Having saved plenty of ‘inspiration’ posts for designing my Animal Crossing: New Horizons island, the Instagram algorithm has shuffled my suggested posts section to include a community of gamers that play ‘cosy games’. From reels about new ‘cosy’ releases and demonstrations for how to decorate a relaxing play space, the not-so-niche community finds its place predominantly on Nintendo Switch or PC. Think of settling down in a comfy chair with a nice, warming drink as you load up Stardew Valley, and you’re on your way to the aesthetic ideal of cosy gaming.
Although it isn’t by any means a new genre, life simulator games have certainly rocketed to popularity in recent years following the success of the indie game Stardew Valley released in 2016. This new demand for seemingly mundane gameplay has spawned simulators for all kinds of simple activities that you can think of: Power Wash Simulator, Job Simulator, and (satirically) Toilet Management Simulator.
In March 2020, the beginning of worldwide lockdowns coincided with the well-timed release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons on the Nintendo Switch. With its relaxing and cutesy atmosphere, Animal Crossing remains a relaxing, fan-favourite Nintendo franchise, with the latest game released at the perfect time for players with little else to do. New Horizons saw immense commercial success and broke records for the most digital copies of a game sold within a month. Whilst this installation in the Animal Crossing series provides players with the ability to have more customisation options than ever, activities within the game still see an element of rinse and repeat: catch fish or bugs, grow fruit, sell, buy, and decorate.
With this element of monotony a hallmark of life simulator games, what is it about these titles that appeal to the player? The Sims, for instance, is steadfastly popular with its gameplay of creating and then watching characters have an entire life within a computer screen. If the attraction of video games is as a form of escapism from everyday life, what causes players to turn to farming in Stardew Valley over, for example, the gameplay of Monster Hunter?
The life that is simulated in these games is one without any of the contemporary stressors of the everyday
Life simulators allow the player to immerse themselves in worlds of realistic possibility without any of the same stress, hard work, or even moving from a comfortable location – only asking for your time in return. It is a genre that is accessible in terms of skill and difficulty, and therefore appeals in its simplicity to those who might not want any stress from gameplay when seeking out their next title.
In my personal experience, hearing the calming music of Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley begin to play as I open the game brings an instant feeling of relaxation. As ‘cozy.games‘ on Instagram puts it, there’s a sense of getting back to “your childhood ability to disconnect and play” in the genre. Paradoxically to its realism, the life simulator does manage to provide escapism from real life. The genre offers its players satisfaction from activities of power-washing areas to sparkling perfection, doing a job just right, or being able to decorate the gameplay space in a myriad of ways. There’s room for mistakes and indulgence in any activities that you please.
Yet the popularity of this phenomenon reflects that the players of these games need such a way of switching off in the first place. The life that is simulated in these games is one without any of the contemporary stressors of the everyday. The modern reality of being able to access news, events, and opinions of things happening around the world within moments has driven people to seek real life inside video games.
Within the ‘cosy gaming’ community, a predominant number of players tend to fall within the younger generations. Perhaps this signifies disconnection from one another, turning to the medium of gameplay to escape from reality.
However, it is the very existence of the community that demonstrates otherwise. Players share upcoming release dates, reviews, tutorials, and more; they help each other to find their next game to relax with and how to make the best of it. Though it might not be what one immediately thinks of as the most interesting genre, life simulators’ basis in reality doesn’t limit them from being any less of a fantasy escape – it is simply up to the player.