Tragedy in Whiterun. Vampires attacked this jewel of the province late last night, and as the sun rose today, local business owners Adrianne Avenicci and Belethor were found dead at the city gates.
The Jarl’s guards report that the two both fought bravely to defend their neighbors. This was particularly surprising of Belethor.
The motivations of the marauding vampires are as yet unknown, as all three attackers were eventually dispatched by Whiterun’s guards, with the help of local adventurers Renaxula of Morrowind and Zora Fair-Child of Riverwood.
A blacksmith by trade whose work rivaled that of Eorlun Gray-Mane, Adrianne was of course also the daughter of Proventus Avenicci, chief advisor to Jarl Balgruuf, and reportedly served as an informal “advisor to the advisor.”
Adrianne’s grieving husband, Ulfberth War-Bear, is putting on a brave face as he carries on running Warmaiden’s—the blacksmith’s shop he owned with his wife—maintaining his usual friendly manner and masking the crippling sadness he is no doubt enduring.
Halldis, Adrianne’s apprentice, says she will do her best to assist Ulfberth with running the business.
Ysolda, a local merchant of Whiterun studying Khajiiti economic theory, will reportedly take over Belethor’s General Goods, and it is said she has no plans to change the shop’s name.
Though neither were native to Skyrim (Adrianne hails from Cyrodiil and Belethor from High Rock), it is widely believed by those who knew them best that both Adrianne and Belethor are drinking and feasting with other fallen Nord heroes in Sovngarde.
It’s freezing. I can’t stop shivering. I’m in the middle of a snow-blighted wasteland, and everything is white, and it would be hard to tell day from night if not for the fact that night is much colder. My only source of heat is some threadbare clothing recently issued to me, that at least includes a hood. I’m exhausted, badly needing sleep, and starving, but carrying precious little food. There’s a school—my school, actually—that’s really not all that far off, but the last time I tried to take shelter there, a mob of criminals tried to kill me. I barely escaped with my life. I know they’re waiting for me back there. There is a world of other places I could go—safe places, warm places—but I am on foot in this blizzard, and I don’t think I would survive the walk.
It doesn’t help matters that we reptilians are especially sensitive to cold.
I’m obviously not describing real life, but a scenario from a video game. I’m playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, but with a twist: I’ve activated its official “survival mode,” which adds a slew of extra hinderances to the normal game experience. My character can not only be hurt by the usual melee blows, magic attacks, and dragon bites, but by much more banal forces: hunger, fatigue, and extreme temperatures. Skyrim’s survival mode requires one’, would-be dragonslaying adventurer to eat at regular intervals, keep cold and heat at bay, and sleep—leveling up actually requires shuteye.
Okay, fine, so you carry a lot of food, bundle up, and rest whenever you can. Except that survival mode also significantly reduces your character’s maximum carrying capacity, so inventory management becomes an even bigger headache than it normally is. And one can only sleep in specially designated places that are not owned by somebody else. You can’t just plop down on the ground and sleep, you have to find an inn or a friendly house or eventually learn how to craft camping supplies—supplies which, of course, use up carry weight.
And honestly, one’s Skyrim character is supposed to be the Dragonborn, the prophesied savior of all Tamriel (the major continent and empire of the Elder Scrolls franchise). You’d think they’d be a little more, you know, hardy.
I am not usually a fan of survival type games; keeping myself alive seems difficult enough without having to worry about a fictional self. And I definitely don’t go out of my way to make difficult games even more difficult. But I have been playing so much Skyrim over the last year, I kept finding myself to be too powerful, too easily defeating even the toughest enemies, sometimes to a laughable extent. (My sneaking abilities were apparently so refined that professional murderers couldn’t see me as I stood directly in front of them, turning their faces into pincushions for arrows fired point-blank. Dude, I‘m right here. I’m the guy stuffing you with arrows.)
Watching Twitch streamer LucindaTTV a few weeks ago (I’ve started streaming on Twitch myself, so you should come and follow me there), I heard her talk about playing the game on survival mode without any other character-enhancing modifications (or “mods”), and how she found it a very satisfying challenge. Well, I wasn’t prepared to abandon my favorite game (and favorite alternate reality), so I decided to give it a shot. I fired up a new Skyrim game, set it to its highest difficulty setting (“Legendary”), and clicked on survival mode.
And then, the freezing, the starving, and the getting killed over and over and over.
Here’s the thing, though. As maddening as it’s been, Lucinda was right. Having the game layered with these additional handicaps has been oddly illuminating, and my victories—now much fewer and farther between—are all the sweeter. They are also usually by the skin of my teeth.
Along with the heightened difficulty of the game, survival mode also brings a heavy helping of tedium. I already mentioned the many frustrations of inventory and carrying-capacity management. But there’s also the raw consumption of real-world time taken up by simply going from point A to point B in the game, as, I think I forgot to mention, survival mode also disables “fast travel.” Normally, once the Dragonborn has visited a location, they can essentially teleport back there at any time. You want to start working on a quest based in far-eastern Windhelm, but you’re mucking about in Markarth in the west? No problem. As long as you’re outdoors, you just, as the Muppets put it, “travel by map.”
No more of that in survival mode. If you want to go from one major metropolis (or “hold”) to the other, you have to either walk or get a horse. There are some carriages and boats for hire in some places, but they are rare, and they don’t go everywhere. I started my game, like a genius, in a town called Winterhold, where there are no forms of transportation at all. And it’s always cold there. And I’m a lizard-person (or, in the game lore, an Argonian or a Saxhleel). Smart move, me.
This all means that there’s a good deal of planning that goes into every task you set out to complete. Let’s say the local jarl (sort of a duke or governor) wants me to go to such-and-such dungeon to fetch some artifact or other, which, successfully done, will see me rewarded with gold and maybe even a fancy title of nobility. Normally, you’d just stock up on your healing potions and head out. If you’ve already been to a location sort of near the destination, you zap yourself there and hoof it the rest of the way.
Not so now. In survival mode, you need to consider your current levels of fatigue, and decide whether to sleep first, and then take a guess at whether you might be able to find places to stop on the way to get more sleep and perhaps restock on food and supplies. How cold will it be? Maybe your best fighting gear isn’t sufficient to hold back the elements, but you can only carry so much, so you have to choose. Bring a wide variety of weapons? My heavy armor? A barrel’s worth of potions? If I own them, but can’t take them with me, there’s nowhere for me to store them in the meantime (at least until I’ve advanced enough to purchase property, but even then, it would all be stored in that location, which I’d have to travel back to the hard way in order to make any use of it.)
It’s like planning road trips for every time you play, planning stops for food and overnight stays. Except you’re not driving. And you’re probably going to get killed by something called a Deathlord.
And I’m a lizard.
But because of the additional drudgery imposed by survival mode, I’ve found that I’ve done much more exploring than I had when I was much more powerful and less apt to get killed. Indeed, forced foot travel in Skyrim necessitates exploration, trudging one’s way across vast expanses of a fantasy world that has been littered with surprises and mysteries, many I had missed when playing under normal circumstances. Very early in my survival mode playthrough, desperately trying to make my way to some kind of safe harbor in the blinding winter of Skyrim’s northeast, I happened upon a lighthouse I had no idea was there. It was pitch dark outside, and my character’s vision was blurred with exhaustion, hunger, and hypothermia. With my last ounce of strength, I made it to the door of the lighthouse and entered, delightedly warming up from the fireplace in the next room.
Seconds later, of course, I found that the living area had a recently-murdered body splayed on the floor with an axe in its chest. Despite the clicking sound of nearby monsters that reminded me of A Quiet Place, my weary reptilian gratefully ate the food that had been strewn about the floor in the preceding struggle, and slept happily in the bed of the recently departed.
The discovery of the lighthouse of course kicked off an entire quest, a quest that I was utterly unable to make headway in because of all the limitations I’d placed on myself with the game’s difficulty level and survival mode. So I had to abandon it halfway through, and once again cast myself out into the freezing cold to find the next oasis, and having no idea where it might be. (I had some idea, as I have played the game a lot, but as anyone who knows me will tell you, “direction” and “understanding my orientation in space” are not my string suits.)
And I knew that at some point, lord help me, I’d have to come back. Ugh!
And I did! Much later, of course, when my character was strong enough to stand a chance against the enemies lurking in the tunnels beneath the lighthouse. But even then, it was crushingly difficult, requiring innumerable do-overs.
But even these seemingly impossible quests have been deeply satisfying, in that they have asked much more of me as a strategist. No more can I trust in my character’s durability to withstand an onslaught of enemies as I hack and slash my way to victory. These guys were killing me in one or two strokes. I couldn’t count on supernatural levels of stealth to save me; not only were enemies far more keen to my whereabouts, but because they could now take much more punishment on Legendary difficulty, I’d find myself constantly running out of arrows, my only projectile weapons. Skyrim became more and more similar to Metal Gear Solid and Bushido Blade…but in good ways, I mean.
In other words, I could no longer simply think, well, I’m at level X, and I have these weapons and spells, so can safely assume that I can fight my way though any quest. No, I’d have to take each chamber, each corridor, each corner as its own quest, every turn was a new battle that required new tactics, and always mitigated by my constantly-dwindling resources.
It sounds cliché to say it, but playing Skyrim on survival mode has helped me appreciate what’s required of all of us when we want to accomplish anything meaningful. We don’t have unlimited resources, we don’t have unlimited energy, and so we need to plan. We need to make difficult choices; choices about what we will keep and what we will leave behind; what we will dare to attempt, and what we must wait to pursue; what ideals we will hold fast to, and which ones we will have to abandon.
(I steal a lot more in this playthrough than I ever have before, and keep singing to myself “Gotta eat to live, gotta steal to eat…”)
I’m not entirely sure I’ll stick with survival mode for my entire playthrough as Luap-Keshu of the Black Marsh. Sometimes the tedium does overpower the fun, and the last thing I ever want is for my precious video game free time to feel like work. But then I find a new location I’d never known about, or overcome some challenge I never thought I could, and I think of how much more meaningful those victories are. And if my lizard-guy ever gets far enough to own a home, adopt a child, marry, earn a lordship or several—and maybe save the world—I’ll know that for each of those triumphs, he’ll have truly earned it.
Thrown into the land of Tamriel, utterly ignorant of its peoples, politics, or cultures, everywhere I went I was met with suspicion or resentment. I wasn’t the only one of my kind, but apparently my particular race was in the minority here, or at least in the municipalities and wilds of Skyrim. With quite a few notable exceptions, most of the people I met would see my pointy ears and angular features and sneer.
I’m of course describing my early experiences playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a vast open-world role playing video game that’s been around since 2011 and has been available on a variety of platforms and consoles, including the most recent, the Nintendo Switch, which is where I discovered it. You can choose from a wide range of races and species for your character, including varieties of humans and elves, as well as as orcs and anthropomorphic animalistic species, and I chose to be a Bosmer, better known as a Wood Elf. I had been looking for a game to fill the void left when I had finished The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and playing as a sort of Link-like quasi-Hylian appealed to me.
I knew almost nothing about the game before I first fired it up. I had never played an Elder Scrolls game before, and knew nothing about them other than that they were fantasy role playing games. Skyrim throws the new player right into the thick of conflict (literally as a prisoner bound for execution) and little in the way of tutorial or introduction, so one is forced to fumble about from the very first moments, wrangling with an overwhelming array of buttons and menus that make little sense at the beginning. It didn’t help that I am woefully helpless in games played from the first-person perspective, and you can imagine my relief when I discovered (by mashing buttons) that I could toggle to third-person and more or less stay that way.
Beyond my hapless and frustrating orientation to the basic controls of the game, I was also overwhelmed by the deluge of stories being hurled at me from every character. Every warlord, guard, prisoner, and townsperson was eager to unload their most deep-seated grievances and ennobling dreams, and I had absolutely no idea what anyone was talking about.
There’s an Empire, sure, got that. And there are local monarchs, and they don’t all get along with each other, and some don’t like the Empire, and some do. Fine, fine. Factional disputes, nothing surprising there. But what the hell, exactly, am I supposed to do? I became so overwhelmed, so quickly, that I summarily dropped the game for months before deciding to give it another shot.
I’ve come around, and while I’m sure I’m not yet near the game’s end (if there even is such a thing), I’ve advanced to incredible political heights, gained world-shattering powers in magic and combat, and become extraordinarily wealthy. I even have a lovely house and adopted two kids (Sophie, a real sweetheart, and Lucia the badass).
But no matter how powerful I become, the attitudes of Skyrim’s people remain constant. There are the more cosmopolitan humans, including various aristocrats, artists, and many craftspeople and merchants, who largely don’t even mention my character’s race. (There is a measure of condescension at times, as when characters ask, “What do you want, little elf?” My character, unlike me in real life, is of above-average height.) But particularly in the political regions (what Skyrim refers to as “holds”) where there is antipathy toward the Empire, my elvishness engenders a good deal of hostility and mistrust.
And I really, really didn’t like that. Fairly early on in the game (or, at least as I experienced it), the player is faced with a decision: Will they stand with the ruling Empire or side with a faction of rebels, the “Stormcloaks.” Their leader, the Jarl of Windhelm, Ulfric, has recently killed Skyrim’s Empire-aligned High King, and aims to make Skyrim an independent state.
Which sounds noble enough, until you come to understand that the Stormcloaks consider Skyrim to be a land specifically for their particular race of humans, known as Nords. So-called Imperials are not wanted, and wanted even less are elves.
What’s that all about? I certainly didn’t know. But it’s not as though the game doesn’t give the player ample and frequent opportunities to find out. Apart from the many lengthy monologues from non-player characters, the game generously scatters books throughout the world that the player can read, a great many of which recount the history of Skyrim, its continent of Tamriel, and all its peoples. So if there’s something about Skyrim culture one doesn’t understand, it’s probably because one hasn’t done the research.
Regardless of the cultural context, this anti-elf bigotry did not sit well with me, and I decided that if the game wants me to pick a side, I’m naturally going to choose the side that welcomes my kind and doesn’t consider us invaders. Racist Stormcloaks, who might as well be wearing leather helmets emblazoned with Make Skyrim Great Again, could bite my Bosmer butt. I signed up with the Imperials, and through my bravery and astounding feats in the face of death, I rose to the rank of Legate.
Not too long after what looked like the final defeat of the Stormcloaks, thanks in large part to my sword-slashing and thunderbolt-zapping in the streets of Windhelm, I was trotting along some path outside the city and came upon a group of folks with a prisoner in tow.
Inquiring as to what was going on, I learned that it was a group of High Elves (a different race of elves than my own, but elvish all the same) getting ready to prosecute and execute a Nord human for the crime of worshiping the wrong god. The races and species of Tamriel (and its planet of Nirn) worship a wide variety of gods and demigods, and many Nords also worship as a god a human warrior from ages past named Talos. This mortal human does not qualify for divinity in the eyes of the Empire, who have made Talos-worship a crime.
And these elves, ostensibly “my people” from “my side,” were going to murder a guy over it. I intervened, the High Elf inquisitors tried to kill me, and I wiped them out. They did manage to kill the Nord prisoner during the fracas.
So here I was, a high-ranking officer of the Empire and an elf, having just killed a contingent of Imperial elves who were committing fascistic crimes against humanity (or Nirn-ity).
Had I picked the wrong side?
At the beginning of the game, I knew nothing. Trying to make sense of the world I’d been violently thrown into (I say “violently” because my execution was stayed due to a dragon attack on the town which allowed me to escape), I reached certain conclusions about the moral landscape based on my anecdotal encounters with the denizens of Skyrim. Those who were most hostile and prejudicial toward me because of my race were the same folks who were decrying the Empire and making common cause with Ulfric and the Stormcloaks. It seemed pretty clear to me that they were, as the saying goes, on the wrong side of history. The Empire, from my limited understanding, represented the Nirnian version of enlightenment.
So what about those elves on the road? Why was the Empire violently weeding out heretics and making examples of them? That’s what the unenlightened rubes would do, right? Except nobody in Skyrim, save for overt villains and demons and the like, ever sought to erase me for what I was. They were rude, discriminatory, and belittling, but my freedom was never threatened. My life was never threatened. My labors were always compensated and my money was always good.
It occurred to me that I couldn’t remember why I was being carted off to execution at the beginning of the game. I remember at the time that the dialogue was such a torrent of unfamiliar names and factions that it more or less just washed over me as I worried about how to move around, attack, and navigate the menus.
Looking it up again for the first time in months, I was reminded that my character was bound for execution for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, rounded up during an Imperial raid on Stormcloaks. Because I had been in the vicinity, I was presumed to be part of the resistance, and therefore presumed guilty. On the cart to Helgen, where I was to meet my end (save for the dragon attack), I rode alongside Ulfric, the very man who I would fight to defeat and dethrone in the assault on Windhelm. My executioner was to be an Imperial by the name of General Tullius, the same man who would later give me my own Imperial rank. I fought literally at his side in Windhelm and helped him dispose of Ulfric.
I remembered nothing of the game’s beginnings when I was climbing the Empire’s ranks and winning its favor. (I was also busy becoming a powerful sorcerer and earning the title of Arch-Mage at the College of Winterhold, so I had a lot on my mind.) If I had remembered that I had ridden to my almost-doom with Ulfric, or that Tullius had summarily ordered my death based on false pretenses, I almost certainly would have made different choices. I’m not sure which ones.
But even forgetting all of that, I never really knew what “the Empire” was to begin with. All I knew was that it was not based in Skyrim, and, thanks to interstitial tips and backstory provided during loading screens, I knew that there had been a peace achieved between the Empire and something called the Aldmeri Dominion. A quick bit of googling told me that the Aldmeri Dominion is essentially an elf-supremacist superpower that won the right to stamp out Talos worship within the Empire as part of its peace treaty. Thus, the elven inquisitors I met on the road.
Digging further into various websites and wikis unearths a trove of material providing more history and context to the state of affairs for Skyrim into which I was dropped. It’s dizzying.
I didn’t expect The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to be simplistic, and I knew I would need to make ethically and morally difficult choices. For example, I have, so far, totally eschewed the questline surrounding the “Dark Brotherhood,” a band of elite assassins, and I have merely dabbled with the Thieves Guild questline, mostly for the sake of building up in-game skills. On the whole, I have tried to make choices that are consistent with both my own values and what I perceive my character’s would be in this time and place. It’s fuzzy, but it’s how I’ve decided to play. (I may decide on a second playthrough to go a totally different route, and play as, say, a treacherous, murderous lizard-person.) And I’m not nearly done. My quest menu screen is still overflowing.
What I didn’t anticipate when beginning this experience was the incredibly rich worldbuilding that has gone into the Elder Scrolls franchise, and how it deeply informs the story within the game. It was easy to hate those provincial Nords who turned their stubby noses up at me for being an elf. I had no idea what might have made them hate elves in the first place. Knowing more about the history of Tamriel, about the conflicts between elves and humans, hasn’t excused their bigotry, but nor does it excuse the totalitarian crackdown by the Empire, nor the zealous intolerance of the Admeri elves.
They all have their reasons. They all have their motivations. They all believe they are doing what they must.
So what about this Bosmer living in a human realm that I play, this Arch-Mage and Imperial legate, this ex-convict who narrowly escaped a beheading, this conqueror and liberator, this slayer of dragons and deathlords, this father of two orphaned girls? What must he do, now that he knows a little more?
What must anyone do, once they know a little more?
During the pandemic era, here in the Lost Year, we have been given a reprieve from the stigma attached to excessive video game playing. The experts have told us, as conveyed to us through the most elite media outlets, that being forced under the fat thumb of the socially-distant lockdown-quarantine absolves us of any anxieties we might have about wasted time, lost productivity, or rotted brains. For the age of COVID–19, video games are now good for us. Hooray!
So now I can spend hours exploring, battling, spell-casting, smithing, concocting, and acquiring inside the metauniverse of Skyrim, free of any worry that I ought to be doing something more worthy of my time. We’re all stuck at home, after all! These are extreme, extenuating circumstances! There’s a goddamn killer virus out there, for god’s sake!
Oh, but here’s the thing. Just like everyone else on Planet Earth, the pandemic has upended many aspects of my life, but one thing that has remained unchanged is my location in space. As a socially-averse autistic already working from home for the past decade, I was already not going anywhere. Not even the coronavirus could disrupt a life outside the home if it didn’t exist to begin with.
Nonetheless, when the Great Lockdown began in March, it still felt to me like a doctor’s note authorizing me to indulge in video games again.
(An aside for some context: I say “again” because I have had spurts of game obsession at different times in my adult life, starting with games like The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy VII near the end of college. Later, as time for games became scarcer, I would go through periods of serious Civilization addiction for installments III, IV, V, and especially VI, which Steam tells me I have played for almost 1400 hours, which doesn’t even count the additional hours spent playing it on my iPad. More recently, I became enamored with The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and, my current alternate-universe-of-choice, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, all on the Nintendo Switch.)
Since the vast majority of my time playing video games is solitary (save for when my semi-interested partner happens to be in the room), I have always perceived playing them as a way of sinking into my own little world. But I think being exposed to so much positive social reinforcement regarding quarantine video games made me feel like I was doing something with a speck of social value. It wasn’t just me being a weird 40-something dude manipulating cartoon characters in fantasy worlds all by my lonesome. Now I was in with the in-crowd. Everyone was doing it. We were being alone together.
But despite this absolution, I knew that I couldn’t claim to be leaning on video games to get me through the pandemic. I wasn’t being kept away from my job or unexpectedly burdened with truckloads of free time I didn’t know what to do with. If anything, my job got busier, my kids were home with me more often, and I actually find I have less free time now than I did in back the Long, Long Ago. I’m not killing excess time by playing video games. I’m frittering away the precious little time I have.
So really, I shouldn’t overstate how much time I actually spend on these damn things. The fortnightly Saturday evenings and Sundays I don’t have my kids at home are really my only opportunities to truly binge on pretending to be a Destruction-magic-specializing Wood Elf. (One who just became Arch-Mage of the College in Winterhold, what-what!) All week, I’ll look forward to long, uninterrupted play sessions that will allow me to fully commit to some major quest within the game, rather than settling for less time-consuming side tasks or level-grinding. But when I finally get to dive in, it isn’t long before the Guilt sets in.
I should be doing something more productive, the Guilt says. I should be doing something more creative. I am wasting my precious waking hours and living days on an experience from which I will derive no benefit beyond the temporary sensations of escapist hedonism. That’s fine for a little break from the workaday world, says the Guilt, but it’s no way to spend an entire day.
And maybe the Guilt is right. I’m a writer, a performer, and a composer, and I have the extraordinary privilege of being safe, employed, fed, sheltered, and loved during a major crisis, and I could be using it to make the world a better place, even in the smallest of ways. Even though very few people will ever read this piece, for example, and only some fraction of them will have found it valuable, creating this piece of writing at least adds something to the world that wasn’t there before. Hours and hours spent in Skyrim, Hyrule, or Duckbutt Island (my Animal Crossing domain) have no impact on the real world outside my video game console, except in what they prevent from coming into being.
It’s probably futile to attempt to quantify, even vaguely, what is lost or gained by spending time on video games. Because I could just as well speculate that the games might be a way for me to build up the reserves I need to create things to begin with. Perhaps they are addressing something in me psychologically, such that they become a net-benefit. Before writing this, I read a number of pieces asserting just that.
“I suspect that the total intensity of the passion with which gamers throughout society surrender themselves to their pastime is an implicit register of how awful, grim, and forbidding the world outside them has become,” writes Frank Guan in the conclusion to his wonderful 2017 (pre-pandemic) piece on video game obsessives in Vulture. Earlier in the piece, he says, “We turn to games when real life fails us — not merely in touristic fashion but closer to the case of emigrants, fleeing a home that has no place for them.” Well, for me, the world was definitely grim and forbidding before COVID–19 came around, and Placelessness, USA has always been my hometown. So maybe it’s a wonder I haven’t gone whole-hog on video games sooner.
The point is, though, that I don’t know, and I do know that time spent in a game is time not spent on literally anything else. And I’m not smart enough to know whether or not that’s okay.
Dora was a resident of the digital island on which Animal Crossing takes place, a member of the computer-generated community that the boy is responsible for maintaining as part of the game. The situation he was describing — the loss he was grieving — was the news that Dora had decided to move out, and that he had inadvertently convinced her to do so.
“She asked me whether she should follow her dreams, and I said yes, she should follow her dreams, and she said that meant she should leave, and I didn’t know she would do that and now she’s going away forever!” He declared that Dora, who is indeed a-Dora-ble, was his favorite island resident, and that he never wanted her to leave. The boy sobbed as I comforted him.
And as I comforted him, I also thought to myself, I can’t believe this shit.
For one thing, this feels a little like a trap. Someone with as big a heart as my son’s is always going to tell someone to follow their dreams, and having that be the trigger for a beloved digital companion to bugger off seems like something of a gotcha for the empathetic.
But the real problem was, of course, that the imminent departure of a fake mouse-person who existed only within the confines of a 7-inch LCD display was enough to make my son go the full Kübler-Ross.
I consoled him as best I could. I assured him that the character is not real and has no feelings to be assuaged or validated, and no means of bearing regrets or grudges. I reminded him that it means that the island now had room for a brand new villager who would put their own unique stamp on the island’s life. But nothing I said mattered. He was experiencing what was, for him, genuine loss.
Later in the day, he calmed down and felt embarrassed. I assured him he never needed to be ashamed of, or apologize for, having feelings, and that this was a good opportunity to remind himself that these are, in fact, fake characters on a fake island who do not actually know him or have any thoughts of any kind. He understood, of course, but I could tell he was still hurting.
But there was other fun to be had. My partner’s son was visiting, and he had set up his own little home on my son’s island, which is hosted on the same Nintendo Switch console. We were making preparations for my partner’s son, who is a little older than mine, to “friend” everyone in the house so that we could visit each other’s islands and send each other gifts. Fake gifts, of course.
But somewhere in the process of setting up a Nintendo online account, which would enable the older boy to interact with us, the older boy’s profile on the console was obliterated. All the work he had done to get his own game going was now lost.
The tension in the house increased to the point of near-suffocation.
My partner and I scrambled to see what we could salvage, retracing steps and retrying the account set-up process, promising the older boy that we’d do all we could to reestablish his standing on the island, where he would now have to start anew, back in a meager tent rather than a house, and sadly bereft of bells, the currency of the Animal Crossing society. We all promised to essentially execute a stimulus package, crafting expensive items and harvesting resources for him so that he could, at the very least, have the means to get back up and running as quickly as possible.
Not one to broadcast his emotions, the older boy did his best to remain stoic, but we could all see he was crushed inside, though also moved by our collective promise to put our own islands on a wartime footing, directing all manufactory capability toward the reconstruction of his place in society. Like an Animal Crossing Marshall Plan.
After successfully assigning him a new profile and legitimate online account to go with it, we fired up the Animal Crossinggame, and lo and behold, there was a Nooksmas miracle. His save data had not been deleted with his profile, and the game simply asked if we wanted to assign this new profile to the existing resident. Hell yes, we did. He was saved, and we all stopped being snippy with each other.
Look, I get it. Especially at this point in history, when kids can’t be around other kids and families are stuck within the same four walls most of the time, the love and toil one puts into a game like Animal Crossing becomes very meaningful. Animal Crossing’s world is the opposite of what we’re living through, where one can be outside, interact with anyone, and be totally free from worries about money, jobs, or disease. The characters we meet have delightful quirks, engage us in conversation and activities, and make each island its own special mini-society. Having discovered this wonderful escape, losing any of it feels like a real loss.
Later, the older boy encountered Dora the mouse on my son’s island. Dora mentioned that she was planning on leaving the island, and he urged her to rethink her position.
She was persuaded. We told my son the good news: Dora was staying.
The day was saved. Both boys, having faced what was to them unthinkable loss, were given a second chance. Everything was going to be okay.
Except for the fact that this game has utterly devoured my family, making us crazier than we already were, and that I will likely need many weeks of intensive therapy as soon as this quarantine is over.
Why did I play Animal Crossing for four hours today?
About a month ago I became one of the bajillions of people of all ages enthralled with Nintendo’s bucolic-drudgery simulator, Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I never expected to be. When the game was announced, having no frame of reference for the previous iterations, I was utterly uninterested. Then I saw the deluge of fawning coverage and player testimonials about how this game, this experience, was keeping people sane during the COVID-19 lockdown, and I decided to give it a shot.
Now it’s the center of most family activity and interest at my house. My kids can’t stop talking and thinking about the game, and even my partner, who never plays any video games whatsoever, is utterly devoted to it. (She plays more than any of us!) The four of us are constantly dishing about the other island residents and trading gossip about their quirky behaviors (we all just love Zucker), and we cheer each other on for our successes. (“I finally caught an oarfish!”)
But, you know, why?
I do understand the general appeal of the game’s overall shtick. After all, I spent a great deal of time, circa 2000, enriching the lives of my Sims (or making them suffer unthinkably), and more recently I have easily logged around 1500 hours fashioning empires in Civilization VI. And while I’ve never really gotten the hang of Minecraft, I can at least appreciate how its limitless palette for creativity is so engrossing. I’ve even dabbled, rather tepidly, with Second Life. Animal Crossing boasts many of the elements that made Minecraft, Second Life, and the Sims and Civilization franchises appealing. And it’s way cuter.
But viewed from another angle, playing Animal Crossing can seem a lot like the equivalent of doing manual farm labor for a cult leader. Tom Nook is Joe Exotic and we are all his expendable underlings being paid in fake currency and expired meats.
For example, I can spend an hourlong game session just pulling weeds.
Let me slightly rephrase that. I choose to spend an hourlong game session pulling weeds.
And the crazy part is that I love it. With every clump of vegetation I yank from the ground and stuff into my “pockets,” I have made my little island home (which is called Duckbutt Island) just that much more beautiful, and made a larger canvas for me to do with as I like. The methodical, somewhat rhythmic pulling of the weeds is rather meditative, much like real gardening can be (but without the real dirt or real bugs). Even the sound that comes from each weed-pull, a sort of squirty “yoink,” is weirdly satisfying.
I’m not kidding here. When I go on a jaunt to a “mystery island” or visit my kids’ domain and I see a lot of weeds, I think, and perhaps shout out loud, “Oh boy! Weeds!”
Later, I can store all those weed clumps away and wait for Leif to come back to Duckbutt town square and purchase them at a modest markup.
Planting flowers, shaking trees, whacking away at rocks, collecting seashells — all of it is tedious, and yet it’s the tediousness that’s often the most appealing part for me. I do also enjoy the creative customization, designing one’s avatar and dwelling, and I have fun checking the boxes that qualify Animal Crossing as a “game” by hitting certain milestones, fulfilling necessary tasks, and upgrading life on Duckbutt. Those things all help Animal Crossing feel like it has a “point.”
But even without those things, it’s remarkably soothing to simply wander one’s island and gently tend to it.
In this way, Animal Crossing is less a game, and more of a place to go — which is especially valuable at this moment in history. Countless other games offer this kind of escape, of course, from Fortnite to World of Warcraft to, well, name your MMORPG of choice. None of them, however, have appealed to me the way Animal Crossinghas…with perhaps the exception of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which, while not a “sim” by any means, provides so rich and wide of an experience that one can simply wander and putter about delightedly for hours. And believe me, I have.
Zelda aside, perhaps it’s those other games’ sprawling complexity that suggests to me that the effort to master them wouldn’t be worth the time and energy.
Animal Crossing has many layers of complexity, but they all feel very optional. One can advance and upgrade at one’s own pace, and in the meantime there is always something to do, harvest, beautify, design, or craft. And, importantly, as you meander and dawdle, no one will be out to get you.
However, one aspect of Animal Crossing that has really solidified it as a breakout phenomenon at this moment is its social component. Players can visit the islands of friends or anyone on the internet who opens their island to visitors. I’ve played online with my kids while they’re at their mom’s house, but otherwise I have interacted very little with anyone else. What am I missing here?
I suspect it has more to do with me than the game. My reticence and anxieties over social encounters in meatspace seems to carry over to Animal Crossingin strikingly similar ways. Just like in the real world, I worry over what to say or how to behave around another player, and feel exhausted in advance by whatever expectations they might have of me. I feel pretty confident of my ability to cultivate lasting friendships with Zucker the octopus and Truffles the pig. And Blathers, well, he is my true soulmate. But actual humans are another story.
At least on a computer generated island, no one expects our avatars to make eye contact.
This is an extremely short “play” I wrote in 1999. I recently rediscovered it in a folder of old projects, and it made me laugh. On the inside, because I don’t laugh out loud all that often.
Here it is, with a few tiny things cleaned up after a fresh reading, as I originally wrote it 18 years ago. Oh, if you don’t know, this is what a Dreamcast is/was. Enjoy.
I Am Dreamcast
A play by Paul Fidalgo
Blockbuster Video store, 1999.
PAUL, an employee, early 20s, and JUAN, the manager, late 20s, are behind the counter, working on scanning in VHS videotapes which are stacked up in various piles, or prepping new releases or some nonsense like that, putting tapes into cases and whatnot. We see them from behind the counter, which is upstage of them.
JUAN stops suddenly, straightens up, and says…
JUAN: I am Dreamcast.
PAUL: You are?
JUAN: I am Dreamcast.
JUAN: You can play Crazy Taxi on me!
PAUL: My god.
JUAN: I am-
JUAN: Yes, Dreamcast.
AMY, another employee, 20s, enters.
AMY: What’s with Juan?
PAUL: He thinks he’s a Sega Dreamcast.
JUAN: I am Dreamcast.
PAUL: I don’t know. Maybe too much exposure to all these games.
JUAN: I have a 128-bit graphics processor.
PAUL: Yeah, you see what’s funny about that is that I don’t think he would actually know that.
JUAN: I am normally retailed at $199.99.
PAUL: This is kind of cool.
JUAN: I am Dreamcast.
AMY: He’s just fooling.
PAUL: I don’t think so.
AMY: He’s growling.
PAUL: Why would the Dreamcast growl? I never thought of it as, you know, scary.
AMY: Ssh! This is why I think he’s kidding.
PAUL: No, I think Juan believes the Dreamcast is a monster, that he is a monster.
JUAN: I am Dreamcast!
Enter CUSTOMER, approaches counter
CUSTOMER: Excuse me.
JUAN: I am Dreamcast.
AMY: Can I help you with something?
CUSTOMER: My kid wants this video game, um, Tony Hawk?
AMY: For which system?
CUSTOMER: Um, no, the Nintendo one. N64.
PAUL: Yeah, Juan, Tony Hawk isn’t on the Dreamcast yet.
AMY: (To CUSTOMER) Let me see if we have it. (Types on computer.)
This is probably a ridiculous question, but whatever: Is it immoral to do immoral things in a video game?
Here’s the thing. I have a genuine concern about ultra-violent games, particularly immersive first-person shooters that reward the most ghastly behavior and casual mass-killing. I know this view isn’t popular among Internet-types, but I do worry that spending hours training yourself mentally to slaughter without care must have some deleterious effect on one’s sense of right and wrong. But I don’t know.
But let’s look at a different genre of game. Pretty much the only computer games I ever play, with very few exceptions, are games from the Civilization franchise. (I have not yet been able to make heads or tails of Beyond Earth, but I will try again sometime.) In all of the Civ games I’ve ever played (which go back to Civ III), nuclear weapons can eventually be attained and used against rival empires.
I have always felt very uneasy about them. Which is completely absurd! I seem to have no problem massacring legions of an opponent’s military units or laying waste to its cities, but I always feel like dropping The Bomb on them is somehow crossing a line.
Actually, I do sometimes have a compunction about military action in Civ games. When I first got into them, I always tried very hard to win through things like culture and building alliances. A lot of this has to do with the fact that I’m not by nature very aggressive, that I avoid conflict, and I fear that attempts to militarily win the game will wind up just embarrassing me in front of the other emperors. But it also comes from a genuine loathing of war and violence on principle.
Maybe that’s silly. These are pixels and lines of code, not real humans. But that’s just as true for the pixels and lines of code in something like Call of Duty.
That’s not a perfect comparison, though, because my worry about first-person shooters is, again, that they serve as a kind of training and conditioning for violence by way of a simulation of reality, of a first-person perspective. It’s “you” doing the killing, as opposed to a little digital sprite on a map grid.
But to turn it back again, in Civ you’re not simulating the experience of the soldier on the ground who’s doing the shooting, but you are simulating the person making the decisions about who will try and kill whom. Maybe it’s a conditioning of another kind. It’s not conditioning you to lust for blood and violence at your own hand, or to crave the sensations of blasting away at someone’s body, but maybe it conditions you to no longer see people as a collective of individuals, but as data points on a map, as resources or obstructions to resources. I guess it could be argued that these are both dehumanizing in their own way.
And maybe that’s why using nuclear weapons in Civ games bothers me. Now, I have and do use them. I usually eventually accept the terms of the game I’m playing, and bombs away. But I always feel weird about it.
If there’s a parallel to the dehumanizing effects of immersive first-person shooters and bird’s-eye-view strategy games, I don’t for a second think they’re equal. I do suspect (I don’t know, I suspect) that there’s something about first-person shooters that’s visceral, that works below our consciousness, something that specifically stimulates the fight-or-flight system in our lizard brains. Strategy games, if they do anything similar, can’t possibly act on such an animalistic, atavistic level. But they might do something.
And they might say something. When I railed against the violence coolly perpetrated against women in video games (for which I got no end of hostility), I was concerned about how they could effect behavior, but I also worried about what they said about us. I didn’t like that we had an incredibly popular entertainment medium that celebrated this kind of reprehensible brutality, and I wanted us to demand better of ourselves, even our simulated selves.
So maybe that’s why I hesitate before launching those nuclear missiles in Civ. I know it’s not real, and I know I’d never use these kinds of weapons in real life if I were in a position to do so.
But I guess I’m not entirely comfortable with what it says about me, and about us, that I do use them in this game. I guess that even in a totally manufactured, fictional universe, I would like to think better of myself.