"In the world’s first history book, Herodotus recounts how the ancient Lydians faced a prolonged period of food scarcity. Months passed without relief and despair set in, spurring the desperate Lydians to implement an unusual solution. Life was organized according to a two-day schedule, where they fasted on the first day and played games to distract from hunger, while on the second day they ate and abstained from play. Herodotus writes that the people lived according to this pattern for eighteen years, survived the famine, and invented some of the games that we enjoy today.
Three thousand years later, we stand to learn much from the Lydians. Games might be a timely balm as we grapple with our own social crisis. French philosopher David Émile Durkeim believed that games are a cornerstone of human bonding, while their power to absorb and distract helps ease our thoughts from the troubles at hand. Also, digital games can simulate vast navigable virtual spaces, an attractive commodity when access to real world space is restricted. But, unlike the Lydians, we already have tens of thousands of games ready to go, many of which have been designed to dissolve physical distance.
"As we adjust to a prolonged sojourn in the great indoors, the games included here may help ease the burden of confinement. Players can draw comfort from bridging distance through online collaboration, traveling the virtual world, sharing struggles, or getting a daily fitness fix, all without having to step outside.
Kind WordsKind Words’ core mechanic is meaningful human contact. Players can anonymously write short letters to share their struggles or respond to others with supportive words. After the tutorial, all letters and responses are produced by real people. This little game with a big heart seems ideally suited to our current circumstances as it transcends space with its anonymous virtual network that encourages positive interactions, mutual comfort and support. It’s also a fun way for kids to exercise reading, writing and emotional intelligence through empathetic engagements. Not surprisingly, many recent letters address social distancing issues which grant ample opportunity to connect on the foundation of shared experience.
Doesn’t it feel like a good time for a mystical pilgrimage across the desert? Journey is a striking work of video game art where a player traverses a surreal desert landscape as they make their way to a distant mountain. The soothing soundtrack, austere expanses and calming rhythm of play are a powerful antidote to the doldrums of social isolation. The best part is that you are not alone. At every level, one might encounter another anonymous player with whom they can exchange magic scarves and form a temporary alliance. Communication is limited to avatar motion and nonverbal chimes or “pings.” Strangely, these constraints deepen the emotional connection between players as it impedes potentially toxic behavior. Journey is a powerful metaphor that binds inward and outward voyages, but perhaps the most relevant message it delivers is its persistent reminder that less is more.
Stardew Valley The pastoral life calls in Stardew Valley, where you’re an urban office worker who inherits an abandoned plot of land from your grandfather. Fed-up with the city grind, you decide to take the plunge and start a new life in Pelican Town, an idyllic 16-bit farming community. Soon, you’re clearing land, managing crops, monitoring your sleep cycles, visiting the general store, socializing with the townsfolk and exploring the surrounding countryside. The surprise hit of 2016 is a refreshing tend-and-befriend game with throwback graphics and diverse tasks that will keep you blissfully occupied for hours. You can also farm with friends: there’s a multiplayer co-op version that lets up to four players work together, share an income and even tie the knot.
Animal Crossing: New HorizonFresh off the press, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the latest installment of the enduring life simulation franchise where players explore a cartoony paradiscal island and build a thriving community of cutesy animal citizens. The open-ended sim is a highly customizable sandbox where players build, collect, craft, grow, fish, trade, play and socialize. Time on the island is tied to the real world clock, the weather is in flux and the flora and fauna change according to the seasons. Four can collaborate on the same system and up to eight online players can meet to work and play on the island.
GeoGuessrWhile we await regularly scheduled flights to resume, GeoGuessr lets us explore the world from the comfort of home. It leverages Google Maps and Street View technology to drop you somewhere on the globe to wander around searching for clues to determine your location. Street signs, landscapes, flora, fauna, company logos, store signs and architecture all provide clues to help you figure out whether you’ve been beamed to the heart of Mongolia or deposited in downtown Nairobi. There are diverse challenges available and those who aren’t ready to go global can choose to materialize at landmarks, specific countries, or U.S. capitals. Once you’ve satisfied your wanderlust, hand it over to the kids for an entertaining boost to their geographic knowledge and critical thinking skills.
The Outer WildsAfter you’ve exhausted your virtual tour of the world, you might consider heading off planet to the Outer Wilds. The recent winner of BAFTA’s Best Game of 2020 award is sci-fi on the surface, but Outer Wilds is a gentle, carefully crafted masterpiece that rewards careful exploration. This time, you’re a rookie alien astronaut caught in a 22-minute time loop that always ends with a massive supernova, blackout and you wake up at the campfire starting position again. Rinse, but not quite repeat, as every churn of the Groundhog Day cycle reveals a new piece of the puzzle as you learn why you are trapped in the loop. It is ultimately a story about community and connection that caused one reviewer to confess that “Outer Wilds’ final revelations left a mark that will be on my soul...one that pulls at me every time I hear its simple, enthralling theme music.”
Dungeons & DragonsIn case you didn’t notice, Dungeons & Dragons is back and bigger than ever. The iconic sword and sorcery tabletop role-playing game (RPG) with the eccentric dice has enjoyed a massive resurgence as an embodied alternative to online socialization. Besides its mainstream popularity, educators, therapists and parents have leveraged D&D to encourage literacy, STEM and social and emotional wellbeing. The pen-and-paper game was designed to be played around a table; however, it takes more than a lockdown to subdue. Wizards of the Coast curates a wealth of free tools and resources to help transition your D&D campaign online, and Polygon offers a guide to help make the shift with other RPGs. Roleplay is cathartic, and tabletop RPGs are ultimately collaborative storytelling experiences, a fundamental human impulse to strengthen social cohesion.
MinecraftMinecraft is in a category all its own, and a mainstay of every video game list ever. It’s the second best selling title of all time, the commercial video game most widely used in education and it remains enormously popular with players of all ages. Blockish avatars explore, mine and build structures ranging from simple homes to sophisticated circuits. Geographically distanced friends can collaborate on projects, and it’s even possible to build a computer or stage a live performance in the virtual world. For tens of millions of youth (and adults) around the world, Minecraft is a safe and familiar place to converse, compete, collaborate and, best of all, create.
Ring Fit Adventure and Just DanceFinally, physical exercise is a cornerstone of wellbeing, and games can help with that too. There is no end to online fitness videos but, let’s face it, sometimes the motivation just isn’t there. Some may be more willing to build up a sweat if they have to battle monsters and clear obstacles in a dungeon. Nintendo’s Ring Fit Adventure, the spiritual successor to Wii Sports, uses motion sensors, a plastic ring peripheral and an RPG narrative to incentivize a workout. It also includes more traditional guided exercise routines. If you prefer to boogie, Just Dance curates classic and contemporary dance hits and scores players on how well they can execute the guided moves, while co-op mode allows for dance offs and collaborative routines.
Dutch historian John Huizinga believed that games are magic circles whose self-contained rules and protocols separate them apart from the real word. Today, it might be more applicable to think of games as magic networks rather than circles, meaningfully connecting people far and wide through designed experiences, and offering a refuge from our refuge. A wayward Danish prince who was also trapped at home once said, “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space.” With a little help from modern technology, so can we.