As the coronavirus crisis pushes millions of Americans indoors, the need for at-home entertainment, to distract from the realities of current events and the drastically limited ability to participate in society as usual, has become paramount. TV ratings are up; bookstores are trying to be re-classified as essential businesses amid ongoing lockdowns of civic life; some movie studios are making planned theater releases available to stream at home; several people I know have joined TikTok, which is frankly astonishing but under the circumstances technically acceptable.
One such method of entertainment, on which I consider myself a leading expert, is video games. Some benefits of gaming as an isolation activity: They can be purchased digitally, making them resistant to the government-mandated closure of non-essential businesses like GameStop; they can be experienced socially, whether with someone with whom you’re quarantining, or over the internet; they can also be experienced by oneself, if you just want to further shut off your social functions and go down a hole; playing can take as little as five minutes (a brief respite) or as long as 500 hours (something to focus on, for the extended haul); provided you already own a console, or live with someone who does (as commonly happens in roommate situations), the games themselves are quite affordable if you stick away from new releases, as there are hundreds of classic games available at digitally discounted prices.
Still, what do you play? After stocking up on food and checking up on my loved ones, I spent one early afternoon of self-isolation toggling through almost all of the games I owned, in order to see if any struck my fancy now that I presumably had all the time in the world. Wolfenstein: New Order, a recent download, was temporarily fulfilling — murdering Nazis is consistently cathartic, even if the game takes place in an alternate reality where the Reich won World War II. (I haven’t gotten so far, but presumably I’m going to keep on killing Nazis.) I dipped back into NieR: Automata, a stylish and lengthy role-playing game set in a dystopian future where, as a human-ish cyborg built for combat, I explore… well, I don’t remember, it’s been months since I played, and the story is sort of complicated. (But it was a good time.) I downloaded the remake of Shadow of the Colossus, in which you are the only resident of an uncannily beautiful pastoral world except for the 16 stone-and-fur giants you have to kill in order to revive your dead girlfriend. I revisited Dead Cells, an endlessly replayable action-adventure game where you explore a hellish kingdom in the waning throes of mass contagion, where all that remains are diseased monsters.
I noticed a theme as I did this, and perhaps you do too. Games are not uniformly serious — the excessively pleasant Animal Crossing: New Horizons has emerged as a popular balm, and there’s the Goose Game — but big budget, critically acclaimed productions released for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (the two “adult” systems, compared with the learner-friendly Nintendo Switch) often lean into mature content, in order to offset the notion that games aren’t art/are just for kids. In particular, paying attention to two genres relevant to COVID-19 — games set in depressing/dystopian worlds not unlike our own (or literally our own), and games where you struggle against some infection — reveals how common they are. Here’s a noncomprehensive list of such games that received massive acclaim in the last five years: The Outer Worlds, Control, Disco Elysium, the Resident Evil 2 remake, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Gears 5, The Division 2, God of War, Inside, Dead Cells, Nier: Automata, Bloodborne, Dark Souls 3, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, Resident Evil 7, DOOM: Eternal, Half-Life: Alyx. If you even casually own a PlayStation or Xbox, you’ve had these games marketed to you collectively thousands of times.
The demand of engagement allows for all kinds of personal interpretations, since you are not simply letting something wash over you, but making an active decision every time you push the button.
A wonderful part of being a person is that you can experience a problematic or depressing piece of art, and consider what it has to offer while also maintaining your own thoughts and feelings, ergo playing one of these will not suddenly collapse you into depression. Often the appeal of a game is mechanical, not just thematic — a good idea needs to be actually fun when you start pressing the buttons, or at least engaging. Dead Cells is, to repeat, set in a post-apocalyptic kingdom (lol) ravaged by some unknown pandemic (lol…), where throughout the game you uncover lore about how badly the king bungled containment (ay-yi-yi!), but it is insanely enjoyable, so I pushed the bummer stuff out of mind as I tried to kill some time.
This speaks to another singular pleasure of gaming, compared with other entertainment mediums: the demand of engagement allows for all kinds of personal interpretations, since you are not simply letting something wash over you, but making an active decision every time you push the button. (Letting something wash over you can be great as well, but it tends to limit the allowed emotional range; I have not yet been in the mood to watch one of the uber-depressing Ingmar Bergman movies.) You can play something the way it’s meant to be played; you can fuck around and explore; you can find a happy middle ground, inventing challenges for yourself with each new playthrough. You can traipse through a beautiful nature wonderland, like in Flower, where you play as a flower; you can also murder Nazis, and both of these, in their own way, can be stabilizing.
To test out the parameters of this idea — gaming as uniquely engaging, versatile distraction — I asked a couple of people I like what they’ve been playing:
Robert Yang, professor at NYU’s Game Center: “For research purposes, I’m playing the new Doom Eternal and Half-Life Alyx. For streaming I’m playing through Black Mesa. But my isolation escapism personal play, that I do just purely for myself, has been one indulgent game of Civilization 6 (but only the first 500 turns, then I just uninstall it) and a leisurely save scum playthrough of Final Fantasy 7 on my phone.”
Mark Fujii, communications manager at Digital Extremes (and childhood friend): “Gaming during the COVID-10 epidemic and quarantine has been a godsend — it’s definitely a therapeutic distraction from being fixated on the 24/7 news cycle, allowed me to stay connected with friends and keep the cabin fever at bay, and given the girlfriend and I something to do together (Animal Crossing, specifically) We played Jackbox and drank with my usual friend group in SoCal over Discord — the novelty of it was fun, though admittedly not quite the same.”
the mayor of durham just encouraged residents to play video games— mark (@kept_simple) March 25, 2020
Drew Millard, features editor at The Outline: I’ve spent most of my quarantine free time divided between golfing in the real world and engrossing myself in the fake world of Persona 5, which I just so happened to buy the day before we all realized we needed to start social distancing. Its total play time is about 100 hours, which in and of itself is perfect for quarantine. In addition to offering the fantasy of being a teen with super-powers who runs around dungeons stealing treasure and fighting monsters with his friends, when you’re not exploring you have to actually live the teen’s life — studying, working a part-time job, hanging out with friends, going around Tokyo on the crowded subway, remembering to water the plant in your room, etc.
In this moment, those quotidian elements, too, have become the stuff of high fantasy. What I would not give to be able to go to a fireworks festival on the outskirts of town with my friends right now, which is what the teens in the game do to celebrate their infiltration of a giant floating bank. I wouldn’t even care if it got rained out like it does in the game. They’re re-releasing the game in the form of a beefed-up “Royal Edition” on March 31; if we’re still all quarantined by the time I beat regular Persona 5, I might just buy the new version and play through it again.
Patricia Hernandez, senior editor at Polygon: I’m sure nearly everyone is going to say this, but Animal Crossing. I don’t see it as some sort of cure against the current moment, or anything like that, but it’s fun to see the series fully join the age of social media, and by extension, build out a more visible fandom. I mostly play by myself, but there’s still a palpable sense of community as everyone shares what they’re doing and seeing, and that’s nice.
Patrick Redford, ex-Deadspin: Shortly after locking down, I decided to catch up on the decade’s worth of Pokemon games that I’ve missed, so I downloaded a Nintendo DS emulator and a ROM for Pokemon Black. I beat the game relatively quickly, and have since downloaded a 3DS emulator and a GBA emulator, beaten Pokemon Emerald, am in progress on Pokemon X, and plan to work through Diamond/Pearl and Crystal before I inevitably buy the new one for Switch. I have sat on the same spot on the couch for 10 days.
Zoe Camp, editor at Bandcamp: Playing survival horror games during a pandemic might scan as unproductive to some, but hear me out: next to calling your mom or punching a pillow, making zombie heads go splat is one of the best forms of self-care. An immaculately-crafted frightfest teeming with deathly ambience and beguiling puzzles, Resident Evil 2: Remake serves up this catharsis in spades; every narrow escape feels like a triumph, every health pickup an oasis, and every shootout a deciding moment.
That’s partially what I expected — a lot of Animal Crossing, or games with an emphasis on community — but also the dark violence of Doom: Eternal, the cathartic tension of Resident Evil 2, the social wish fulfillment of Persona 5, the nostalgic appeal of Final Fantasy 7 (a game in which you do ecoterrorism to rescue a dying planet) and Pokemon (a game in which you enslave animals and make them fight for your pleasure, but also it’s very cute), the methodical world-building of Civilization 6.
For me, I’m sticking with Dead Cells, with some Wolfenstein in between, and some Alto’s Odyssey — a wildly tranquil game where you snowboard through an infinite landscape — on my iPad. But I’ve also been thinking about picking up the remastered edition of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the nearly boundless game where you drop into a gigantic fantasy world of warring kingdoms and species, and see what’s up at your own pace. You can follow along the main narrative, which concerns fighting dragons or something (it’s been a while since I played); you can amble down one of a billion side quests; you can just check out some forests and mountains. That sounds good to me, right now, when I’m not meal prepping and checking on people.
I write this from New York, where, depending on who you are and what you do, the situation ranges from “intensely stressful” to “explicitly apocalyptic.” Writers famously love to linger on What New York Means, but it is finally and ironically unique to be here, in what’s now recognized as the epicenter of the crisis in America. Like many, I am waiting to see what happens next, whether that means the emergence of symptoms, as so many of my friends have reported, or something more unforeseen, like an evacuation order. Games are just a very small part of that, and I will resist trying to pathologize them as some deeper art form. But they can be just about anything to anyone, which makes them particularly useful right now, and if you need a new form of entertainment, and have the immediate means to try them out, I’d give it a shot. Just don’t order a Nintendo Switch on Amazon, please — the delivery system can’t handle it.