Health and Wellness

Why video games like The Sims and Animal Crossing are so soothing right now

@JJFarquitectos | Twenty20

While people around the world stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, gamers are turning to "life simulation" video games to kill time and escape the chaos of the real world. 

In the new Nintendo video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which was released Friday, players are encouraged to build their dream getaway on a deserted island, go fishing and make friends with other people in the village. Other gamers are re-discovering The Sims, the open-ended computer game that allows you to craft a fictional world and determine the fates of different characters or "Sims."

Turns out there are psychological reasons why people are drawn to video games right now, besides the entertainment factor, Chris Ferguson, psychology professor at Stetson University, who researches the impact of video games on people's wellbeing, tells CNBC Make It.

"We have difficulty getting [certain] needs met in real life," so we turn to virtual worlds, he says.

And "world-building" or "life simulator" games, might be especially useful during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here's why:

They help us feel in control

Building a dream home and crafting characters in The Sims "gives you the sense that you can create a world and have control over the decisions that are made for that world," Ferguson says. "You can feel like that world makes sense, and at the very least it has rules that you can understand...."

Additionally, right now in real life, "the perception we have of things being orderly and making sense has been disrupted," Ferguson says. Many people are working from home, haven't seen their friends or loved ones in weeks and are struggling to make sense of the news.

While The Sims takes place in a virtual world, players still have to make decisions and meet goals, Thaddeus Griebel, who has studied the positive effects of playing The Sims, tells CNBC Make It. "That helps bring about a sense of continuity: Even though our daily routine is disrupted right now, at least I can continue my life in this game," he says. 

They keep you social

"We are social animals, so we are uncomfortable being in isolation," Ferguson says. Besides communicating with other fictional characters in the context of the video game, many video games have a social component that allow you to connect with other players, he says.

For example, in the new Animal Crossing game, up to eight different people can "live" on the same island, and users are encouraged to "visit" friends' islands.

Sims players can share their "fan art" on the EA Games website for other users to enjoy.

Don't be surprised if more video games that have a social element, such as World of Warcraft and Dungeons and Dragons, make comebacks during this time too, Ferguson says.

They feel like an escape

The "problems" that your Sims characters or Animal Crossing villagers face are probably less stressful than the ones happening in your real life, and that's a good thing.

"The idea is to you know have a sort of fanciful version of life and the world," Ferguson says.

To some people, The Sims might seem a little boring, because all you do is work around the house and earn money at a job, Griebel says. But it also gives us something to look forward to.

"Games like The Sims or Animal Crossing help remind us that we'll get this back, and return to normal life," he says. "Rather than, you know, worrying too much about how bad are things going to get."

On the other hand, something like battle game Call of Duty can be somewhat relaxing, but can also be frustrating or overly complex — especially if you lose a mission.

Since Animal Crossing and The Sims are relatively easy, you can master them in a short amount of time, without a lot of video game experience, Ferguson says.

"It's pretty easy to get competent definitely without being overwhelming," he says.

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