A Generation of Cozy Video Gamers Continues to Grow in Response to Hardships

In the wake of hyper competitive video games and global hardship, a large subset of players turn to “cozy games” for reprieve.

By Jamal Michel

When Animal Crossing: New Horizons released in March 2020 for the Nintendo Switch, few could have guessed its massive success would be at all possible since, at the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic had been officially declared. The Animal Crossing series had been a staple in the family of household Nintendo titles since it first released for the Nintendo 64 in Japan over two decades ago. It reached a vast and diverse player base for its simplistic yet involved game design, as well as for its eclectic assortment of characters. Players built communities around the series that spanned various demographics and highlighted the inclusivity encouraged by the games.

The series follows a human player who has just moved to a rural village or island where anthropomorphic animals, or ‘villagers’, live. What separates this series of games from its contemporaries is that it lacks defined objectives and instead encourages players to explore the space they live in while engaging with villagers and completing various tasks. From socializing with neighbors to fishing and collecting bugs, Animal Crossing is most celebrated for its soothing and immersive gameplay that invites creativity, collaboration, and exploration.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons (ACNH for short) released at an unprecedented time, with a global pandemic threatening to thwart economic growth for years to come. However, the fifth title in the Animal Crossing series quickly took over social media, with websites and forums cropping up dedicated to helping players trade items with one another. It became one of the best and fastest selling titles in the series, mostly stoked by stay-at-home orders and quarantine measures.

According to a case study by Lin Zhu, a graduate student in Educational and Methodology Psychology at University at Albany, ACNH’s social platform was the perfect response to the heightened psychological stress of the outbreak of COVID-19. With loose social distancing measures stymied by the increased number of COVID-19 cases, ACNH became an effective outlet for staying connected while being locked down.

The game’s success had also occurred at a time when keynote presentations from video game’s biggest names suffered massive cancellations. The Entertainment Software Association, known for hosting the signature trade event the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) every summer since 1995, announced for the first time they would be cancelling their in-person event back in March 2020. Events like E3 shared details of upcoming titles, projects in the works, and console reveals, but had been experiencing a decline in attendance leading up to the pandemic.

The woes of the video game industry could not prevent the meteoric rise in popularity and commercial success of ACNH and games like it, however. With the shift in how video games were to be marketed during the pandemic, companies like Nintendo, PlayStation, and Xbox organized their own showcases and reaped the benefit of airing their own content to millions of viewers. This also allowed greater attention to video games in the indie space that targeted a demographic outside of the usual hyper-competitive space where Triple-A titles thrived.

The Wholesome Direct is one such example of a showcase born out of the pandemic—it spotlight what became known as ‘cozy games’, and while not an entirely new genre, it was known as entertainment on the gentler side. The showcase itself first aired on streaming platforms in May 2020 ‘in response to the cancellation of in-person game industry events like Game Developers Conference (GDC)’. Many of the mobile, console, and PC games highlighted explored nuanced themes and were helmed by diverse indie teams of gamers wanting to breakup the stereotype of video games as incessantly competitive. Megan Fox, developer of SkateBIRD, wanted to simplify the skating experience in video games that often relied on dense inputs done in rapid succession. The premise is simple: you’re a bird on a skateboard. The lighthearted atmosphere coupled with the comical animations of a bird doing a kickflip made SkateBIRD an instant crowd pleaser at the 2021 Wholesome Direct.

Wholesome games have expanded in reach and have brought visibility to a subset of gamers who once felt overlooked. The ‘seriousness’ of a game is an important element to engage with, as is the lightheartedness of wonder and being able to encounter amusement and even foolishness. Games like ACNH and SkateBIRD are examples of a growing genre that caters to a demographic born out of necessity. Their inclusive design allows for greater engagement across communities and opens the floor for discussion on how to make games that anyone can participate in. 

Having diverse groups represented in the design of a game encourages a dialogue that breaks barriers. One example of a game failing its audience happened when PlatinumGame and Square Enix released a demo for its RPG Babylon’s Fall back in February that was criticized for its lack of darker skin tones. The subsequent criticism held a spotlight on the growing voices in the margins vying for representation in video games.   

While the COVID-19 pandemic created a massive shift in political and economic trends, it also transformed cultural tendencies in a space like video games. Wholesome Direct was one example of communities adapting to the psychological stress of a global pandemic, and what continues to follow is an earnest attempt to bring more ‘cozy gamers’ into the fold. Platforms like YouTube and Twitch are home to countless content creators sharing their favorite relaxing games, and forums like Reddit are doing the same. This generation of cozy gamers continues to teach us how to find time to unwind in the face of rising challenges.

Photo Credits: Fiyu / Shutterstock