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The Roles of Simulation and Open World Gaming During Periods of Loneliness and Social Distancing

Tom Nook (Middle), Timmy and Tommy Nook from Animal Crossing: New Horizons®. Image Source

On March 20th, 2020, in the fervor of layoffs, last-minute solutions for tele-work and widespread panic from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the newest version of a prestigious video game franchise was released, Animal Crossing: New Horizons. To describe the game’s overall spirit, take a moment and imagine if the emotions “peaceful”, “creative” and “happy” could be encapsulated into a quarter-sized cartridge. The life / social simulation game takes you to an uninhabited island where you and a group of anthropomorphic animals (well, mostly you) are in charge of developing the island into a dream vacation destination. Being new to the franchise myself, it was quite a scenic change from many of the current popular gaming titles I’ve become accustomed to.

The adorable character design and overall visual appeal of the game captures an essence of fun and exploration while setting a healthy pace for players to develop their new island home. The writing team at Nintendo’s studios are the backbone of the franchise, developing excessively charming dialogue saturated with witty banter and droll puns that by itself make the game worth its purchase price. For these reasons and more, Animal Crossing: New Horizons was always expected to be another home run for Nintendo. However, in its first weeks of release, the game has transcended a pleasant relaxation tool and instead has instead become a powerful source of coping for multiple generations of isolated gamers.

What’s the Big Deal?

From a cultural perspective, the discussion of gaming often involves parental grievances insisting video games are meritless distractions and a negative influence on social skill development. Psychologically, the majority of research with video games focuses on behavioral addictions and the effects of long-term exposure to violent stimuli. To avoid ruffling any feathers (see, in Animal Crossing, that line would definitely have been said by Blathers the Owl; so many quips!), we will be avoiding those polarizing topics.

Blathers (Right) with a player’s custom character from Animal Crossing: New Horizons®. Image Source

While some redeeming articles do take a stand against the narrow research spectrum, the acerbic reality is that video games could play an essential part in maintaining one’s mental health through periods of loneliness and social distancing; such as a health pandemic or life transitions. Loneliness, as a medical / health concept, is defined as “The anxious, depressed, or dysphoric mood that occurs as a result of physical or psychic isolation.” In order for non-gamers to fully understand the potential mental health applications of gaming, and stop blaming the games themselves for causing isolation, it is important to understand the emotional benefits of internally-motivated, goal-oriented behavior.

The Goal of Goal-Oriented Behavior

I will be focusing on exploring two major game genres: Simulation games and open world / sandbox games. In the discussion of mental health principles, these types of games provide a consistent source of goal-oriented structure that encourage the formation of positive thought patterns through schemas of task completion, identity development and organization / control. To elaborate, most games follow the model of externally-motivated, goal-oriented behavior: Completion of tasks leads to the completion of short-term goals / objectives, which lead to the completion of a long-term goal / set narrative.

In this case, the word “external” refers to the game developer’s emphasis on what the player should do next, such as the pursuit of finishing a game’s set narrative / storyline or “winning” a competitive activity. Simulation and open world / sandbox games offer a greater level of internally-motivated, goal-oriented structure where the focus is on the entire process rather than just the result; in essence, it’s just as important to “play” as it is to “win”. It is important to identify characteristics of these goal-oriented principles in gaming that differ slightly from textbook definitions / clinical practice:

- A task is an action that contributes toward the completion of a short-term goal / objective

- A short-term goal / objective is a combination of actionable steps that serve to fulfill a need or want

- A long-term goal is an observable and measurable end result (completion of a set narrative, growth / progression, achievements, proficiency in a learned skill, etc.)

Simulation Games

These games are set in predominantly realistic settings and focus on acting out real-life situations or representing the operation of a system / process over time. The overarching goal in simulation games is completing tasks that contribute to the continuation of one’s desired progress, meaning that progression is often decided by the player’s expectations rather than the continuation of a storyline. There are many different subgenres of simulation games, but the three I will be discussing are: Construction & management simulation, life / social simulation and training simulation.

Construction & Management Simulation: These games focus on simulating the roles of an organization / system, such as a business or government. Games in the subgenre are also called “Tycoon games” based on the legendary franchise RollerCoaster Tycoon, where your goal is to develop a plot of land into a theme park or help fix and expand an existing theme park. The games offer a list of “scenarios” (earn __ amount of money, have __ population size, have __ popularity rating, etc.) that players can complete (sometimes within a time limit) and normally offer a detailed series of smaller objectives within a “scenario”, which provides a steady level of progression and frequent feedback for task completion.

The short-term goals are about fulfilling the needs / wants of the organization / system, such as providing services or developing new areas for the organization / system to expand. However, the execution of these short term goals are unique to each player’s choices rather than a specific instruction. While many would see “completing all scenarios” as the long-term goal, each scenario itself becomes a long-term goal when in play, which allows for each scenario to provide a similar level of satisfaction to completing a more time-consuming long-term video game goal. Other games in this genre include: Cities Skylines, Planet Coaster, Two Point Hospital, Another Brick in the Mall and Project Highrise.

Title Screen of the original RollerCoaster Tycoon®. Image Source

Life / Social Simulation: These games focus on simulating the roles of an individual character / group of characters either through the development of a community or throughout a lifespan. They involve designing your own character, creating a place for them to live and completing the roles of life / community as you see fit. There is no set long-term goal to the games, the player determines what they want to accomplish in the timespan they choose. The short-term goals / objectives of these games are fulfilling either your own needs / wants or the community’s needs / wants, which eliminates the pressures of competition. These games emphasize identity development as a key factor, encouraging players to be as traditional or rebellious as they see fit.

There are two franchises that dominate this subtype: The Sims (Rated T) and Animal Crossing. The Sims gameplay structure provides positive reinforcement for improving your character’s skills by rewarding new abilities, growth opportunities and in-game items. The Animal Crossing gameplay structure provides positive reinforcement for community involvement and frequent communication with your new furry and feathery friends by hiding certain information, abilities and item exchanges in the game’s endearing dialogue. Both franchises provide a unique experience where style and expression are entirely up to the player and have a minimal impact on actual gameplay, encouraging creativity without enforcing it.

Characters from Animal Crossing: New Horizons®. Image Source

Training Simulations: These games focus on simulating the roles of an individual who is part of an organization / system, such as a truck driver or pilot. While these games can have elements of management simulators (budgets, business growth, etc.), the majority of gameplay focuses on completing a procedural activity such as conducting a vehicle or fixing up a house. The long-term goal is often to achieve full proficiency in a learned skill or a system’s functioning based on the evaluation criteria of the game. Short-term goals / objectives are based on operating the machinery, improving efficiency / effectiveness and fulfilling the procedural needs of a system.

These games involve the most accurate use of the word “simulator” by directly representing the activity with similar complexity to the real-life thing, such as flight simulators that require activating realistic switches, monitoring gauges and conducting appropriate techniques for a safe flight (or just do a barrel roll in a 747, no one will find out). These games provide a very literal sense of control that often inspires a level of responsibility and accountability for one’s own success. Popular games in this genre include: Euro Truck Simulator 2, Flight Simulator X, and House Flipper.

Landing a plane in Microsoft Flight Simulator X: Steam Edition®. Image Source

Open World / Sandbox Games

These games often ride the line between simulation and other genres of gaming but are distinctly characterized by an overall emphasis on exploration, creativity and free will. If there is a storyline involved, there may be some progression needed for full access to the landscape, but once the minimum progression is completed one can explore and create at their own will. Long-term goals and short-term goals / objectives are decided by the player, providing the ultimate playground-type freedom (hence the name “Sandbox”). Similarly, many simulation titles also feature a “Sandbox mode”, where players are provided a plot of land, access to all the in-game content and little to no restrictions. Examples of Open World / Sandbox titles include Minecraft and Kerbal Space Program.

Sun setting over the Horizon in Minecraft®. Image Source

The Emotional Importance of Gaming

While there is positive mental health potential in just about every gaming genre, gaming can provoke negative thought patterns and behaviors when an individual has an excessive or obsessive need to complete a game-related task / objective / long-term goal. As an individual recovering from a history of anger problems, I will admit that in my past of online competitive gaming, I’ve done my fair share of (gently) throwing around gaming controllers and vigorously expressing handfuls of expletives after losing matches; while others may express sadness or self-deprecation in the face of defeat. These tantrums were problematic behavioral expressions of the “over-competitive” thought process, where one’s primary motivation is to be more successful than others to the point of causing significant emotional distress in the event of any loss / failure.

This often occurs when the schema of task completion is a primary source of evaluating self-worth / self-efficacy, so that failure of achievement equates to failure of proving oneself as worthy or skilled. While this may stem from long-term issues of trauma, emotional neglect, co-dependence, poor self-image, etc., it can also be a culturally driven and socially learned mentality. This is when games can genuinely contribute to greater feelings of isolation and loneliness, but are merely acting as a trigger for other mental health issues rather than a cause in itself.

For individuals experiencing loneliness-related symptoms, simulation and open world / sandbox games can be dynamic tools in safely gratifying needs for control, expression and accomplishment during periods of emotional or physical isolation. Games that emphasize structure, organization and gradual achievement satisfy an underlying need for recognition, while games that emphasize freedom, creativity and exploration provide the opportunity for identity formation and self-expression in an otherwise limited environment. The explosion of popularity with Animal Crossing: New Horizons has represented so much more than a “cute little distraction” from our day-to-day stressors, it has emphasized that games have the potential to offer us invaluable support and hope in what can be the most difficult of times.

(Now, if I could only find some apples…)

Special Note for Gamers: I know there are many games that could have been included in these lists, but I wanted to lean towards “all ages” ratings and had to cut it off somewhere! Gaming has been a major part of my life, and I hope this has been able to inspire more to join our beautiful, diverse community.

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