The Five Stages of Grief as Video Game Releases During COVID-19

Photo source: Fredrick Tendong, Unsplash

The emotional response towards COVID-19 has been likened to experiencing collective grief by sources like the American Psychological Association and Harvard Business Review. People are turning to baking bread, adopting jigsaw puzzles, or buying every Nintendo Switch on the store shelves, just to cope. People need something to do during this chaos; I needed something to do, too.

The Nintendo Switch sold out in stores and online because video games are one of the easiest time-occupiers. You can tailor what you play to personal taste, skill level, attention span requirements, and genre preferences. Gamers who didn’t already have a Switch suddenly wanted one; busy households that had a single Switch picked up a spare; and people who hadn't gamed in years (or ever) jumped on board as a creative answer to the quarantine problem.

Luckily, early 2020 has been a great time for games. And, as I started playing through some of the available titles, I noticed a pattern. A pattern that perfectly situated some of the biggest game releases of the year with a familiar sensation: the five stages of grief.

In retrospect, I see the connection. But now, as we push towards reopening, the pattern became abundantly clear. And I want to share what I have learned.

1. Denial — Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out on Nintendo Switch in March of 2020.

The most recent Animal Crossing installment has become notorious online in a way that no other games in this franchise seemed to. It was a perfectly timed storm of memes, Nintendo Switch FOMO, and being forced to lockdown at home for an indefinite amount of time. Luckily, Animal Crossing is “endless”, you can put in as many or as few hours as you want. What you do in the game is up to you: focus on compiling museum exhibits, build out your house and become a world-class decorator, tend to and harvest rare flowers, or collect shooting stars and build special items.

My island was a perfect paradise. I could “work”, go outdoors, and visit my real-life friends in-game. Players were hosting birthday parties and starting talk shows within the game world as we all feigned normalcy. In the game, you can even buy and wear medical masks as part of your avatar’s costume — haha! So funny and whacky and relevant… No need to panic, just play…

“Thank God we got a pandemic,” I thought to myself while furiously downloading the game and pouring 10 hours into it in a single day, “Otherwise I wouldn't have time to play all these great new releases!” I, quite evidently, was in full denial.

2. Anger Doom Eternal came out on Nintendo Switch in March of 2020.

This was, appallingly, my first Doom game. Despite its canonical importance in video game history, Doom always passed me by. The original Doom came out in 1993; I wasn’t even in grade school yet. It was a bit before my time in that sense. And when the next game launched a few years later, I was scarcely any better off (hand to eye coordination-wise, in particular). When I was finally old enough to play and appreciate these games, my parents were in their “popular culture is of the Devil” phase of my Christian upbringing. Fighting my way through Hell with a shotgun would have been a one-way ticket to an eternal grounding.

The Nintendo Switch reeled me in in a big way and, as the novel coronavirus spread globally, hundreds of thousands of players seemed to agree. The bombastic graphics and cutting-edge action (literally) made Doom Eternal perfect for a hardcore console or PC experience. So why was I playing it in my bed, sheets up to my ears, headphones in to experience the full roar of the soundtrack? Quite frankly, it’s because I was angry.

The frustration of losing social time, work hours, security, and freedom started to set in as holidays, birthdays, and events were canceled one-by-one. I was lonely. I was exhausted. I was bored. I was mad. What I needed was a cold beer, a warm bed, and 20+ hours imploding demons’ heads. The reality of the virus and the quarantine had set in.

3. Bargaining — Persona 5 Royal came out for Playstation 4 in March 2020.

Persona 5 Royal is an upgraded version of a year-old JRPG that mixes a creative blend of social simulation/high school life with turn-based dungeon crawling adventure. One of the strategy elements is that you can “bargain” with the monsters (called Shadows) after you fell them; if you convince them you are worthy, they’ll join you as a tool in combat.

But Persona 5 Royal involves more than just in-game bargaining. This 100+ hour game is, like its predecessors, a time commitment on the player’s part. When I played through Persona 3, I was juggling University, two part-time jobs, and (last but not least) my favorite video game experience of the modern age. Playing a robust, highly-involved JRPG always involves bargaining: I’ll play a few hours after I’m done work, after the gym, after this next assignment, after the laundry is done…

Thanks to being laid off and trapped indoors, I didn’t have to make that bargain. I had nothing to sacrifice and found myself wanting something, anything, with which to bargain. The only thing that crossed my mind was: “I would give up this game I love, all the games I love, for the world to go back to normal tomorrow.”

4. Depression — Final Fantasy VII Remake came out for Playstation 4 in April 2020.

Final Fantasy VII Remake was something old made new, nostalgia reimagined. A strong dose of nostalgia is guaranteed to make me cry…but this — this was different. I saw a familiar character, I cried. I entered a gamified bar, I cried. I saw a field of flowers, I cried. I heard a familiar tune, I cried. The game plants plenty of moments that are ripe for tears and I fell for them every time. But even the silence, the starry sky, the neon lights, all filled me with sorrow.

There were whole sections of the game that I played through tears, wiping them away on the sleeve of my Playstation hoodie while trying to concentrate on the next fight, the next line, the next scene. I was sad. I needed an excuse to let myself be sad. A whole month had gone by since quarantine started and all I had done was sit in front of the T.V. and play games.

The body count was growing. I couldn’t send my mother flowers on Mother’s Day on account of being wary of close contact with strangers. I was alone day after day after day. I was depressed. Like the memory of an industrial plate falling and crushing a beloved section of the city of Midgar, sadness was ever-present.

5. Acceptance — BioShock: The Collection comes to the Nintendo Switch on May 29, 2020.

This is a future release but it’s one of my favorite video game triolgies and I am so excited to own it on Nintendo Switch and replay it at my leisure, at home, or on the go. I haven’t quite found my ultimate game for the concept of acceptance, mainly because I haven’t quite hit this stage in the grieving process. How do we accept that “opening” the city back up might mean playing by different rules for the next few years? How do we accept that a second wave of sicknesses is all but guaranteed? How do we accept that many jobs won’t bounce back, or if they do they will be forever altered?

Maybe we should buckle up and prepare for another quarantine, or a full-lockdown a la Italy. Maybe we should prep our savings accounts, our bookshelves, our bread-making kits, and our video game libraries for another lengthy period of isolation. Maybe we should buy a trilogy of games we have already played and queue them up, just in case the summer is doomed to lockdown.

We can plan, prep, and prepare for the worst. I might spend the rest of the year playing through a retrofuturistic video game, shackled to my apartment and eking by, hanging on, staying safe, remembering to breathe, and — honestly — letting myself rest. I also know that things might go back to normal just as much as they might not. If that happens, I’ll go back to work, eking by, hanging on, staying safe, remembering to breathe, and letting myself thrive.

Either way, I’m ready to accept it.

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