The World Health Organization decided to add video games to its list of officially recognized addictions last year, but now — with concerns over COVID-19 keeping many stuck indoors, and video games being a primarily indoors activity — it seems that now more than ever, video games are the safest way to pass the time.
There has been a lot of attention given to the negative effects of video games, but many studies have found positive aspects to playing such as an increased performance in math and science, increased self-esteem and ability to problem solve. Mark MacDonald is the senior vice president of business development and production at the game development company Enhance Experience and hosts the gaming podcast, “8-4 Play.” He believes video games are as beneficial to a person as any other artistic medium.
“They provide an escape,” he says. “They help you learn about others, about yourself, and they let you try on different experiences and feel different things as an active participant in a way that maybe a book or more passive art form doesn’t.”
Agency abounds in video games, the power to simply do and achieve. In a world that currently feels very lacking in agency, there may be no safer place to be free.
Schedules have changed for many real-world events, but video game release dates need no postponement, many being available for download from the comfort of your own home.
One of the most hotly anticipated titles this year was Final Fantasy VII Remake, which arrived April 10. A reboot of the 1997 Japanese role-playing game (JRPG), the title has been a long time coming. Demand first grew in the early 2000s, during a cavalcade of tie-ins and spin-offs that included the notable computer-animated film, “Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children” (2005).
The themes of environmentalism, corporate greed and war feel suitably relevant to modern life, with Final Fantasy VII’s in-game analogs appearing darkly familiar. For example, in the game Shinra is a megacorporate energy provider that creates power by sucking life from the planet — and it comes complete with its own military sector.
This, along with great gameplay, characters and storylines, are what made Final Fantasy VII so memorable, says MacDonald. But it was the cinematic “candy” that first attracted gamers.
“Famously the commercial for it only showed the movie-like cutscenes in the game. It didn’t show the actual gameplay,” he says. “But the cutscenes looked almost like something you would have gone to see in the movie theater back then. So people saw that and were just like, ‘I wanna be there.’
“Final Fantasy VII made JRPGs cinematic.”
MacDonald’s own connection to the game goes much deeper than as a casual fan, however. In 1997, he put out a whole strategy guide titled the “Final Fantasy VII Survival Guide” on how to finish the game most effectively.
“I played this game relentlessly,” he recalls. “It came out well before the Western release in Japan, and so I imported the Japanese release. I was in college at the time and I just played it day and night, finally finished it, and started replaying it immediately.”
The 2020 remake allows for yet more immersion. Describing a section of the game pitting the player in the slums of a city called Midgar, MacDonald says, “You’re really feeling that sense of place and that kind of oppressive, dark atmosphere that’s absolutely appropriate for that part in the game.”
Playing now with new and long-time fans alike adds extra poignancy. It’s not just an escape, but also a “communal experience” for MacDonald, simply through talking about it: “So many people are playing the same game at the same time. There’s definitely that shared experience.”
The current king of collective gaming, however, is Animal Crossing: New Horizons — “the most obvious example of a game that hit really at the right time,” says MacDonald. “Right time meaning not just sales-wise, but the game that people really needed.”
Released March 20, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the latest entry in the Animal Crossing series, a family of life-simulation games in which there is no true goal except going about your daily business, making friends with cute animals, catching fish and decorating your home — all in real time.
This freedom of gameplay is a major plus for Providence, Rhode Island-based video game music composer and producer, Max Coburn, who also goes by the moniker Maxo.
“I think it only works as well as the extensively and lovingly designed world surrounding it,” Coburn says “Every element of Animal Crossing feels welcome in its world, and maybe that in and of itself is welcoming to people.”
The newest iteration, set on your own island, lets you further edit outdoors spaces as well as visit your friends’ islands, which allows for a virtual, creative flouting of virus-related quarantines and lockdowns.
Though it may seem tailor-made for the current state of affairs, this sense of sociability is inherent to the series. In a 2008 interview with Edge magazine, creator Katsuya Eguchi revealed the game’s three values: family, friendship and community. The inspiration for the game was, essentially, isolation — the loneliness Eguchi felt when he left family and friends behind in Chiba to work for Nintendo in Kyoto.
“I realized that being close to them — being able to spend time with them, talk to them, play with them — was such a great, important thing,” he said. “I wondered for a long time if there would be a way to re-create that feeling, and that was the impetus behind the original Animal Crossing.”
While Final Fantasy VII has its dramatic soundtrack, the music of the Animal Crossing universe is far more innovative than its warm, simplistic appearance lets on. In fact, for Coburn, music makes the experience.
“Animal Crossing has a very laid-back play style, and I think without the perfect balance of memorability, diversity and subtlety in the soundtracks, it would be harder to stay patient with the games’ pace,” he says. “The hourly tracks in particular shape the entire play experience, keeping things feeling fresh while also providing subtle reminders of passing time.”
With the added bonus of a captivating soundtrack, it’s essentially a feel-good game. Over the years, in fact, it has been frequently cited as a game that helps those who struggle with mental illnesses.
“Animal Crossing walks this fine line between real-to-life and fantasy, in that it lures you into these chore-like daily rituals, but then heaps reward and endless praise on you at every step,” says Coburn.
This time around, the comforting escapism of Animal Crossing has been far more wide-reaching, partly owing to its downloadability — 50 percent of its sales have been digital, according to Nintendo, and a record-breaking 5 million digital copies were shifted within its first month of release — but mostly owing to COVID-19 and self-quarantining measures. The New York Times dubbed it “the game of the coronavirus moment.”
“If you were going to design a game around the qualities that would be perfect for people to experience now, while we’re in quarantine and dealing with this global crisis that’s forcing people to shut off the outside world and shut off their lives, you almost couldn’t design something better,” MacDonald says.
When even the very notion of normal life crumbles under “new normal” policies around the world, a life-simulation like Animal Crossing becomes as much fantasy as Final Fantasy, and video games as a whole become a lifeline of agency in a spring, and probably a summer, spent largely inside.