‘Animal Crossing’ Was the Social Gaming Phenomenon We Needed In 2020

Image credit: nintendo.co.uk

For about two decades, the Animal Crossing series was a sleeper hit. Beloved by loyal players but never really ascending to mainstream popularity, the game existed for most of its history as a cute cult favorite for Nintendo gamers.

Until this year.

Released in March 2020 — just one week after COVID-19 earned “pandemic” status — the latest installment in the series, Animal Crossing: New Horizons began sweeping the world quickly. It follows the same basic premise as the previous games. As with any sequel, it featured a new setting and updated mechanics, but other than that, it is a fairly standard Animal Crossing game. What sets this entry into the series apart in sales and popularity from the rest is one defining factor: the pandemic. Particularly during the months of enforced lockdown in most U.S. states, the game served as both escape and productivity when the future seemed hopeless.

The hype of the game has carried it to various broken records. As of this writing, it is the best-selling Nintendo Switch exclusive game and second best-selling Switch game of all time, holds the record for most units sold in its first month, and is the best-selling installment of the Animal Crossing series. By a long shot.

I was introduced to the newest game on, of course, a Zoom call. Chatting with (ex-)coworkers shortly after being furloughed, someone explained to the group the premise and fun of the game. She and her partner had been playing it for a few weeks by that point, so the two of them happily showed off their respective houses. All of us watched with wide-eyed amazement. You did all of that? You mean you can design your own island? What’s the stalk market? My coworker explained with an ear-to-ear grin that we should absolutely buy the game.

Within a few days of that Zoom call, the game was downloaded onto my Switch.

New Horizons is a deceptively addicting game. It is calming to the senses. The game is pleasing to look at, and there is never, ever nothing to do. When all you have is time on your hands, having things to do is a very, very good thing. Even if the tasks are virtual.

For the few uninitiated, New Horizons is a social simulation game that begins with a linear story, and opens up to larger customizable functionality when you beat the story. Your goal in the beginning is to make your island snazzy enough to invite pop star K.K. Slider to perform there. You are guided to specific benchmark goals by director of Resident Services, Tom Nook, to achieve this end. You fish, scavenge, sell, dig, and travel all to earn the money required to make your island a society. Once K.K. performs on your island, the real fun begins.

Post-plot, you can terraform the island to your liking. You can pave walkways and install various accoutrements around the island: water fountains, food carts, spas — if you can imagine it, there’s a way to architect or buy it into virtual reality.

If you’re playing solo, you can easily spend hours chasing butterflies or hitting rocks or terraforming your island into excellence. You chat with your neighbors. As silly as it may sound, playing Animal Crossing during the darkest points of this year helped me to feel accomplished. Joyful, even. During the most intense months of play, my partner and I regularly reminded each other to contribute our share to the island’s success, discussing who donated what to the museum or what special event we should partake in for extra Nook Miles. It was hard work, but it didn’t feel like work.

Even more than the intricacy of the game itself, the social aspect of the game is also what made it a defining cultural moment the year. If you have Nintendo Switch Online, you can link up with friends and visit each other’s islands. You planned an island visit like a real hangout, and you could chat with your IRL friends while exploring each other’s expansive getaways. Before COVID-19, the demands of capitalism wore us down. It was rare to see people express their imagination outside of work or other relational contexts, because it took up so much of our brain space. Seeing the creativity that people possessed in designing their islands, freed from capitalist constraints, was inspiring to say the least!

Even outside of visiting your personal friends’ islands, New Horizons became so popular that entire social media groups were created for players of the game to commune. These groups are dedicated to sharing creative successes, tips, and troubleshooting. This obviously isn’t a new phenomenon, as various media objects have fandom groups all over the internet. However, the New Horizons groups are undoubtedly more friendly and comprised of more “casual” gamers, i.e. people who enjoy a limited few (if not only one) games in their leisure time. The people in these groups don’t embody the snobbish gatekeeper attitude that plagues many — largely white, largely male — nerd spaces. Not a coincidence for a game that, in my observation, is most popular among women, queer folx, and BIPOC.

While I won’t go as far as to claim Animal Crossing was robbed at the annual Game Awards, it unquestionably shaped our sense of community in a year where socializing was frowned upon at best, and impossible at worst. It made some terrible times bearable.

What really made Animal Crossing: New Horizons comforting in a chaotic year was the community modeling it represented. Yes, we know the islands we created aren’t real. Yet as we returned lost items to their owners, made small talk with our neighbors, invested in stalks, and traded goods for money, we gleefully simulated a society we wished we could live in. For the hours (or months, let’s be real) we played New Horizons, we got to imagine a kinder world. That matters, when the systems that we live under were exposed in all of their cruelty this year. Perhaps, when the world opens back up and we can talk to our neighbors again without trepidation, we’ll extend more compassion toward them.

I believe the release of such a wholesome game in less-than-wholesome times meant that it was the game we all needed in order to return to the creativity and imagination taken from us. For those of us that have had the pleasure of playing it, we should be thankful to New Horizons for being our escape. Let us remember to bring the joy and community we felt within the confines of that game with us when we re-enter the world anew.

Your (mostly) friendly neighborhood Black albino writer friend. Deciphering what media means to us culturally and socially since the days of Sailor Moon.