No, I don’t have any illusions about what I’ve become since the start of this year. Like so many other slightly uncomfortable things in my life, this occupation started as an ill-defined joke. Wouldn’t it be funny, I thought to myself, if I bought a games console for the first time in a decade. If nothing else, wouldn’t it just be a small, deserved protest against the stresses of adulthood?
When I tried to explain this decision to my loved ones, it was greeted with tolerant concern. In the nothing days between Christmas and new year my partner asked if this was a distraction I really needed in a busy life. “Just wait a bit,” she said, as if speaking to a slightly unruly child, “until you’re really sure it’s what you want.” And in what felt like seconds later, there I was, in a Peckham computer exchange shop, queuing furtively for a secondhand Xbox One with a couple of reliably blockbuster games to go with it.
The first weeks were a blend of ironic detachment and oppressive nostalgia. It felt acceptable to limit myself to a few hours of Fifa or GTA 5 each week, with their veneer of mainstream conformity. This was a habit that could easily be checked and kept under strict control. The world was still what it used to be – we had social lives, went to work on packed public transport; the great outdoors was still accessible beyond our front doors. Back then, the idea of admitting that I’d become a part-time gamer was something shameful enough to be concealed from all but my closest friends.
It took the world being put on hold for the stance of myself and others to soften. Now, my aimless nighttime drives through the pretty chaos of Los Santos has gathered an undeserved dignity. They’re no longer symptoms of an undiagnosed regression into adolescence, but a form of escapism to be envied. In mid-March, a friend I’d confided in about my initial purchase was tapping me for advice. How much, where from, what games to buy? He and I certainly weren’t alone in those early days of panic: game sales experienced a global surge as people across the world sheltered at home. In the UK, digital downloads rose by 67% week-on-week during March, while during the window of social distancing before the strict lockdown was enforced physical sales jumped by 218%.
No game better represents the convergence of adolescence and escapism than Animal Crossing. The latest edition of Nintendo’s wildly popular social simulator has become the definitive game of lockdown, its gentle utopianism making it a perfect fit for “the coronavirus moment”. It’s a deceptively simple affair, a soft-edged, primary-coloured universe, where the player builds a society on their own personalised island paradise. There isn’t any violence or human nastiness, and certainly no threat of a creeping pandemic. The game even follows real-world time, its slow yet dynamic little universe giving players a sense of control that is absent from our current reality.
On the last afternoon before the lockdown began in force, I returned to the computer exchange shop. The line was noticeably longer, the crowd more diverse in its mixture of callow part-timers and hardened enthusiasts. I reached for the biggest game I’d heard of. If any game were to obliterate the empty hours to come, or transport me far beyond suburban south London, it would be Red Dead Redemption 2 – the “mature” epic set during the terminal decline of the old wild west. The dissonance between my living room and the vast expanse on screen would have been odd enough in the best of times, let alone during the confinement of the present. Now, the game’s internal universe, with its hyperrealistic natural landscapes and sublime vistas, is soothing in its certainties, an effective distraction from the world outside.
Like most things, I suppose this response to the present has roots in the deep past of my own life. As with so many children of my generation, I was enamoured with computer games. There was certainly no embarrassment about this fixation in my tight-knit friendship circle. When my mother died a few months after my seventh birthday, games were an escape from this new reality. Weekends were spent at friends’ houses, playing Nintendo 64 until our eyes glazed over and we dropped into an exhausted sleep. A couple of years later, in 2002, I was given a Gamecube by my grandmother and aunt, who I lived with as my legal guardians. This console, the first that I’d owned, felt like the realisation of my wildest dreams. There wasn’t too much money around in our lives, and I felt a surge of pride that it would be my turn to play host to my friends in our basement flat, staying up all night in front of whatever cheerfully demented multiplayer game we could get our hands on.
Of course, a completely immersive escape has always been unattainable, and perhaps unhealthy. It’s one thing taking temporary refuge from a painful reality, quite another to ignore it entirely. I’m under no illusions about the limits of my partially rediscovered enthusiasm for computer games and what it says about life in this current climate. In real terms, they still form a very minor use of my time. Far more is taken up with other equally useless pursuits, though I don’t say that with a sneer. My life is happiest when it has enough gloriously pointless distractions to smooth down its more strenuous parts. Of all the things to feel guilty about, a few snatched hours on virtual horseback in Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t feel like one of the most pressing right now.
Escapism isn’t a dirty word, as long as its limits are recognised. To live decently through the present, we need more than just work and the grim cycle of daily news. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s the gentleness of Animal Crossing or the widescreen bombast of one of Rockstar’s open worlds, the general tendency is the same. There’s a reason so many are finding refuge in video games: they promise a world less uncertain than our own.
• Francisco Garcia is a London-based writer and journalist
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