The Great (Virtual) Outdoors

Written by Alanna Burns, Illustration by Jaclyn Simon

I think we can all agree that reality is a bit much sometimes. When I feel like taking a step back and escaping from the real world, I turn to my books, finding comfort in the world of fiction. When I need something a little more interactive, I play video games. 

When I was younger, I found joy in competing against my siblings in Mario Kart 64 and trying to save Princess Zelda in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Nintendo’s N64 was a big part of my childhood, and it was a fun way to spend time with my brother and sister and our friends. Like a lot of people my age, we remember when the N64 was first released and how incredible it was to play a game in 3D. It was my first experience feeling immersed in a digital world. Who can forget playing as Mario triple jumping your way through the Mushroom Kingdom or riding Epona through Hyrule Field? Video games are a good time, but they offer so much more than just mindless entertainment. It took me until I was an adult to get back into gaming. I was given a Nintendo Switch from my husband and despite it being years since I had picked up a controller, when I began playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (now one of my favourite games of all time), I was immediately hooked. I felt the same sense of awe and fascination that I felt when I first played Ocarina of Time. The world was captivating and I was having So. Much. Fun.  It was a beautiful gift to my inner child and one that I continue to give to this day. 

Zelda’s Breath of Wild reintroduced me to a world I didn’t realise that I had missed. There have been numerous Zelda games released since my experience with Ocarina of Time, but Breath of the Wild was the first of the series in which the world completely captivated me. Exploration was encouraged and the world was designed to evoke a sense of curiosity and adventure. Not to mention, the Hyrule of Breath of the Wild is beautiful. The art style of the game really made me feel calm and relaxed but also made me feel like going on an adventure. Nature plays a very important role in Zelda, but also in many other video games. Flora and fauna not only contribute to the overall world design, but to how games make us feel as players. Games, like books and other media, should make you feel something. 

I am drawn to video games that incorporate nature into the gameplay in some capacity. I want to play games that are beautifully designed and evoke a sense of exploration. Games like Breath of the Wild, Stardew Valley, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and Alba: A Wildlife Adventure are all games that I’ve played where nature is a big component. Studies have shown that just looking at photographs of nature lowers your stress levels and makes you feel happier, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that observing nature in video games has the same effect. I am drawn to “cosy” games when I feel stressed or when my anxiety is wreaking havoc on my nervous system. I notice that while playing I feel significantly less stressed and am able to disconnect from the real world for a bit – which is important to do occasionally. I feel the same way when I read certain novels. I love the feeling of getting swept up in a story and losing yourself in a different world. I am drawn to nature for many reasons, but a big one is that when I reconnect with nature, I am reminded that I am merely one small part of a much bigger picture and it gives me a sense of perspective that eases my anxieties. It’s no wonder that I seek this feeling in the media that I consume. 

The game Stardew Valley, in my opinion, is a crowning achievement. Developed by one person (Eric “ConcernedApe” Barone), it’s a game full of colourful characters and takes you on a journey that starts you off learning how to run a farm that you’ve inherited from your grandfather. If you’ve ever had the fantasy of ditching your hectic, stress-inducing city lifestyle and retreating to the countryside, this game delivers on all fronts. What I love most about Stardew Valley is the feeling that there is something to be discovered around every corner. Running a farm is more fun than it sounds, and you have to grow a variety of different crops based on the season all while taking care of your cows and chickens. Your character spends a lot of time running around, collecting items and getting to know the locals, but the best part is just exploring the world and enjoying the changing seasons (and excellent soundtrack). I have no desire to be a farmer in real life, but I get to act the part in Stardew Valley and it’s pure perfection. 

Alba: A Wildlife Adventure – a small indie game, is a great example of video games that can be used to educate the player on real-world issues. You play as a young girl (Alba) visiting her grandparents who live on a small island in the Mediterranean. While visiting, you find out that the local nature reserve is being threatened by a developer (a story familiar to everyone!). Your job? Save the nature reserve!  Alba embarks on a delightful adventure, recording her observations of the local wildlife and helping clean up the island. You learn about the importance of preserving areas like nature reserves and how small actions can have big impacts on the environment. I found myself completely engrossed in the story but it also appealed to the naturalist in me and got me thinking about conservation in the real world. I thought that the game did a really good job at educating the player while also engaging them in a fun and playful story inspired by a real-world subject. It’s the ultimate nature game. 

While others were busy baking sourdough during the pandemic, I was busy terraforming and collecting bugs and fish on my island in Animal Crossing: New Horizons (ACNH). Nintendo released ACNH the week the lockdown started and it could not have come out at a better time. What started as a cute game I started to kill time and feel less depressed about the state of the world, turned into one of my favourite gaming experiences of all time. During a time where going outside in the real world felt a little scary, I could escape to my virtual paradise and plant flowers and learn about the local flora and fauna. I caught bugs and fished. I terraformed. I watched shooting stars. I couldn’t see my friends in real life, but we could hang out in-game, visiting each other’s islands. It was as delightfully wholesome as it sounds and it was a balm to my over-stimulated nervous system. 

Nothing will ever replace spending time in nature in the real world, but there is something to be said about the ability to recreate the emotions connected to being in nature. I know that I would much rather spend an hour or two playing video games than watching television because I know I will be more engaged and have more fun with my time. I love that I get to experience nature in multiple forms, both outdoors and in, and take comfort in knowing that an escape from reality is never too far away.