CHICAGO — Photographer Amber Gercken and her 10-year-old daughter Lily have been stuck in their Mokena, Ill., townhouse since Illinois' stay-at-home order took effect. Yet as their physical world has contracted, a virtual one has bloomed.
The Gerckens are devotees of "Animal Crossing: New Horizons," a video game released just as COVID-19 drove most of the country indoors. It has since become a cultural phenomenon on par with the Netflix show "Tiger King," dominating countless social media feeds, breaking sales records and racking up more than 37 million hours of viewing time on the streaming platform Twitch.
But what especially matches "Animal Crossing" to the moment is that it replicates parts of everyday life that have been frozen by the pandemic. Players can build and decorate their homes, visit friends, even hold weddings and graduations. And they can do it all with a whimsical supporting cast of hedgehogs, owls and dodos.
"It is so wholesome and very silly," Gercken said. "These animals, when they talk to you, they are sassy. It's just a bit of levity and relaxation at a time when it's really hard to relax."
"Animal Crossing" is a social simulation game like "The Sims," where the object is to build a customized world. Players create an avatar, choose an island setting and start collecting the objects they need to build and decorate their surroundings.
The game, made for the Nintendo Switch platform, also allows players to visit islands made by others if they set up an online account. That has been a comfort to Carly Ilg, who recently moved to the Boston area from Chicago and has seen her nascent social life shut down by the virus.
"I can play 'Animal Crossing' with all my friends in Chicago," the 25-year-old software engineer said. "It's been great to be able to run around islands together, even if I'm not with them physically."
Carly Kocurek, associate professor of digital humanities and media studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology, said while the game is popular largely because of its adorable landscapes and characters — "I think we can never underestimate how nice it is to have cute things" — it also makes an understated commentary on current events.
Players generally start the game getting a mortgage from a character named Tom Nook, a businessman in the form of a tanuki — a Japanese raccoon dog — who provides tools and information needed to customize an island. That has made an impression at a time of soaring unemployment and growing fears about evictions and foreclosures.
"Weirdly, there's a lot of discussion of the economy and capitalism and for-profit systems (around the game)," she said. "'Animal Crossing' is a great way to talk about it because you're in debt to a raccoon."
Chicagoan Alexander Kuliak, 21, who returned home from the University of Alabama after COVID-19 closed the campus, is also intrigued by the game's mercantile twists. He created a chart that lets players see the color variations of furniture available in the game — including portable toilets, cotton candy stalls and Godzilla-esque statues — and express their interest in trading for the items.
But Kuliak said that's just one way to approach "Animal Crossing."
"It's great to see more people enjoying it, and to see how people enjoy it in different ways," he said. "Some people just want to make custom clothes. Some people just want to improve their island. Everyone's able to find their thing in it and still experience it together."
A professional video game streamer from the northwest suburbs who goes by Jambo (like many who pursue that career, she prefers not to use her real name out of safety concerns) plays the game for hours each day on Twitch. She spent one recent stream creating an expansive fruit orchard, a feat she called "very relaxing."
The 27-year-old said another soothing aspect of the game is making virtual trips to replicate what she's missing.
"Something I've really wanted to do is go to the Shedd Aquarium," she said. "As silly as it seems, I've taken the time to go through the aquariums in 'Animal Crossing.' It's sort of a surrogate for things you'd like to do in real life."
Bartlett gamer Katie Retondo, known as Chrono Katie online, has treasured that simulated reality since falling ill with symptoms she thinks might be signs of a COVID-19 infection. Quarantined in her bedroom, unable to see her live-in boyfriend, she communicates with him when he visits her "Animal Crossing" village.
She said the virtual happenings have even enthralled her mother, a non-gamer who has taken an interest in her daughter's settlement all the way down to the outfits the characters wear. That sort of gentle connection has made "Animal Crossing" the signature video game of the shut-in coronavirus era, she said.
"It could not be more perfect for right now," she said. "We're living in a time of such high anxiety and chaos. More than ever we're seeking out a world that is without those things. In every way, that's what 'Animal Crossing' is."