Before we get started, a quick note: We’re going to be covering the wonderful series Schitt’s Creek on the podcast next week. It (handily) won our poll of listeners, so we know a lot of you are excited about it. If you have questions that you’d like us to chew on during the episode, you can record them as voice memos and send the sound file to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We might use your voice on the podcast!
Opening Argument: Help Me Nintendo, You’re My Only Hope
My relationship with gaming has always run hot and cold. Back in the paleolithic era, I had an Atari 2600 that I liked a lot. I played Pitfall! and Space Invaders and Asteroids — not the way some people did, but I played. I’ve dabbled in PC games and certainly games on my phone. I owned a PS3, but I never really learned to enjoy it; I’m not sure why. I wrote a lot more about my history with games back in 2018, when I decided to spend my summer exploring them — and then didn’t.
But being at home a lot (like, a lot) has led me to spend a lot more time with the console I currently own, which is a Nintendo Switch. I gravitate to handheld gaming, I’ve realized, so I mostly just pick it up and play it rather than using my TV. I eventually just lost track of the many, many things I felt like I was trying to keep track of in Stardew Valley, so I picked up what it feels like half of the game-enjoying world is playing right now — Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
It’s a very unassuming little game in which you live on an island, and you complete tasks, and you build things. You catch fish and bugs. But one of the best things about it is that it came out just as the current period of isolation set in, and it takes place in real time and uncovers certain things a day at a time, so a lot of people are on similar schedules. That means that even if you’re playing by yourself, if you check out your social media, you’ll see a lot of other people dealing with the same island problems you are.
I was right in the middle of trying to complete my museum (it’s a long story) when I saw the great writer and human Jonny Sun tweet a very funny screen capture next to which he explained that instead of donating his fossils to the owl Blathers for the museum Blathers is developing (as the game nudges you to do), he had decided to pile up all the fossils outside the museum site and open a competing lawn museum.
I even got myself to do something I have basically never been willing to do before, which is to explore playing online with strangers. I’ve had a strict rule against it because the last thing I need is a bunch of teenagers hating me because I don’t know what I’m doing (this is why I can’t really play Splatoon!, even though I enjoy it. It requires teammates, and I wind up with random ones, and they really don’t like me because I am bad at it and I make my team lose, so, you know, hard to blame them). But I figured out how to allow Nintendo friends, and I tentatively got on a virtual plane and went to a virtual island to explore someone else’s Animal Crossing world, and he was even nice enough to give me a few iron nuggets for the project I was working on back at home. (Thanks, Diego!)
It’s not only that, though. I’m also spending some time with the game — now a somewhat poignant one — meant to be a tie-in with the Tokyo Olympics. Called Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 (not the most elegant of names), it lets you compete in events like track and field and gymnastics. I am very, very bad at these things (in Nintendo, as well as in real life), and fortunately for other people, the Switch lets you instantly capture the last 30 seconds of whatever game you were playing. That’s why, if you haven’t already, you can watch me determinedly be terrible at hurdles in a way that looks like it’s on purpose but miraculously is not.
I think it’s important to resist formulations like "upside" and "silver lining" right now, because positing game play as a silver lining to a global pandemic is absurd and insulting and a lot of other bad things. But I also think it’s important to be assertive in finding the things that can make you laugh and give you things to care about and connect with other people about that don’t raise your stress levels. Games have been a big part of that for me, and they also help keep me off Twitter, where none of us should be for too long right now.
Now, go and enjoy whatever it is you’re enjoying at the moment. I have to go try to catch a butterfly.
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Tarriona "Tank" Ball, of the Tiny Desk Contest-winning band Tank and the Bangas, added her voice to the new series of Tiny Desk Home Concerts. Her show is so joyful in a time of such difficulty, and her mischievous, inventive energy has not lost a beat. Literally.
Speaking of music, NPR Music has a new feature called Our Daily Breather, where they talk to creative people about how they’re taking care of their psyches.
There have been a lot of famous people trying to find ways to entertain and support and bring smiles, and one of my favorites this week was sportscaster Joe Buck. (Stay with me, people who for sports reasons don’t like Joe Buck.) He put out an offer on Twitter to do play calls for people’s home videos, and what resulted is just delightful: he put play-by-play on videos of kids playing tennis in a basement, two dogs playing together, and toddler golf. It sounds silly, and it is silly, but there’s something to be said for the attitude that drove these, which is: "What can I do that only I can do?"
A piece of legitimately great news about home entertainment: the stunning, sexy, extremely French love story Portrait Of A Lady On Fire has gotten an accelerated release to Hulu. We covered it on the show a few weeks ago.