In another lifetime this would have sounded perfectly ridiculous to me, but fishing on a fictional island saved my sanity.
Not knowing what was to come, the Saturday before New York went into lockdown I self-soothed in ways aid workers may recognise. I pulled out my two first aid field kits and customised them for the pandemic. I packed a go bag. I think I ended up packing two. Among tidy rows of cough syrup and antibacterial wipes, I found a semblance of serenity.
Humanitarians often have to take stock of unfamiliar situations and respond or react accordingly. I couldn’t tell if I was losing my touch or if we really were in for the catastrophic disaster I so desperately feared.
I wasn’t exactly certain about the future – but I was determined to have a plan of action. On my last subway ride for months, I also ordered a Nintendo Switch, along with a gravity blanket (a weighted blanket designed to ease anxiety and promote sleep), and a humidifier. After years spent travelling for most of the year, I was facing life for an unknown period in two small-ish rooms on my lonesome.
The sirens in New York during those first two months never seemed to cease. Their dull roar served as an omnipresent and noisy reminder of a now-foreign world that was outside of – and apart from – the relative safety of my home. The time between sirens was punctured by a profound silence of a city in hibernation, if not slumber.
And at three in the morning, when ambulances wouldn’t let me sleep, I turned to the game Animal Crossing on my Nintendo Switch. My sharpest memories of this time involve fishing on my Animal Crossing island, Hoth (I got my Star Wars geek in too), in the predawn hours.
As it happens, so did a new-found group of friends. On any given day, I spend an unholy amount of time on Twitter: My curiosity often overtakes my good sense. During one anxious evening of doom-scrolling, a friend on Twitter mentioned he’d started a private group of Animal Crossing players.
To be alone during a pandemic didn’t feel unique, exactly, but the lonesomeness without the pantomime of humanitarianism was a singular experience.
At first, we just shared resources for the game – someone would offer up items for my digital home on Hoth or we’d offer tips to fishing and mystery islands. The appeal of the game lies in the stability and regularity a player gets from daily assignments as a virtual smallholder: digging on your island for fossils, weeding, or fishing, or catching bugs. You also have an assortment of computer-generated villagers – neighbours you have to keep amused, if not always happy.
Over time, the group became my place of refuge. They became my family. We started a spreadsheet in the Cloud so we could share things in real life. On one particularly bad day, two different friends from the group sent me an immense order of cupcakes. We’d send each other meals or snacks through delivery apps for the days that seemed insurmountable.
My digital and real worlds started to merge in a hazy way unknown before the pandemic. Grief seemed ever-present in this year of uncertainty, but so did a sense of gratitude, and a sliver of hope.
Last fall, Oxford University released a study of over 3,000 video game players – including a substantial number of Animal Crossing devotees. The results: People who played and enjoyed playing the game were genuinely happier.
Cynicism is the unfortunate byproduct of working as a humanitarian worker – a profession that sees a fair swathe of humanity at its very worst. But this digital microcosm that became my life and community came to surprise me; it softened my edges in ways that continue to surprise me.
Instead of long discussions of geopolitical dynamics – the seemingly endless consideration of hypothetical scenarios and political machinations that had fed me for so very long – I was finding comfort in earnestness, and sweetness in simplicity.
To be clear, our group is composed of talented humanitarians, human rights activists, and progressive leaders – but there wasn’t a need to constantly bring our work selves into the chat. And I could just be myself, maybe for the first time in a very long time.
We chat every single day – we check in to say good morning and sign off before bedtime. There is always someone awake and ready to listen. Our mostly meandering conversations cover everything from practical pandemic advice to complaints about our villagers in the games. There was a long stretch last year when I was trying to rid myself of an alligator villager who constantly offered me fitness tops as presents. We discussed said alligator and his poor choices at some length.
We confess our frustrations and celebrate nearly everything – even if it seems small. In these moments, any victory will do. We play games on Zoom. We go all out for birthdays. I know their doctor’s appointments, and their successes alongside their disappointments. We share the hard moments with honesty and grace.
We lose ourselves in the game when the sirens are back or the worry is overwhelming. We’re still here, trying to help each other through it.
Humanitarian work life is a solitary existence, surrounded by people. You’re alone at the airport, alone on flights, alone in the new office, or new country. To be alone during a pandemic didn’t feel unique, exactly, but the lonesomeness without the pantomime of humanitarianism was a singular experience.
I wanted to insert a joke here about resilience – an overused bit of aid jargon – but I cannot. Perhaps this all feels like a kind of resilience. The gratitude and moments of genuine happiness amid the ocean of sadness of the pandemic almost feel indulgent. But I’m not certain I would have made it through this without them.