I’m oddly nervous about this birthday get-together. It’s been months since I’ve been to one, and I’ve forgotten what people wear. Am I OK to turn up in a T-shirt or will everyone be dressed up? Do I need to do something with my hair? What cute gift can I bring that she won’t already have? This isn’t what you might think of as a party, because the location isn’t a bar or even a friend’s living room: it’s in a self-contained virtual world called Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the video game that has helped more than 30 million people relax and socialise in these strange contact-starved times.
Up to eight people can congregate on a host’s remote island holiday home, which makes for a far cheaper and easier getaway than anything you might be planning IRL this summer. My friend Anne*, whose birthday we’re celebrating, is a 32-year-old mother of two and an extremely keen Animal Crossing player. In real life, she’s an artist, which makes sense when you see her virtual home full of carefully curated furniture and her island’s inventive multicoloured flowerbeds. She’s set up a dance floor with spotlights, a playlist and a chill-out zone on the beach with hammocks and deckchairs under the coconut palms. I stay up late with my Nintendo Switch console in my hands, and my phone on speaker so I can chat via the Animal Crossing app with my friends. These are people I haven’t seen in real life for our usual drinks or meals out for far too long. On the island, my character runs around with a virtual cocktail in a coconut shell, and on my sofa I work my way through a bottle of wine. By the end of the night, neither my avatar (a bobble-headed, age-ambiguous girl with big, cute eyes and a cheery expression) nor I can walk straight.
The point of the game (which you can download as an app on your phone or play on a Nintendo console), if there is a point, is to set up an alternate life for yourself on a tropical island, surrounded by zany animal neighbours. Using the game’s simple tools – furniture, a watering can, a trowel for laying paths – you can build zen gardens, farmers’ markets and libraries, set up hammocks on the beach, buy clothes from a pair of seamstress sisters who happen to be hedgehogs, or design your own. It’s a world that is what you make of it, and it can be as creative or passive as you like.
If you’re still trying to get your head around TikTok, you might be better off embracing Animal Crossing or other virtual world games, as experts predict they will be the next phase in social media. Tech Crunch journalist Eric Peckham explains: ‘Multiverse virtual worlds will come to function almost like new countries in our society, countries that exist in cyberspace rather than physical locations, but have complex economic and political systems that interact with the physical world. In the decade ahead, people will come to socialise as much in virtual worlds that evolved from games as they will on platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and TikTok. Building things with friends within virtual worlds will become common, and major events within the most popular virtual worlds will become pop culture news stories.’
What virtual worlds like Animal Crossing offer in theory is the promise of being whoever you want, in a place where you have control over yourself and your environment: what you look like, who’s around you and how safe you feel. (Although I can’t hug my friends at an Animal Crossing birthday party, nor do I have to walk home in the dark afterwards.) With the real world convulsed by the pandemic, political division and reckonings with institutionalised racism and misogyny, is it any wonder that we’re increasingly drawn to virtual places that offer comfort, freedom and predictability?
For 29-year-old Laura, who works in the beauty industry, it was being furloughed that led her to get into Animal Crossing last year. ‘I have a creative mind that craves being busy; I need to feel like I am progressing personally and professionally. So to lose my routine and find myself stuck at home every day with no purpose took a huge mental toll,’ she says.
‘After a week or so of moping about, my boyfriend suggested I started playing on his Nintendo Switch. For three months, I played Animal Crossing. Through Reddit threads and Facebook groups, I found a few communities of players – mainly women like me who were new to gaming – so I could share the virtual furniture, clothing designs and landscaping I was making. We’d start chatting on the forums and people would ask to visit my “home” on Animal Crossing to admire, get inspiration and trade items. I still take the console to bed with me each night and it’s the first thing that I check in the morning.’
During the first lockdown, with a six-month-old baby and a three-year-old at home, Animal Crossing was what kept me sane, too. I’d follow up a day of total, unmitigated child-related chaos with a few hours of gentle ‘busywork’ on my island, sitting in the dark with my Nintendo Switch waiting for my baby to fall asleep while watering virtual plants and catching virtual fish to put in my aquarium.
It was a way of asserting order and control when my reality was anything but. More consuming than half-watching Netflix, less mentally demanding than reading a book, less anxiety-inducing than endlessly scrolling through the news, pottering around an ultra-cute virtual world where the most threatening thing was my grumpy donkey neighbour was exactly the entertainment and escapism I needed.
Many video games are based around competition and conquest, designed to put you into an adrenaline-fuelled fight-or-flight state. But, in our strained times, a genre that influential game designer Brie Code calls ‘tend-and-befriend’ is on the rise and it’s breaking into the mainstream.
The real-world influence of virtual universes is already being felt. Celebrities including Elijah Wood have visited fans in their Animal Crossing towns. As part of her campaign in May 2020, US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made some virtual house calls in the game – her character wore a customised ‘AOC!’ shirt, exchanged fruit and signed bulletin board notes in the interactive realm. And it was used as a platform for pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong, before it was removed from Chinese online stores.
Animal Crossing may be the Love Island of virtual worlds – fun and easy to engage with, with most users in their 20s and 30s and a large female fanbase (56% of users identify as women), but there are countless other, somewhat more dark, complex video games that offer the same opportunities for interaction and world-building. For example, author and illustrator Viv Schwarz holds editorial meetings inside the virtual Wild West of cowboy game Red Dead Redemption. She and her colleagues meet around campfires with wolves howling into the night: ‘The main technical hitches we’ve had is that sometimes the meeting table doesn’t exist for everyone, and sitting on the ground is the same button as attempting to strangle the nearest person. Still beats Zoom.’
In the Eighties and Nineties, Silicon Valley’s technologists were obsessed with the idea of a ‘metaverse’ – a virtual world so like the real one that the distinction becomes meaningless. In Spielberg’s 2018 blockbuster movie Ready Player One, people living in real-world slums escape into a virtual universe replete with touch, taste and smell, donning headsets and gloves, essentially plugging themselves into The Matrix.
But leading thinkers on cyberculture have moved away from that sci-fi conceptualisation of how virtual worlds will meet the real one and are instead focused on the rise of the ‘multiverse’. The online world has already blended with our everyday reality in ways they could never have predicted. Since the advent of social media, almost all of us have a version of ourselves that only exists in cyberspace.
While people who play fantasy video games such as World of Warcraft are often considered geeks with nothing better to do, is there really any difference with carefully curating your technologically enhanced self-image, and seeking connection with like-minded others on tech platforms such as Instagram or Snapchat? The answer is increasingly no.
‘The first generation of web experts promised that we would all be driving along a literal information superhighway in our virtual cars to our virtual homes and property, living full lives in a 3D world,’ says Leigh Alexander, a narrative designer and author of feminist futurist fiction. ‘But that immersion is not necessarily what people want from every moment of their internet experience. While a lot of tech industry people and futurists were thinking about an Avatar-like future in virtual reality, millennials and Gen Z created their online representation in unexpected ways, like filtered Instagram versions of themselves. We do have second lives that we live in virtual space [as the futurists predicted], they’re just not necessarily 3D characters.’
Through endless video calls, Zoom drinks and weird livestreamed approximations of gigs, exhibitions and classes, over the past year we’ve all gotten a taste of what it’s like to exist virtually. And while many of us were desperate to slam shut our laptops and dash back outside, some used this enforced screen time to enjoy – via video games such as Animal Crossing – a space free of the gendered expectations, social pressure, physical constraints and the power dynamics that we face in reality and are therefore in no rush to escape the offline world.
Take 35-year-old Louise, aka Zergana Blade. She’s a successful illustrator whose work appears in The New York Times. She had fond memories of playing Second Life while at university in Brighton in the Noughties, and recently went back to it when feeling lonely during lockdown. She accurately describes it as ‘The Sims on acid’. Although it now looks creaky in comparison to more recent virtual world games it still has players – 900,000 of them in total last year, according to its developer – and has seen a bit of a tourism boost during the pandemic, particularly among marginalised people who find community and a sense of belonging in the edgy, alternative universe that they don’t in real life.
‘There’s a big alternative scene on Second Life and it’s comforting to meet people who are into similar music and aesthetics as me,’ says Louise. ‘In London (and across the world), there’s been a decline in LGBTQ+ spaces, especially for women, with many having to close their doors. It’s been reassuring to see some of these communities still thriving in SecondLife, even if it is a weird computer-generated world.’
Louise has two avatars: one female, one male. ‘My female avatar is a tall goth with a load of tattoos,’ she tells me. ‘She wears a leather catsuit with chunky boots that resemble something you’d find in Camden, circa 2004. My male avatar looks like a camp Hellraiser coenobite. He’s bald and wears black eyeshadow. His outfit features leather hot pants and lots of chains – I channelled how I imagine I might look if I was a gay man on a night out.’
I meet Louise at a Second Life reproduction of Brighton Pier, complete with merry-go-round, arcade, kitsch upright artwork to stick your head through for a photo, and ice cream that I can’t buy because I have no virtual money. We chat for a while via direct messaging on the platform before she takes me to an opulent lesbian tearoom, with Persian rugs and a lounge-music soundtrack.
There’s a real sense of joy and excitement among the avatar patrons of this virtual one. Next, we hit an underground goth club playing mid-Noughties industrial music that immediately awakens my inner queer teen weirdo. I spend 20 minutes trying out all the different dances and creasing up with laughter. Perhaps depressingly, it is the best night out I’ve had in months, and it gives me a taste of how intoxicating it is to be able to access the perfect place for you, whenever you need it.
But while it’s tempting to see virtual places as thrillingly egalitarian worlds – spaces where prejudices don’t exist, where you can be whoever you want to be behind the screen, where the frustrating gender, race, age and ability-based hierarchies of reality don’t apply – often the problems of real life follow us into our virtual ones.
I’ve not used voice chat in a video game since the time a male stranger heard my voice in a virtual lobby and spent the next two hours following me around the computer game and sending me inappropriate messages (I was 14). On social media, it’s hardly a secret that women, people of colour and other marginalised people routinely have to deal with harassment or being undermined. On Twitter that might be the ‘Well, actually’ mansplainer in your replies; in a virtual world such as Fortnite, it might be some idiot teenager lamenting being put into a team with a girl.
Virtual spaces try to combat this with moderation and curation: trying to firefight toxic behaviour as it crops up, which rarely works, or giving people the option to select a circle of friends to hang out with and block everyone else, which works but doesn’t really solve the root cause of the problem. The fact is that unless it’s consciously challenged, technology often replicates the biases of real life.
Researcher Nick Yee calls this the ‘Proteus paradox’, in his book of the same name, which explores the ways in which living in virtual worlds changes us and the ways that they don’t: ‘Even when we believe we are free and empowered, our offline politics and cognitive baggage prevent us from changing.’ That may well be true, but here’s what I’ve always found in virtual worlds: possibilities. I can, briefly, be someone else, but I can also be a slightly different version of myself.
When my Animal Crossing character dresses in a garish galaxy-patterned hoody and rainbow shorts, I’m wondering whether I could pull it off in real life (but know that even if I could, I probably shouldn’t). I can occupy space in places like my own private Animal Crossing island where sexism doesn’t exist and no one is judged by their appearance, with friends I’ve chosen to be with. Why wouldn’t you choose a lower-stakes virtual world as a way to express yourself, meet new friends – and even lovers?
In 2019, two Second Life players – Kelly Sexton, 41, and Nick Von Asten, 30 – made headlines when they left their respective spouses and eloped in real life after spending years role-playing as a married couple with a child online. As more and more people begin socialising, curating themselves and building their own private realms within virtual worlds, we can expect such encounters to become the norm.
Instead of beginning a relationship by chatting on Tinder, then deciding if we want to meet for an awkward first date in a bar, there will be a new middle ground of dates taking place in a virtual world. We can see how a prospective partner builds their virtual environment – their tidiness, taste levels and their avatar’s style. This will offer a greater insight into their personality than banter over DM, but there’s still less at stake than there would be in an actual meet-up. If it’s not going well, simply press ‘exit’.
The multiverse may not usurp reality any time soon, as our 18 months of isolation have proved – human touch is something so essential, powerful and transformative that no digital experience can replace it. But we are heading towards a future where we move seamlessly in and out of virtual worlds and real ones, enjoying the opportunity to build a version of ourselves and curate our worlds behind a screen while continuing to exist in the messy, corporeal chaos of real life.
Whether the virtual world we choose to inhabit is Instagram or Animal Crossing, there is a power and freedom of identity in these cyber spaces that will continue to alter our lived experiences in ways that, right now, we can’t even imagine.
This article appears in the July issue of ELLE UK, out on newstands on June 10, 2021.
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