Video Games Are Our New Venues

The author's Animal Crossing avatar wears an Eckhaus Latta color-blocked wool-knit dress that retails for $695. (Jasmine Garnett)

There’s one place where it’s still safe to mosh to music or wander through a crowded exhibition: your favorite video game. With arts spaces closed, concerts postponed and no one to dress up for, arts spaces, musicians and fashionistas are finding creative ways to stand out in the sea of livestreams and digital collections, by recreating venues—and the experiences they host—in video games.

More than 12 million Fortnite players tuned into rapper Travis Scott’s virtual concert, Astronomic on April 23. That’s more than the total attendance of both U2 and Ed Sheerhan’s massively successful tours—at a time when Spotify, Amazon Music, and Apple Music have seen their on-demand streams fall by 7%. The format was so successful Joe Biden is apparently considering adopting it for his presidential campaign.

For 10 minutes, a giant Travis Scott teleported around the Fortnite map playing hits like “Sicko Mode” and “Goosebumps,” and debuting a new song with Kid Cudi that shot to number one on Rolling Stone’s weekly top 100 chart with over 32 million streams. (At number two, Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” has a little over half that number of streams, at 17.4 million.) Players had the option to download character skins—including one inspired by a viral tweet from 2017—and, of course, buy some Fortnite Travis Scott merch.

If Astronomic was a sold-out stadium show, then 100 gecs’ Square Garden Minecraft Festival was a packed warehouse for the extremely online. The electronic duo, who describe themselves as musical scavengers who “destroy the competition with their army of lethal bangers,” was joined by Charli XCX, Kero Kero Bonito and A. G. Cook, among others, for an “open pit Minecraft show” on April 24. The incredibly popular sandbox game is where players use blocks to create pixelated, 8-bit-looking structures.

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100 gecs’ Laura Les and Dylan Brady have long expressed their love for middle school dance hits like “Stanky Legg” and “Everytime We Touch,” so the game was the perfect venue for their over-the-top, 2000s-inspired aesthetic. Their chaotic electronic music and ironic internet references meshed with the low-fi block surroundings to create a cohesive, if intense, experience.

“I don’t know what Minecraft is,” Charli XCX said between songs. But the crowd went wild when she played a mashup of Soulja Boy’s “Crank Dat” and her own “Vroom Vroom.” For artists looking to create an immersive experience, it pays to partner with a video game whose audience plays well with their own.

Screenshot of the May 8 Open Pit-organized concert 'AETH3R: A Minecraft benefit for Groundswell Fund.' (Jasmine Garnett)

Museums and the fashion world have found that ideal partner in Animal Crossing, the social simulation game centered around customizing every aspect of a tropical island.

Unable to welcome visitors into their exhibitions IRL, museums have started bringing art into peoples’ homes. Speaking to the New York Times, the Royal Academy’s social media editor Adam Koszary explains, “A lot of people are going to fall into the trap of just trying to give people what they’d come to see in person on the screen.”

That’s where Animal Crossing comes in. Now, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s entire collection is available to own and display in the game. Likewise, the Instagram account @AnimalCrossingFashionArchive documents designer looks recreated for Animal Crossing avatars. What started as a small group of friends has led to partnerships with fashion houses like Marc Jacobs and Valentino.

If listening to music or looking at paintings online were a replacement for concerts or exhibits, music venues and museums would have closed a long time ago; physical spaces are crucial to facilitating the conversations and insights that help us appreciate and enjoy art. (One Square Garden attendant commented, “You just can’t replicate moshing and some girl getting her hair twisted on the button of your jean jacket.”)

But virtual concerts also open the doors for people who wouldn’t otherwise get to experience those events. The average price for a Travis Scott concert ticket is well over a hundred dollars—not something most casual listeners would drop for a show. Christian Nisperos, who attended Astronomic as well as a few other virtual concerts since shelter in place started, typically doesn’t go to many shows in person. “One of the main drawbacks for me is cost,” he explains. “Many IRL concerts can get fairly expensive, but these virtual concerts have been free.”

Cultural experiences that once stood behind barriers—whether physical, financial or geographic—are now available to anyone with an internet connection. And while we’re all eagerly waiting for the next time we get to go see a show with our friends, more democratic access to art and music is a development well worth preserving.