There are likely a near infinite miles of internet text that have been dedicated to the global situation that Covid 19 has caused. The fear, the death toll, the economic repercussions, all of them have saturated our news feeds. The fundamental reality for most is that we’ve been confined to their homes, and where some have found themselves lacking interaction with others, those of us lucky enough to be spending it with family have probably run into the opposite problem: how can you find time for yourself when you’re never alone?
One of the biggest things we’ve found is that our approach to screen time has changed. I’m willing to bet that for many households across the world that’s going to be the same. We have two young sons, aged 8 and 3, and before lockdown we had iPads with screen time set for a couple of hours a day. The limits were strict, the pleading requests for extensions turned down, and while there’s plenty of good things about a tablet, they’ve always been treated as worrisome objects that we should be regulating. We’ve all been told too much screen time is bad and, largely, we listened.
Those limits stayed in place for about a week of lockdown before they were removed. We stuck with a decent schedule despite not really knowing the difference between Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. Once Joe and Rosie Wicks have finished abusing our quads, the morning has been reserved for home schooling where our 8-year-old teaches us how they do long division now. Every day I hear my echo sounding the Dad from Incredibles 2; “Why would they change Math?! Math is Math!!”. I think I’m getting it now. Son number one definitely has.
The afternoon then has become about family time, and video games (or screen time in general) are now a major component of that. We’ve been taking our daily government approved walks, sure, but that’s just a short escape from the walls of our home. The true escape has come via the digital worlds we can visit, and it’s brought us together in a totally unexpected way.
Animal Crossing New Horizons is at the heart of that. When I picked it up just before lockdown began, I had a good idea that I’d be playing a lot of it. I’d sunk hours into Animal Crossing New Leaf on the 3DS after all, and the idea of something relaxed, bright and companionable seemed perfect for an extended stay in my pyjamas.
Animal Crossing’s idea of multiplayer was, at first, a major disappointment. Only one player per Nintendo Switch can create an island, and all the other users have to live upon it. A playthrough with our 3-year-old where he knocked all the petals off my flowers and dug up some trees was literally painful. I should probably be better at sharing my digital plants, but if you let a tiny bull into your garden, you’re mostly going to find those plants being eaten. Then again, it’s hard to be mad with someone who mostly just wants to cosplay as Peter Pan.
Unusually, my wife then got involved as well. We’re on the same page for many things – films, books, walking, kayaking – but generally gaming is my hobby. She’s often asked how playing a game where you’re doing make believe jobs is a way to relax from the real world, yet here she is, chopping wood from trees to build a new table, picking up unsightly weeds and taking birthday presents to a pig called Agnes. It’s a completely new side to family life.
Similarly, our oldest son started to eye up what everyone else was doing. He’s most interested in games with dinosaurs, monsters, insects or a combination of the three, and New Horizon’s museum was the perfect fit. Hell, it’s even somewhat educational. What started as an excavation project has mainly turned into loud indignation that his birthday present to Agnes isn’t on display in her house, while Mummy’s is. Scandal, intrigue, drama; this game has it all!
It’s the source of most of our more interesting conversations now. We’ve spent the last six weeks inside with each other, and while conversation has never dried up, there’s only so many times you can get on the mental merry-go-round of wondering what the future holds. Instead we talk about what building projects are on the go, how much we’ve got left to pay off on our house loans, and how much of a douchebag Kody is (that is, of course, after-hours Animal Crossing chat).
Screen time still provides some much-needed solitude. Living in a flat with a small amount of outside space has meant that by now, we are, very nearly, the same people. Shared interests and activities, and an amazing amount of family time are things to be eternally grateful for, but we all need time in our own heads. Screen time is the answer to that. An hour or two a day we’re able to explore our own digital worlds; Monster hunting, Lego dinosaur corralling, or mine crafting, everyone has had chance to leave the confines of our home.
Of course, as well as some personal time, screen time gives us chance to meet up with friends and family online. Weekly video calls with grandparents eases some of the burden of the inability to see them face to face. New TV shows or movies we’ve missed are great to share together, and watch parties where we can all come together online are a benefit of our interconnected age. Similarly, catching up with friends while playing a few rounds of Call of Duty (once the kids have been tucked up in bed) gives you all something new to talk about, even if you’re mainly comparing takeaways, or wondering how many days in the same set of pyjamas is too many.
Two months ago, screen time was a necessary, but almost unwelcome inevitability. It’s part of our lives, but it’s one we’ve been made to feel bad about. We’ve been told it holds little value, cutting us off from each other, that we’re all guilty of burying our heads in our mobile phones to the exclusion of all around us. Lockdown has taught us that it’s capable of being quite the opposite. Communal and collaborative, while providing some much-needed escapism, our screens are the response to a question we weren’t expecting to answer. When this is all over, maybe we won’t see them as being the root of all evil.