The pastoral life calls in Stardew Valley, where you’re an urban office worker who inherits an abandoned plot of land from your grandfather. Fed-up with the city grind, you decide to take the plunge and start a new life in Pelican Town, an idyllic 16-bit farming community. Soon, you’re clearing land, managing crops, monitoring your sleep cycles, visiting the general store, socializing with the townsfolk and exploring the surrounding countryside. The surprise hit of 2016 is a refreshing tend-and-befriend game with throwback graphics and diverse tasks that will keep you blissfully occupied for hours. You can also farm with friends: there’s a multiplayer co-op version that lets up to four players work together, share an income and even tie the knot.
Animal Crossing: New Horizon
Fresh off the press, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the latest installment of the enduring life simulation franchise where players explore a cartoony paradiscal island and build a thriving community of cutesy animal citizens. The open-ended sim is a highly customizable sandbox where players build, collect, craft, grow, fish, trade, play and socialize. Time on the island is tied to the real world clock, the weather is in flux and the flora and fauna change according to the seasons. Four can collaborate on the same system and up to eight online players can meet to work and play on the island.
While we await regularly scheduled flights to resume, GeoGuessr lets us explore the world from the comfort of home. It leverages Google Maps and Street View technology to drop you somewhere on the globe to wander around searching for clues to determine your location. Street signs, landscapes, flora, fauna, company logos, store signs and architecture all provide clues to help you figure out whether you’ve been beamed to the heart of Mongolia or deposited in downtown Nairobi. There are diverse challenges available and those who aren’t ready to go global can choose to materialize at landmarks, specific countries, or U.S. capitals. Once you’ve satisfied your wanderlust, hand it over to the kids for an entertaining boost to their geographic knowledge and critical thinking skills.
The Outer Wilds
After you’ve exhausted your virtual tour of the world, you might consider heading off planet to the Outer Wilds. The recent winner of BAFTA’s Best Game of 2020 award is sci-fi on the surface, but Outer Wilds is a gentle, carefully crafted masterpiece that rewards careful exploration. This time, you’re a rookie alien astronaut caught in a 22-minute time loop that always ends with a massive supernova, blackout and you wake up at the campfire starting position again. Rinse, but not quite repeat, as every churn of the Groundhog Day cycle reveals a new piece of the puzzle as you learn why you are trapped in the loop. It is ultimately a story about community and connection that caused one reviewer to confess that “Outer Wilds’ final revelations left a mark that will be on my soul…one that pulls at me every time I hear its simple, enthralling theme music.”
Dungeons & Dragons
In case you didn’t notice, Dungeons & Dragons is back and bigger than ever. The iconic sword and sorcery tabletop role-playing game (RPG) with the eccentric dice has enjoyed a massive resurgence as an embodied alternative to online socialization. Besides its mainstream popularity, educators, therapists and parents have leveraged D&D to encourage literacy, STEM and social and emotional wellbeing. The pen-and-paper game was designed to be played around a table; however, it takes more than a lockdown to subdue. Wizards of the Coast curates a wealth of free tools and resources to help transition your D&D campaign online, and Polygon offers a guide to help make the shift with other RPGs. Roleplay is cathartic, and tabletop RPGs are ultimately collaborative storytelling experiences, a fundamental human impulse to strengthen social cohesion.
Minecraft is in a category all its own, and a mainstay of every video game list ever. It’s the second best selling title of all time, the commercial video game most widely used in education and it remains enormously popular with players of all ages. Blockish avatars explore, mine and build structures ranging from simple homes to sophisticated circuits. Geographically distanced friends can collaborate on projects, and it’s even possible to build a computer or stage a live performance in the virtual world. For tens of millions of youth (and adults) around the world, Minecraft is a safe and familiar place to converse, compete, collaborate and, best of all, create.
Ring Fit Adventure and Just Dance
Finally, physical exercise is a cornerstone of wellbeing, and games can help with that too. There is no end to online fitness videos but, let’s face it, sometimes the motivation just isn’t there. Some may be more willing to build up a sweat if they have to battle monsters and clear obstacles in a dungeon. Nintendo’s Ring Fit Adventure, the spiritual successor to Wii Sports, uses motion sensors, a plastic ring peripheral and an RPG narrative to incentivize a workout. It also includes more traditional guided exercise routines. If you prefer to boogie, Just Dance curates classic and contemporary dance hits and scores players on how well they can execute the guided moves, while co-op mode allows for dance offs and collaborative routines.