Virtual spaces repurposed for a new world: Animal Crossing and Covid-19

One thing that has particularly interested me during the current coronavirus pandemic is the rise of virtual spaces being repurposed for creative collaborations and gatherings. Since the near global lockdown, there has been a sharp increase in demand for accessible virtual spaces to allow the population to continue with some semblance of a normal social life, when all social spaces are closed indefinitely, and physical contact with anyone outside your household is banned. Another interesting impact of the virus is the art world’s sudden mad dash to re-contextualise their various galleries digitally, and remain relevant, now that the world’s cultural needs are being met on Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Still from BBC video of Virtual wedding in Animal Crossing

A particularly funny headline recently noted that a couple who’s wedding was due to take place but had been postponed, had decided to carry out a ceremony on the video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I read the entire article, and saw a video of the couples virtual wedding, both of their characters wearing appropriate wedding costumes, with a wedding arch and a bouquet of flowers! They weren’t alone in their ceremony, with several members of their friends and family either joining them in game to witness the event, or with other members watching them via a digital stream of the game. This headline really interested me because it’s a prime example of our adaption of these types of technology, beyond their usual means, to facilitate typically ‘in person’ gatherings and events. As i watched; several things passed through my mind:

What is the extent of this type of technology being used to facilitate typically ‘i-r-l’ gatherings?

In the rapidly approaching post covid-19 world, will there be a continued and sustained interest in these types of events?

Its interesting to consider whether in the future, people will disregard physical events, if there is an opportunity to ‘tune in’ or attend from the comfort of your own sofa, or if you can’t be present ’i-r-l’, will people take that?

I can imagine, if there is never a vaccine found for coronavirus, that we might see the end of unnecessarily large scale public gatherings such as weddings etc, when there is the capability to attend, and experience the event, digitally, whilst still in a sense having attended. Its interesting to consider the future of socialisation and gathering and experiences, when there is the threat of a potentially incurable invisible enemy.

Still from Hong Kong protests in Animal Crossing

Political action and protest have also found a new context in the virtual environment of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. In early April, protestors gathered on one players animal crossing island to stage a protest against the Hong Kong regime, particularly opposing Chinese President Xi Jinping and Hong Kong governor Carrie Lam. With no possibility for a physical protest, Joshua Wong, leader of the Hong Kong youth activist group Demosisto, wrote on Twitter last week, “Animal Crossing is fast becoming a new way for Hong Kong protesters to fight for democracy!”

The users who participated in the protest wore similar outfits, and had painted portraits of the political leaders, and placards bearing political slogans. This is a really interesting use of virtual technologies to achieve collective aims. Whilst not having the same effect as a physical protest, this protest clearly attracted mass media attention and that of the Chinese government, who were obviously upset enough to outright ban the game for sale in China. Previously, the same activists staged protests in Grand Theft Auto Online, and prior to that, shared maps advertising Pokémon Go events to signal where rallies would be held.

It seems as if games and the environments within them have became popular places for people to gather online and protest/ create/ discuss and collaborate… Why might this be? Is it the highly individualistic and customisable aspect of virtual gaming environments that has such an appeal to online activities such as these? In sandbox games such as Minecraft or Garrys Mod or the Sims or highly independent non driven story games such as Animal Crossing, the virtual environment becomes a new place for collaboration and gathering of thoughts and ideas, in a way which I don’t think we have really seen much of before the current pandemic.. I wonder what the potential for similar virtual collaborative actions are in the art world, beyond the obvious virtual gallery experiences. I am interested in exploring the potential within these virtual environments for collaborative artistic projects, and the scope of which collaborative activity can be developed in such spaces.

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