Games like Minecraft, Animal Crossing, The Sims (series), and Stardew Valley all range in the material they provide, but they each carry similar themes that I believe led to their recent surge/resurgence in popularity. During a pandemic, these games bring a reprieve of normalcy, with set routines and tasks that give a sense of structure.
There are five categories that each game can fit into:
To summarize each game briefly:
Minecraft is a sandbox game, that you can play online (with other people from around the world) or solo. Some servers are used for mini-games like ‘bed wars’ or ‘hunger games,’ but many player run servers are for shared original gameplay. The final aim of Minecraft has evolved over the years, but across the game are several bosses (the Wither, Ender Dragon), an expansive potion system, combat, husbandry (crops and animals), villager trading of goods, and design. Many players spend hours building their worlds, including houses, farms, mob spawners, and decorative structures.
Animal Crossing, more specifically in this article, New Horizons, is a life simulation game played in real time. Your character lives on a deserted island, and your goal is to create your own paradise through crafting items, collecting fossils, fish, and bugs, and drawing in residents. You can decorate your home and your island, while filling up the museum (and your wardrobe). The online aspect of the game allows you to visit other islands, again connecting people all across the world. On each island you can utilize their shops, and trade items with the other player.
The Sims series features different expansion packs for each game, which affect the content that you have access to. But across the board, Sims games allow you to have hobbies like gardening and cooking, careers, raise families and animals, and design your own buildings inside and out. Each expansion pack adds new content like new locations, in-depth family dynamics, and several even adding supernatural beings.
Stardew Valley is a simulation role-playing game where you inherit your grandfather’s farm in a small town, and as you run the farm, you build relationships with other townspeople. Farming, mining, raising animals, and fishing are all ways to earn money. You design your farm, placing barns and coops around as well as crops, and decorate the inside of your home.
The often repetitive nature of each of these games, while still bringing in creative aspects that allow different playthroughs to be unique, is what I believe brought the core success to each as a whole. They’re not only fun games to play, but they allow you to add personality and put yourself into the game. Whether it be directly, through character customization, or through your buildings and designs. Each leaves room for your mind to grow, while maintaining that core structure. Work, earn money, spend money, build relationships, sleep, etc.
There can be arguments made against the capitalistic infrastructure, but I’d be lying if I said earning money off of fake farming wasn’t fun (and rewarding.)
Investigating directly into the search frequency for each game, through the use of Google Trends, there is a very strong spike in the popularity of each around the week of March 22nd, 2020. Comparing the data points more specifically, Stardew Valley is a more indie game that has only been around for five years, which is why the green line is much lower than the other ones. But it does still display increased results (Data shown below). Minecraft has been around for almost ten years, and The Sims and Animal Crossing for longer. Sims and AC also carry the advantage of being part of series’.
This data proves that, in some way, the pandemic has directly affected the recent popularity of these games. Over the past year as people had less and less to do, many turned to games for entertainment and as a way to cope.
Where lack of human contact reached, virtual human contact surged. Especially through the use of voice chatting, through platforms like Discord, and multiplayer games. Human connection is extremely important for personal wellbeing and growth, and although it has had to be altered, it is interesting that people are still finding ways to make those connections.
It is also interesting that each of these games requires the player to repeat tasks that many would find menial, such as farming, or working. Of course, most people aren’t farmers, but this repetition still brings a sense of normality. Or, “the daily grind.”
Variety and control are also two very strong threads that run deep. Each day is different, no one is stuck at home. No character has to be scared for their health because of a pandemic, they only have to worry about collecting fruit and selling it to a raccoon.
Each of these games is very entertaining, and a fantastic way to spend the extra hours of your day. The most important thing is to make sure that you aren’t only taking care of your virtual people, and are keeping yourself healthy and well. As the pandemic stretches into the unknown vaccine timelines, mental (and physical) health are more important than ever.