Hey y’all, it’s Austin, with a sad confession about my virtual island on Animal Crossing: I completely deserted my archipelago paradise along with its adorable wildlife residents. The Nintendo Switch video game, which became immensely popular during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, once offered a virtual escape for me and my friends, who spent endless stay-at-home hours fishing for carp, catching bugs and planting azaleas.
But with California’s economy fully opening next week, after months of loosening safety restrictions in Los Angeles where I now live, I’ve utterly lost interest in these sorts of digital distractions. Their plush pixels and simulated interactions are largely being replaced by going places and doing things.
Looking back, I’m surprised by how many video games and web apps saved us from total self-isolation. Outside of the office, where Slack and Zoom were essential to remote work, I didn’t expect these services to prove so socially therapeutic. Epic Games Inc.’s Fortnite became the primary way I hung out with my two older brothers in the early months of the pandemic, despite none of us having ever gamed online together before. My friends kept in touch through competitions in Civilization VI and Super Mega Baseball 3. Heck, my wife and I went so far as to buy an old Nintendo Wii so we could swat virtual tennis balls together in our living room-turned-pandemic-prison.
Of course, it wasn’t really about the gaming. We were mostly in need of casual human connection that didn’t require Apple Inc.’s in-your-FaceTime. Xbox voice communication and text chats on Valve Corp.’s Steam were a godsend (if not an occasionally infuriating source of trash talk). Even talking to the animatrons on my Switch, like the cutesy raccoon Tom Nook, felt somehow revitalizing as we picked shrubs and shook apples from trees.
That all turned into a booming year of revenue for game makers and advertising-driven networking apps, many of which believe social stickiness will keep this upsurge alive even after the pandemic is a thing of the past. I’m likely not their target demographic any longer, but it’s worth noting, anecdotally, how many of my loved ones have given up on or slowed down their digital life once real life started to return. My wife and I have begun to play IRL tennis again, instead of on the Wii. My brothers and I stopped losing Fortnite tourneys against tweens as we are able to see each other more. And my beloved custom multiplayer team on Super Mega Baseball, the Salem Sea Scallops, has been sitting on the virtual bench for months.
Certainly, that’s not to suggest any of these games or apps are going away. But they inevitably will need to compete more aggressively for engagement. Netflix Inc. co-founder Reed Hastings once famously said the streaming service’s chief rival is sleep, and during the pandemic, that was probably especially the case. But I suspect movie theaters will be a greater competitor after so much pent-up demand to leave the house, as will the Dodgers compete against my Sea Scallops and tropical vacations against my Animal Crossing island.
As I was writing this, I considered revisiting Animal Crossing and touring the remains of a since-abandoned, overgrown relic of my early pandemic self. Then I remembered I lent my Switch to my young nephew. To quote my Animal Crossing avatar as he first climbed out of his tent: “My new life is underway … I can do whatever I want! WOO-HOO!” Finally, we can say the same for the physical world again. —Austin Carr
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