Features, Opinions

How the coronavirus and a video game brought me closer to the sister I rarely see

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In the time of social distancing and quarantine, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” gives friends a way to be together.

“Can you open your gate?”

My 13-year-old sister, Kelsey, asks me this question every day now. She’s talking about “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” a video game millions of people in coronavirus self-isolation have turned to since its release two weeks ago.

Kelsey wants me to let her character visit my character’s virtual island utopia, where players can harvest wood, collect seashells and essentially live out a simpler version of their own lives — just online.

But the true solace, for me anyway, has been the game’s option to open your airport gate and let your friends run around with you on your little landscape.

Once her virtual plane lands, Kelsey and I trade the fruit and flowers we’ve foraged. We catch blue butterflies and koi fish together. We giggle when virtual toast pops out of my virtual toaster oven. It’s the closest I can get to seeing her since we’re both self-isolating.

But the true solace, for me anyway, has been the game’s option to open your airport gate and let your friends run around with you on your little landscape.

Once her virtual plane lands, Kelsey and I trade the fruit and flowers we’ve foraged. We catch blue butterflies and koi fish together. We giggle when virtual toast pops out of my virtual toaster oven. It’s the closest I can get to seeing her since we’re both self-isolating.

She’s not big into texting. I mostly hear from her via Snapchat, where she sends a daily photo of her wall with a text overlay that reads “streaks” — so we don’t lose the app’s count of how many days in a row we’ve chatted.

When this all blows over, I’m taking her to see Harry Styles at Madison Square Garden. But she mostly listens to whatever is on the radio, while I opt for curated Spotify playlists that feature up-and-coming indie artists.

This soothing video game bridges our generational gap.

In all the years I’d waited for the new Animal Crossing, I never imagined it would come in the midst of a pandemic, that the perfect virtual world would emerge just as the real one was closing up shop. The game offers commodities that are temporarily absent from my own life: companionship, a routine, a sense of peace.

On my island, I can visit my animal neighbors without fear of infection. The store isn’t sold out of toilet paper. I can’t go to the Met or the MoMA, but I can wander the halls of my museum.

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Kelsey helps prepare a virtual meal in my virtual kitchen.

“Can you open your gate?”

Kelsey asks again, this time over FaceTime. She wants to sell her island’s native fruit (pears) in my store, where she’ll earn five times the number of Bells (the game’s currency).

She tells me what it’s like to complete eighth grade from the confines of her bedroom. Her district pivoted to remote schooling on March 16. Some classes are easier online, she says, but others assign more work than the in-person versions she’s used to.

As she speaks, she activates her character’s “sadness” reaction. Virtual Kelsey hunches forward and frowns.

“Playing this with you is a nice break from school,” she says.

It’s nice for this social media producer, too. My job makes it tough to follow many of the self-care suggestions surrounding COVID-19, like limiting your exposure to the news or logging off Twitter. At least I know at the end of my shift, my sister will be waiting for me in this wholesome online world.

Kelsey starts high school in the fall. I hope by then it’s safe to meander the aisles of the grocery store without any thought other than which brand of oat milk to purchase.

I hope we make more time to see each other. After several solitary weeks at home, an hour doesn’t seem that far a drive.

I hope in the same way we send each other mundane gifts through the game’s postal service, we carry into our real lives the power of these small acts of kindness.

Kelsey called me out of the blue the other day.

“Want me to open my gate?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “I’m just calling to say hi.”

This story originally appeared on NJ.com.

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