lives on our island, and to choose where to locate the bridges, farmers market and coffee shop in our perfect little piece of paradise.
But personally, I think the reason Animal Crossing (and other similar shared world games like it) resonate during a pandemic is because they give us more verbs to share with the loved ones we can only see virtually. We can run around with friends, take photos together, show off our designs and collections, even do little dances and make little visual jokes together. Some have gone as far as hosting entire talk shows inside of the game. Video calls are fine for meetings — where the only verbs are "talk" and "listen" — but they can't replace every kind of space we have to give up right now. Those calls are not a great space to just be — there's a sort of urgency in staring at a grid of faces, waiting for someone to talk. A game like Animal Crossing provides a space to play — a space for more creative, spontaneous communication.
It's not perfect — Animal Crossing is essentially a game that encourages rampant materialism, and it can be a challenge to actually have a real conversation in-game — but perhaps it's an instructive example of how games can create space for us to share virtually when we don't have access to one another physically.
I'll keep my photos from this New Year’s party as a reminder of the unique challenges of marking time during a pandemic — and the fun, creative ways that people I love rose to the challenge. Alongside the dark and depressing memories of the past year, I encourage you to find similar, silly markers of this time to hold a more complete picture of what it was like to live through this moment.