Video game players find community in the virtual villages of Animal Crossing, seen here in its oldest iteration and its newest, released last week (photo by author).

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In normal times, video games are as likely to offer cause for social distancing than a remedy for it. To pick up the controller is to be transported to all manner of distant virtual worlds, immersed in stories and adventures driven by your actions. As we all adjust to times that are far from normal video games are providing a remedy for many seeking to keep their spirits up in a time of pandemic, this writer included.

For players seeking such solace, the most appealing virtual world might be a close-knit, happy little town or village. The sought-after adventure won’t involve grand galaxies or kingdoms to protect, but instead, the daily effort to find purpose, meaning, and relationships in a rooted, rural place. 

And while no simulated social life can replace the richness of the real thing, these kinds of experiences, for the time being, could help us cope with our isolation and stay grounded in values of community and caring for one another.

The Latest Rural Gaming Opportunity – “Tenderness for Your Fellow Animal”

For evidence, look no further than gaming icon Nintendo. The company rose to prominence for pulling players into the epic adventures of Super Mario and Link, who embarked on daring journeys to rescue princesses and kingdoms. 

In recent weeks gamers have been rejoicing the arrival of a newer Nintendo creation, focused on pursuits that on the surface appear exceedingly mundane but are much appreciated – in general, and maybe especially at this moment. 

“Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” is the latest in a series that experts would file under the “life sim” genre of games; for the layperson, it would probably be easiest to call Animal Crossing a small town or township simulator.

In the series, you play the role of a villager starting your life in a new town. There’s no grand quest, and hardly an antagonist to speak of – unless you’re the sort to harbor deep resentment toward your mortgage lender. Moment-to-moment gameplay involves hunting for bugs, gathering fruit, decorating your home and yard, and, most importantly, building relationships with your fellow villagers. 

The novel technological hook of the series was that life in your town proceeded on the real-world calendar and clock. Play in the morning, and you’d see your village stirring to greet the day. Play at night and most public places would be closed. In the winter, there would be snow. In the spring, plants would bloom. On birthdays and holidays, the townsfolk would come together to celebrate. The design made your digital village feel lived-in and endowed each of your neighbors with well-rounded personalities and lives to discover each day.

The series is not shrugged off for its relative sedateness but instead celebrated for it. “Animal Crossing, has helped me feel a little bit less lonely,” said one long-time player in recent interviews conducted by Nintendo to promote the series. Another fan summed up the appeal of Animal Crossing as offering “the chance to have your own place and watch it grow.” 

One professional reviewer extolled the series’ richness of “culture, community … and charm,” three traits we strive for in our real-world rural villages and small towns, to be sure. And take a look at this missive from another writer summarizing their time spent building a virtual Animal Crossing village, and tell me this doesn’t echo many of the rural stories of hope and resilience that we publish on this site:

“Life isn’t supposed to be better or worse here, it’s just supposed to be different. It has its own rhythm and pace … I found community here. Not a community shackled together by economy or industry, but one connected by mutual compassion. That doesn’t mean everyone is blithely ignorant of reality or brainwashed into mind-numbing positivity, but there’s an undercurrent of tenderness for your fellow animal that inspires each and every action we take.”

A call for compassion and tenderness that rings truer than ever as we all cope with the challenges of social distancing and staving off a pandemic.  

An Urban-Rural Gaming Divide – Differing Genres and Experiences

Animal Crossing isn’t alone in offering this type of experience. Other games cut from the very same cloth include the independently-produced “Stardew Valley,” the early Facebook phenomenon “Farmville,” and perhaps a forerunner to them all, “Harvest Moon.”

Unlike Animal Crossing, these games could be accused of occasionally relying on rural tropes, particularly if you make the mistake of equating rural life entirely with farming. Still, they carry similar virtues to those found in Animal Crossing. They have a distinct rural flair in how they prioritize closeness, community-building, placemaking, and stewardship of our spaces and relationships.

That stands in stark contrast to how video games often utilize urban environments. The leading example would be the massively popular and influential Grand Theft Auto series, which offers impressively crafted virtual metropolises, their primary purpose to serve as playgrounds for frenetic action, destruction, and law-breaking. 

But don’t fret, the creators of GTA offer their own rural-tinged counterpoint in the form of “Red Dead Redemption 2.” Set against a classic Western backdrop, the game features the same capacity for chaos, but also has ample space to accommodate slower, more contemplative activities like fishing, hunting, trapping and horseback riding.

Across the medium, urban settings in games, given their geographic size, scale, and verticality, tend to emphasize movement and locomotion. They empower players to cover vast distances with speed and skill. It’s a setting for web-slinging and wall-crawling, grappling hooks and wingsuits, and all manner of exotic vehicles, real and speculative. It is not a setting much suited for slowing down or stopping to reflect.

There is a place and a time to argue about the relative merits and drawbacks of rural-inspired games standing opposite these experiences. It mirrors our real world, in ways both good and bad. It carries the risk of giving players an idealized notion of rural life, one that is excessively bucolic and old-fashioned. Daily Yonder readers more than anyone know that rural demands and deserves more nuanced treatment. And fortunately, there are rural games striving to tell complex stories as well as those that cut against the pastoral norms – such as the madcap, Montana-set “Far Cry 5,” and the troubled but fascinating social sandbox “Fallout 76,” based in Appalachia.

But now is neither the time nor place for these larger debates. We are living through extraordinary times. As they reckon with feeling stressed, scared and socially isolated, gamers around the world are finding comfort in their newest Animal Crossing towns. 

You too might benefit from taking up residence in your own digital village. There’s no time like the present for steadying yourself in the calm, compassionate spirit of a rural video game getaway.