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 replicate 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 due to 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."