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2020’s most popular games were my most reliable social spaces

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Comfort food for troubling times

Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
Image; Nintendo

This year, video games provided escapism for a lot of people. But for many, myself included, the games I remember most fondly in 2020 were the ones that became social spaces. The pandemic didn’t make me want to escape; it made me miss my friends and family.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out amid the shutdowns, and it quickly became my virtual island paradise, even when I wasn’t playing. I couldn’t log in to Facebook or Twitter without seeing almost everyone on my feeds talking about Animal Crossing. People were sharing memes, asking for Dodo codes to visit their friends’ islands, and begging for specific fruit that they wanted to grow.

Some turned to Nookazon, a third-party trading platform, to buy outfits they had a hard time finding. The latest Animal Crossing title ushered in a new community of people that were taking the game so seriously that someone without context could easily think all these people purchased some island real estate after reading a travel blog. It was the early months of 2020, and we were stuck inside. As it got warmer, Animal Crossing provided us with the tropical getaway we could actually visit. I even know people who purchased a Switch just so they could play this game.

One of my best friends lives in another state, but that distance has never stopped her from being the person I go to when I need to vent about life. So I begged her to buy a Switch so we could play Animal Crossing. She came to the game a few months after I did, and since I was so far ahead, we would FaceTime, and I would guide her through the early tasks of the game, occasionally dropping off extra resources at her island if she needed to build the museum or wanted to decorate her house. We would constantly “hang out” on each other’s islands.

Since I had just started working at The Verge, I was constantly telling my friend my experiences of my new job and some of the weirdest news I saw that day. It felt like we were actually hanging out like old times, despite the fact we were states apart and unable to see each other because of the shutdowns and travel advisories.

fall guys
Fall Guys.

Even at work, my colleagues were also playing. Our workplace is organized by Slack channels, so naturally, two were dedicated to Animal Crossing. One was a social space centered on the game, sharing advice, pictures of bugs, and organizing happy hour visits to someone’s island. (Verge news writer Jay Peters once planned an extremely sophisticated scavenger hunt.) The other channel was all business, though: namely, colluding to manipulate the game’s “stalk market” so we would all get rich shorting turnip prices.

One week, I had an incredibly high turnip price on my island. I shared the number in the Slack channel, and it blew up. I opened my gates to visitors during my lunch break and the demand of people far exceeded the time it took me to make and eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I left my Switch on idle, went back to work, and returned later to collect two million bells’ worth of tips for my generosity. It felt like my birthday in a way, which was in late April, and I, unfortunately, could not celebrate it with many people. So I soaked in all the love and praise and endless thanks for being kind enough to open my gates and suffering through the hellish nightmare that is Animal Crossing’s multiplayer loading screens as travelers came in and out of my island.

For a minute, it seemed like everyone was talking about Animal Crossing: discussing favorite villagers, sharing tips on capturing bugs and fish. I was exchanging Dodo codes with people I went to high school with but would not have called friends — until they arrived on my island. We could all share the common ground of playing a low-stakes adventure. If the game is a satisfying loop, reconnecting with old friends and making new ones is the real reward.

Fall Guys was a game that came out during the dog days of summer, and word got out on how addicting its gameplay was thanks to streaming platforms like Twitch, which is the way games go viral these days. But most importantly for me, I have two younger cousins I hang out with frequently and they were looking for some new games to play since Fortnite was removed on iPad. So together, we let our asses get kicked by Fall Guys.

It was fun sitting with them on the couch at my aunt and uncle’s house. We would take turns seeing how far we would get in each match before we were smacked hard, knocked off the platform into a never-ending sea of Pepto Bismol, and subsequently eliminated. I am not a huge fan of battle royale games like Fortnite and PUBG, but Fall Guys is easily accessible for all ages and doesn’t have convoluted gameplay mechanics. Also, it’s hard to not constantly laugh at all the sounds these bean-shaped characters make as they waddle to the end of the course.

The most surprising game of 2020, and arguably one with a lot of staying power in the long term, is Among Us, a cartoony riff on Werewolf, wherein an imposter or two attempts to murder all their friends. Like Animal Crossing and Fall Guys, it’s a game the internet won’t shut up about. While it was originally released in 2018, Among Us’ popularity grew exponentially this year. My friends from college also started playing the game this year, and a bunch of us ended up creating a Discord server dedicated to Among Us. We have channels dedicated to memes or finding new matches.

among us
Among Us.

I think fondly of all the memories we have of hanging out in the college dorm rooms playing Mario Kart or compromising our friendships with an intense game of Mario Party. With college now over and most of us living pretty far away from each other, I missed the days we could huddle in the dorms and play the GameCube classics.

Now we’re doing the equivalent of that in Among Us, getting nostalgic over stories from college while debating who the imposter is. Over the last few months, I would often play this game after work, for hours on end, until I realized it was midnight. It’s in those moments that reality kicked in and I realized I was not a 21-year-old who would stay out with my friends partying until 4AM; I am a 25-year-old adult with responsibilities and a full-time job. My priorities have changed, but making time for my friends will never get old no matter the circumstances.

But the common theme here for all these games is the sense of normalcy they have provided in my life. While I enjoy happy hours with my colleagues and weekly family Zoom meetings, these activities grew tiresome for me. These things serve as a painful reminder of what life was like before the pandemic. I miss going to rooftop bars after work and unwinding from work mode; I miss going to my grandparents’ house on the weekends and having cookouts and big Sunday dinners. I love my family, and I love my colleagues, but I craved the more interactive and creative conversation that games offer.

I was playing games with friends and family before the pandemic began, and I play a lot of games solo, too. But Animal Crossing, Fall Guys, and Among Us are good-ass games that continued to get better as I enjoyed them with familiar company. They allowed me to make up for the lost time that was part of my old life.

The point of going out to bars was never the drinking. It was a common social space, and in a year where those places disappeared, we found new ones in fake islands and spaceships, and whatever the setting of Fall Guys is supposed to be. Especially in 2020, it’s not about where you are but who you’re with.