7:00 pm EDT, March 30, 2020

Video games and pandemics: What ‘Animal Crossing’ and ‘World of Warcraft’ taught me

As the world continues its COVID-19 quarantine, Animal Crossing and World of Warcraft players react, teach, and encourage chaos amongst digital and real-life pandemics.

There are two sides of the video game pandemic coin, as a digital virus created a chaotic environment in WoW, but the real-life COVID-19 brought Animal Crossing players together in unique ways.

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In 2015, All That’s Interesting published a report detailing the Corrupted Blood pandemic of WoW. Via an error in the game’s code, players infected with a dungeon-exclusive blood poison were able to carry it over into the overworld, thus infecting a major portion of the game’s population.

I happened to trip over this piece about a year ago, not knowing then how much it would go on to affect my understanding of the global pandemic that would economically and mortally define the lives of my generation.

Video games can act as a unique lens to understanding human nature.

It’s not as if we can see the real-time effects of a pandemic in a semi-controlled environment in the real world, but with the help of social video games, we get a glimpse into how a specific reaction to illness in gamer culture could relate to global society.

In ATI’s report, they cite how different players interacted with each other: some spread, some suffered, and some were just curious.

Important, instructive behaviors displayed in the virtual world included players putting themselves at risk by running to heal weaker allies, only to infect themselves, and on the other hand, players joyously infecting as many others as possible. Some users would send their infected avatars to work or the market (yes, there is an entire, virtual WoW economy and transportation system), just like people might still go to work with the flu because they need money or have no sick days.

Yet another interesting observation for the epidemiologists is what Fefferman refers to as the “stupid factor.” Players logged on to take a quick look at the epidemic and its accompanying hysteria for the sake of curiosity only to contract, then spread, the disease themselves. This type of irrational behavior is actually present in real epidemics as well. Purely mathematical models don’t account for journalists, public health researchers, or Average Joes who get closer than they should.

The similarities between this 2005 virtual disease and our present-day COVID-19 pandemic concerns are indisputable.

An online video game virus in 2005 taught us how many would react to the coronavirus: some going to work because they had to, others being too curious/not taking it seriously enough, some helping the immunocompromised and getting infected themselves, fear amongst those that didn’t have it yet, and still others maliciously spreading the virus.

On the flip side, there’s the wonderful world of Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

The Nintendo Switch game released smack dab in the middle of a global COVID-19 quarantine, both bolstering sales for the Switch game to incredibly high numbers and saving the sanity of many of those who cannot see their friends in real life.

The current culture of Animal Crossing that pairs with COVID-19 is so specific, so tangible, and yet, so natural. The difference between a digital pandemic, such as the Corrupted Blood one in WoW, and the real-life pandemic of COVID-19 brings out a different side of gamers.

There is a sneeze emote in New Horizons. It’s not as if there is an in-game virus/pandemic, but still, players are simply not using this emote. It’s not that it’s even discussed, either.

COVID-19 quarantine is taken so seriously by gamers, to the point where they don’t want to make fun of it in a world that helps them escape real-world horrors.

The escapism of Crossing has reached new levels with the Switch release. As major events like birthdays, weddings, and graduations are being canceled, players are instead holding digital versions of those ceremonies.

It’s a safe way of attending them, and perhaps, it’s even more memorable timepiece than a standard event would be.

One of the simpler forms of escape in Animal Crossing is that of creating art. I’ve seen some gorgeous terraformed towns with towering waterfalls leading the player down the path to the town hall.

Original art, meme clothing designs, and homages to loved ones are common in my Animal Crossing experiences.

The World of Warcraft crowd seemed to lean toward the chaos of it all. Unfortunately, that digital pandemic is somewhat indicative of how the world is reacting to COVID-19.

Related: How to make quick bells in Animal Crossing: New Horizons

And then there’s New Horizons. The Animal Crossing games are exactly what the world needs right now. It’s a place of tranquility, peace, and creativity.

Without violence, orcs, and (many) malicious players, Crossing shows us there’s a subset of society that will always be interested in living a calm, collectively pleasant life, even amongst the horrific realities of global pandemic.

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