This piece originally appeared on VICE France.
What links the following games: Animal Crossing, Assassin’s Creed, and Hades? The answer, of course, is fishing. In recent years, it seems like the video game market has been increasingly saturated with titles that allow gamers to spend a few contemplative minutes casting off into all manner of virtual bodies of water.
Some gamers see these forays into fishing as much-needed respite from the fast-paced rhythms of the modern video game experience. Others see them simply as a waste of time.
For French philosopher Mathieu Triclot, who lectures at the Belfort-Montbéliard University of Technology and has written several academic studies on video gaming, these piscatorial pauses in action create opportunities for reflection. “It is really strange,” he says. “Five minutes ago I was fighting hordes of monsters and now I’m just waiting with my line in the water for fish to take the bait. The situation is so trivial and unheroic that it becomes almost absurd.”
But where did this surprising obsession for virtual fishing come from? Are game developers skiving work to hang out at their local lakes? Just why is fishing so common in the contemporary video game?
The current interest in virtual angling isn’t anything new per se. Gaming’s first fishing title, Gone Fishing, arrived in 1977, situating it between the release of Pong (1972) and Pacman (1980). The game was published for the TRS-80 Model I, and was a text-based title where players typed instructions that hopefully led them to netting some seriously impressive fish.
As technology became more sophisticated in the decades that followed, so did fishing games. Pretty much every platform since has played host to at least a few dedicated fishing titles, an array of simulations with varying degrees of fidelity to the actual experience of spending a day fishing. Some of the better-known and widely-celebrated games through the ages include SEGA Bass Fishing and the Nintendo’s flatly-named Virtual Fishing.
One of the more noteworthy instances of in-game fishing dates back to the early 90s. Japanese developer and publisher Nintendo included the pastime in their multi-million selling title The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, which was released on Game Boy back in 1993. Hidden in the middle of a forest is a small pool of water – perfect for fishing. Anyone wishing to do so can have some time away from trawling through dungeons and saving princesses with just a rod and a reel for company. Fishing has featured in pretty much every Zelda title since.
“Japanese gamers tend to be big fans of mini games like that,” says Victor Moisan, a Kyoto-based video game critic and author of Zelda: the Garden and the World (only available in French), a book about the series. “The mini games are relatively quick and easy to develop for the studios, and they become little Easter eggs that players love.”
Other Japanese developers have thrown fishing into the mini-game mix since then. Numerous games in the likes of Breath of Fire IV, Dark Cloud and Fire Emblem: Three Clouds have included bonus fishing-sections, very few of which advance the game’s plot. They’re there because gamers seem to really enjoy fishing.
Outside of the world of Zelda, Moisan’s most-played fishing game features in developer Square Enix’s 2016 title Final Fantasy XV. Fishing is just one of the many side-activities found within this JRPG, but it certainly grabbed Moisan’s attention.
“The whole game is designed so that you’re constantly distracted, there’s always things to do,” he says. “In the evenings you have to pitch a tent, grill some food, and go fishing.” He’s not the only player evidently keen on this side of the game, and in 2017 the developers even released additional fishing-focused downloadable content called Monster of the Deep.
As Moisan sees it, Japan is a nation of hobbyists. One of the most popular pastimes is – you guessed it – fishing. “When they [Japanese people] are passionate about something, they take it very seriously,” he says. He believes that the fixation on fishing feeds into a wider societal interest in the great outdoors. “It has become very fashionable in Japan, especially in the summer. Fishing is like a small holiday for the mind.”
He goes on to draw a comparison to the world of employment and the world of gaming. “In both cases, fishing is a lifeline, a moment of respite before you have to go back to work,” Moisan continued. “When you are fishing in a game it is a way of stopping time and forgetting about the weight of those quests on your back.”
It isn’t just Japanese developers who are inserting fishing sequences into their games. In France, publisher Ubisoft – the giants behind titles like the Rayman and Tom Clancy series and literally hundreds and hundreds of other games – has also been suckered in by the hobby.
The kind of game that Ubisoft tends to develop lends itself well to fishing. “When you design an open-world game, it is a given that there will be rivers or lakes,” says Emmanuel Carré, a press officer at the publisher. “The aim is to make worlds that feel realistic.”
Making games as realistic as they are expansive is something Ubisoft knows how to do well. The fishing you can do in 2021’s Far Cry 6 has an uncanny resemblance to playing a dedicated simulator, and while the pirate experience at the heart of 2013’s Assassin’s Creed Black Flag might be the stuff of nautical fantasy, its in-game harpoon fishing somehow retains the feeling of realism.
As an activity, fishing is both unpredictable and repetitive, which may go some way to explaining why its digital incarnation is divisive amongst gamers. Some gamers, understandably, are more into hunting monsters or raiding tombs than they are casting for virtual carp.
“Fishing mini-games can feel very similar to loot boxes,” says Marion Haza, a psychologist who specialises in video games. “There’s the same random nature in play, which means that the longer you play and the more you invest, the more you want to keep carrying on.”
Haza goes on to say that the prospect of catching something good overrides the reality of repeatedly catching tiny virtual fish. Think back to playing Animal Crossing at the start of the pandemic: eventually catching an ultra-rare coelacanth more than made up for the hours spent netting common sea bass. Well, it did for some of us, anyway.