How My Kids Are Using Video Games to Stay Social

bored chimpanzeeIt turns out that all the pandemic films I’ve watched, all the books I’ve read have missed the mark. One of the great challenges of a pandemic turns out to be wrestling with boredom. Yes, there’s a mental health part of it – we’re social creatures not designed to live in separate little caves – but mostly my kids and I are daily facing the question of “now what?” I’m perhaps the luckiest of all four of us because I have a job that I’ve been managing solo for many years, so at least 4-5 hours of each day are filled with email, writing, videography, academics and Zoom meetings.

My youngest and oldest have online school, but that’s not really a big chunk of their day. Ashley, now 23, just finished up her German class at University of Denver and is now completing a few last assignments for a career development seminar. Not onerous. K-, 16, is in 10th grade with Laurel Springs, an online K12 school that already has expertise in the digital schooling world, and she’s almost done with her semester too. All that’s left are history and literature, both of which are rather slow going, but still don’t consume more than 3-4 hours per day (on a good day).

Gareth (20) had taken this quarter off from University of Denver to work and have a chance to recalibrate his academic goals, which was not excellent timing; he lost his job when things shut down and has been doing his best to fill the days with DIY projects. Useful, but definitely not filling up much of his days.

We are starting to socialize, but all four of us are quite social so this extended Safer At Home is wearing very thin. None of my kids are daft enough to join a big party at the local U or go clubbing, but they’re bored and miss their social worlds. So instead, they’re playing social video games. In fact, each of them has settled on a different game to play and all are characterized by being multiplayer online games with voice chat and digital friends with whom they can share their adventures. Here’s how it plays out:

Ashley – Animal Crossing: New Horizons

The Animal Crossing game is so incredibly benign that it could probably serve as healthy worldbuilding therapy for people. It’s also hugely successful, a game where each player has their own island and you build houses, invite NPC characters to live with you, plant trees and flowers and generally terraform the space to become cute, homey and delightful. It’s really calm, with no sense of urgency at all. No timers, no enemies (other than weeds taking over your flowerbeds if you don’t tend them) and a way by which you can invite friends to fly over to your island and visit.

animal crossing new horizons - demo screen

While Sony’s Playstation line and the Microsoft Xbox series seem to focus on hyper-realism with amazing graphical engines, Animal Crossing is unabashedly a cartoonish universe where there are pretty sunsets, flowers are always bright and colorful and non-player characters (NPCs) are anthropomorphic creatures (you can see one in the image above). This is where Nintendo excels and its games like the Mario line are great fun precisely because they’re not realistic, but an escape to a more abstract world.

Turns out that Ashley’s boyfriend also plays Animal Crossing, so they often visit each other’s island to work on terraforming projects together or just socialize. In fact, all three of my kids love Animal Crossing, but it’s Ashley who really excels at the game and has built a beautiful and artistic island.

Gareth – Rocket League

Meanwhile, Gareth’s go-to game during the pandemic and our Safer At Home era is a rather goofy title called Rocket League. It’s a 2 vs 2 soccer game where players are driving cars in a strange, futuristic world. The ball is far bigger than the cars and when the two players are working together in sync, it’s darn fun to watch. Like all car themed games, much of the fun comes from tricking out your vehicle (or fleet of vehicles, in this case), adding gear to make the car go faster, be more nimble, whack the ball better, or just look more cool.

He has a couple of good friends with whom he’s constantly teaming up against others, and they chat while they’re playing, both in-game chatter (“go for it!” “I’ll go left”, etc) and general talk while working on their vehicles. The graphics are typical modern computer game aesthetic, which is to say that it’s gorgeous on screen:

rocket league typical screen

The game can also be frantic as all four players zoom around at high speed, trying to get to the ball and score those all-important goals. The designers have found a great balance between world building (with the car customizations) and game mayhem. Also turns out that matches last just a few minutes, so it’s a good game to squeeze in between other tasks. A number of my friends are also big fans of Rocket League, as it happens, and it’s clear what the appeal is!

K- And Fortnite

Perhaps most surprisingly, my youngest, 16, loves the violent last-person-standing game Fortnite. It has team modes, but she just relishes the challenge of one versus everyone else, 100 people at a time in an ever-shrinking virtual world that’s beautiful to see. Like Rocket League, Fortnite is available on a variety of computer and video game platforms, and her setup of choice is her Nintendo Switch plugged into our big Vizio TV. It’s quite an experience to watch her calmly taking out other players! One of the most popular facets of the game are little dances that your avatar can do on demand, and it’s a common occurrence for a player to kill another and then dance by their inert body. It’s less creepy than it sounds, muchly because of the cartoonish nature of the game, but still, who is this girl? 🙂

fortnite sniper on roof

This is another immersive world and while you can do some building, it’s all very ephemeral and the next time you go into the Fortnite world, everything has reset. Like all modern games, it has a lot of in-app purchase options for skins, outfits, weapons, new dance moves, etc. As far as I am aware, K- hasn’t succumbed to that particular siren song and has earned her upgrades by being good at the game.

And she is really good at the game. She commonly comes out in the #1 or #2 position out of 100 players in a melee game. Since the gamer community is painfully sexist – young boys have fragile egos and too many of them really pour the vitriol on gamer girls – K- has long since learned to turn off the gamer chat entirely while playing, and I secretly relish her wins, knowing that the boys she’s beaten would hate it even more if they knew it was a girl that defeated them.

She also plays while chatting with friends who are also in the game, but they just use phones for the conversation to get rid of the other player commentary and oft-shocking crude hostility. Your 14yo boy playing this game in the basement? He swears like a drunk misogynistic sailor. And, to be fair, the girls that are talking on the shared channel keep up their end of the swearing too. It’s a blessing that I don’t have to hear the chatter while a game is in progress, no question.

And So The Pandemic Continues…

Fifty years ago I don’t know what my kids would have done for social, other than perhaps fight over who got to use the phone to talk to their friends. Today the good news is that technology really is stepping in the fill in the gaps in their social life, giving them something to do – and a way to talk with their friends while sharing a fun experience – to stay connected. When things ease further, I absolutely expect my kids to wean off the video games in favor of in-person activities, but for now, it’s good to know that they’ve each found a way to retain their social connections even when we are staying safer at home.

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