Gaming and Mental Health: Coping with Grief and the Pandemic

Video games have played a curious and surprising role during some very dark times

Gaming and Mental Health: Coping with Grief and the Pandemic
An unsuspecting crowd at Pax East 2020 weeks before lockdown. Source: Author.

Noticing many of my real-life friends using Discord again recently has me reflecting on the early days of lockdown. Discord and social distance gaming was a huge part of my life starting in March 2020 (as was Animal Crossing, specifically - more on that in a moment). A few weeks before the lockdown came into effect in Boston, I was actually among the crowd at PAX East (which, it turns out, was something of a super spreader event).

Back to Animal Crossing; I've been playing the series since its GameCube debut. I knew I'd play the latest game (on Nintendo Switch) obsessively for a few weeks and then lose interest, leaving my town to become overrun with weeds and cockroaches. But this time around, I was effectively locked in my apartment with the game, and it became a way for my friends and I to hang out (while we were still wearing gloves to open the mail).

A memorial made by a user in Animal Crossing New Horizons. Source is The Order Of The Good Death.

Players started to also use Animal Crossing as a memorial for those who had lost someone to Covid-19, especially when real-life memorial services weren't available. The ability to build a graveyard and tomb based on a particular villager's preferred aesthetics gave players the means to replicate real-life burial sites.

Psychologists are already analyzing gaming for its utility during the pandemic. Ironically, everyone was physically distancing, but social connection became more important than ever before. For example, I started talking to friends who had grown distant from me (just through time and our lives going down different paths). Gaming content creators (e.g. Twitch, YouTube) took on the role of surrogate mental health providers; they became familiar faces and sources of comfort and socialization during a period of extreme physical isolation.

Image courtesy of Zeldapedia.

But the pandemic is not the first time video games have been used to honor people who have passed away. While never officially confirmed by Nintendo, there's an NPC in Breath of the Wild called Botrick, who looks identical to the late Satoru Iwata (Nintendo's former president, who passed away before Breath of the Wild was released). Botrick tells you to watch over Satori Mountain. Given the context (and Iwata's connection to this game), it seems clear that the beam of light escaping from the mountain - and the gorgeous cherry blossom at its peak - are likely to be stunning in-game tributes.

My parents playing the Atari 2600. Provided by the author.

I lost my Mom to cancer in 2016. I gave her a eulogy, and continued to eulogize her through my writing. In retrospect, it seems weird to me that I didn't associate the more painful days with a hobby that my Mom and I shared: video games. My Mom played games that went beyond what you might expect; she always had her own Game Boy, for example. She treasured her save files, and had no qualms about calling the Nintendo Powerline when in need of help. In fact, my younger sister and I would often watch her play games and even beat them (honestly, she was something of a monster when it came to spoilers).

Since her passing, I've thought about the association between her death anniversary (or even her birthday) and the games she loved to play. Now I want to honor and remember her by playing through her favorites myself. Medieval and Oddworld are both on my list this year; I'm not planning to rush through these experiences, either. Instead, I'll sit back and reflect on how much gaming is associated with the loss of one of the most formative and significant presences in my life.


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