With self-isolation gluing us to screens of assorted sizes, it seems that every day we choose a new fighter: little phone screen, medium computer screen, big T.V. screen. If you haven’t found yourself sprawled across your living room couch at 3 a.m. as you mash the arrow keys and glide through a dimly lit mine shaft on “Club Penguin’s Cart Surfer,” physically there but mentally absent, are you even quarantining? And it’s not just Club Penguin we’re playing — people young and old have turned to all kinds of platforms to satiate their gaming needs.

Enter Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons, where tending to a tulip garden and idly reeling in tropical fish on a deserted island rank among the most arduous of tasks. Conveniently molded to soothe self-isolation stress, it’s no surprise that sales of the social simulation video game have skyrocketed. At least that’s what I glean from my Twitter feed, where everyone from comedians to journalists to politicians are gushing about their villagers’ shingled houses and tiny, globular hands. To the Nintendo Switch-less among us, don’t let FOMAC (Fear of Missing Animal Crossing) magnify your present hopelessness and dread. To help you resist the urge to drop a buck (or $360) on a console and game, I have, with suggestions from some NBN contributors, compiled a list of five, non-#ACNH-affiliated, free websites and video games ripe for when Club Penguin grows too routine.

  1. GirlsGoGames

Like Animal Crossing, GirlsGoGames is host to an amalgamation of simulation games, ranging from virtual baking to interior design. Unlike Animal Crossing, GirlsGoGames might unearth repressed memories: perhaps you dulled the ache of a 2nd grade fight by playing “Let’s Baby-Sit Baby Krissy” in a loop, or perhaps Baby Krissy’s pale pancake of a face is a pixelated nightmare best forgotten. Disturbing animations aside, GirlsGoGames’ tiled display of pop-culture-adjacent games (thumb through E-Girls Transformation and Cinderella: Beauty Makeover) might just bibbidi-bobbidi-boop you back to simpler times, times when Internet connectivity on the family PC and honing Cooking Mama recipes wrestled for most pressing priority.

Relive a day with with Baby Krissy — including her terrifying giggle — in this video. 

As its name might lead you to expect, GirlsGoGames has a target audience. But masked by its lilac lettering and bubblegum pink piping is a universality that’s tough to replicate and even tougher to resist. The disciplined among us have christened quarantine a time to brush up on great literature, earnestly joining War and Peace book clubs and penning analytical blog posts on the novel’s COVID-19 connections. But for those with the attention span of a squirrel, the cynics averse to reading a 1,225-page novel about suffering when the world collectively suffers, GirlsGoGames might be the next best thing. Reading Russian literature requires sustained concentration. Baking a virtual key lime pie, admittedly, does not. What’s more, you — yes, you! — can smash the gender binary by selecting a prom outfit for a Disney princess. And no matter who you are, what’s more soothing than raiding Jasmine’s virtual closet?

2.   Freerice

Perhaps you remember the free-to-play website from elementary school computer lab — Freerice can claim its status among the handful of teacher-approved hits. Launched in 2007, the website asks users to answer trivia questions from a well-rounded slate of categories (from world landmarks to human anatomy), and each correct answer amounts to ten grains of rice that the World Food Program donates to developing countries. Think Coolmath Games, but for a good cause — video games should distract, but who says they have to be completely aimless?

Charity from your couch merits a pat on the back, but do the math: a ½ cup of uncooked rice — a single serving size — breaks down into around 5,000 individual grains. Every grain counts, but it takes 500 correct answers to spoon out a portion for one person, one time.

Freerice even added a coronavirus category, allowing users to test their knowledge about the pandemic. 

Freerice is a time suck, but an undoubtedly philanthropic one. On the spectrum of “Desired Brain Activity During a Global Pandemic,” the website falls somewhere between Tolstoy and GirlsGoGames. But with freetime stretching endlessly ahead, Northwestern students should milk (no, steam) the game for all its worth. Take it from a former Freerice fanatic that the site can be many things: cheat-code charity, rehearsal for a trivia face-off with freshman and Jeopardy darling Beni Keown, or, best of all, a guiltless procrastination sesh.

3.   Bored Button

I tumbled down the Bored Button rabbit hole pre-pandemic when, in a state of humdrum restlessness, I took to the Internet and inputted in Google’s search bar “im bored.”

Never been done before? Perhaps.

The unexpected result was a rather minimalistic website, its focal point a red button hovering above a taunt: “Bored?” the homepage teases in big, bold letters: “Go ahead, press the Bored Button.” Finer print promises that “Clicking the red button will instantly take you to one of hundreds of interactive websites specially selected to alleviate boredom.” While “specially selected” proves a stretch, the websites may just dull quarantine boredom, albeit briefly.

Convenient for the indecisive gamer, Bored Button functions as a masterclass in stupid Internet games after just a few clicks. One click might net the clever hybrid Flappy 2048, a game in which users dodge tiles with the buoyancy of the iconic bird. With six feet interminably between us, virtual rock-paper-scissors was truly ahead of its time, and The 100 Meter Scroll lets homebound users feign athleticism. Or, craving the narcissism of a Buzzfeed quiz, enter your birthdate and learn The Song That Defines Your Life.

Through it all, a miniature red button rests in the webpage’s top right corner, tempting users to let the games and minutes tick by. On each page lurks the same six words: “Still bored? Press the Bored Button again.” In the age of the Internet, maybe being bored isn’t so bad after all.

4.   Wizard 101

Club Penguin, Webkinz and Poptropica are like high school friends: time makes you miss them, but a 45-minute catch up over lunch is all you need to reconnect. For a virtual palate cleanser, those weary of Internet classics should look to Wizard 101, a multiplayer role-playing game that’s spawned a devoted following and an abundance of memes.

In a way, Wizard 101 is strikingly topical. At Ravenwood School of Magical Arts, wizards can enroll in six schools of magic (Northwestern boasts the same number of undergraduate schools). Tutoring wizards on their quest to safeguard the Spiral (the game’s fictional galaxy) is headmaster Merle Ambrose, an imitation Dumbledore who looks less like a stoic protector and more like a skinny Santa Claus in pajamas.

Ravenwood School of Magical Arts headmaster Merle Ambrose power posing. Iconic. 

Play Wizard 101 for the familiarity: the game affords users the ability to vicariously remain an on-campus student, and with spring quarter shifted online, now is the time to bolster your resume by attending another virtual institution! Or simply play Wizard 101 for its fictional world of duels and spells, a world that combines the best of skill games with the personalization functions of simulation games. Or, most convincingly, play Wizard 101 because its homepage is written in Comic Sans.

5.  Your collection of PC games on disc

Behold the crown jewel of quarantine entertainment: CD-ROM computer games. For a kick of nostalgia in disc form, insert into your PC Freddi Fish, RollerCoaster Tycoon or I Spy. Other canonical classics include the Harry Potter computer game series, replete with this iconic Hagrid animation, or the complete works of Scooby-Doo PC games. While CD-ROM computer games are, admittedly, not free, chances are your parents purchased them in 2004 and the discs have since yielded a hefty profit of serotonin.

Oh, to be a 9-year-old woman in STEM designing an amusement park on RollerCoaster Tycoon… (Gif courtesy of Herscowitz)

PC games on disc are perfect for replicating a toddler’s mindset: no global health crisis, just Casper the Friendly Ghost Activity Center and very, very bad graphics. Current events have most of the world feeling deeply anxious and devoid of all hope. To ease pandemic dread, cut your bangs! Dye your hair! Let your computer overheat as you play Thomas & Friends: Trouble on the Tracks Interactive CD-ROM! The memories will last a lifetime.