As the pandemic continues, video games can offer escape and connection
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As the pandemic continues, video games can offer escape and connection

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Even as we enter a third month of COVID-19 lockdown, the pandemic seems to be all around us.

The coronavirus crisis isn’t only on the TV screen or on the front page of your newspaper. It’s there when you open Facebook or Twitter. It’s the subject of countless texts, calls and video chats between worried family, friends and coworkers.

It’s at the grocery stores, where masked customers hunt for toilet paper and hand soap, and on the hiking trails, where walkers and runners guesstimate 6 feet distances. It’s in the empty places where we all used to go.

One place where it’s not, and where I encourage you to explore, is video games.

You don’t have to be an avid gamer or even own a video game console to enter these vibrant and immersive worlds.

If you’re brand new to it, that’s even better. Jumping into a new, challenging hobby is a great way to prevent boredom.

My 60-year-old mother did it, and she has never held a video game controller in her life other than to ask, “what does this remote go to?”

Together in quarantine, we ventured through my once-deserted island in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, catching multicolored butterflies and scooping fish out of winding rivers.

I think she had the most fun hitting my character with a bug net and stealing the resources I needed to build furniture for my newly crafted house.

ACNH, the new Nintendo Switch game that debuted on March 20, has quickly become a sensation — and a way to escape while connecting with others.

The game begins with you creating a character, which can be as cute or goofy as you’d like, and hopping on a plane to a deserted island.

On this island, you sell everything from fruit and seashells to centipedes and tree branches to get enough “bells” to upgrade your house, develop the village and attract more residents, which are, you may have guessed, all animals.

The draw of the game isn’t just the island. It’s the airport, where you can jet off to see friends on their islands, no masks or social distancing required.

With everyone stuck at home, I savor the moments when I can fish side by side with an old friend or invite them to my island to see my boyfriend’s collection of giant monster statues. We watch shooting stars, build orchards and flower gardens, and dance among the cherry blossom trees with a purple kangaroo.

Video games are a great way to be social in the era of social distancing. When you run out of things to talk about, you can embark on a shared adventure in a virtual landscape devoid of pandemic news or worries. Here, you can solve puzzles together, strategize how to survive or defeat an enemy, and dive into some of the most creative stories.

Talking and interacting with others, whether it’s a friend who lives across the country or down the road, is an important part of keeping the loneliness at bay during the lockdown.

Even the World Health Organization is on board. WHO and the video game industry have partnered on the #PlayApartTogether campaign to encourage people to social distance and connect online.

Raymond Chambers, the WHO Ambassador for Global Strategy, tweeted that being social through gaming can help flatten the curve, and thus save more lives.

Even after COVID-19, people will be hesitant to start filling up malls, movie theaters, concert venues and stadiums again. Virtual might not be so bad until we can see each other IRL (in real life).

Here’s how to get started.

Computer or console?

Video game consoles, like the Nintendo Switch, Xbox One or Playstation 4, are built specifically for gaming, so you should run into few technical problems. You can order one online on Amazon, GameStop, Best Buy, Walmart or Target. One important thing to note is that playing online requires a subscription, which can range from $20 a year to $90 a year.

If you don’t want to shell out hundreds on a console, there are other options. Maybe someone in your household can share a game console with you. Or you can borrow one from a neighbor or a friend for a few hours.

If you go the computer route, I suggest getting “Steam” on your computer, which has countless games, easy digital downloads and many, many sales. No need to buy a $200 to $300 console or online subscription and many games are free or only a few dollars, though some technical troubleshooting may be required.

To connect online, many people use “Discord.” The free app runs in the background and allows you to talk over text, audio or video.

Picking games

Here are some recommendations from me and some of my nerdiest friends:

If you want to relax: Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Animal Crossing Pocket Camp (a surprisingly good -- and free -- mobile game), Sims

If you’re looking for competition: Overwatch, Super Smash Bros., League of Legends, Counterstrike Global Offensive

If you want to go on a space adventure: No Man’s Sky, Destiny

If you’re a Game of Thrones/ fantasy fan: Game of Thrones: A Telltale Series, Guild Wars 2, Elder Scrolls Online, Catan Universe, Monster Hunter, Divinity Original Sin, Diablo 3, Sea of Thieves

If you want strategy: Underlords, Civilization 6, Portal 2, A Way Out

If you’re searching for something scary: Don’t Starve Together, Deceit, Dying Light, Remnant: From the Ashes

If you’re a sports fan: Nascar Forza Gran Turismo, FIFA 20, Madden NFL 20, NBA 2K20, Rocket League

If you want something funny and quirky: Magicka 2, Castle Crashers, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, Borderlands series, Overcooked 2

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