Animal Crossing: A tropical escape in the time of COVID-19

Animal Crossing: A tropical escape in the time of COVID-19

Photo Credits: Anna Hjartoy / Aggie. Aggie staff member Anna Hjartoy playing Animal Crossing on a Nintendo Switch Animal Crossing: New Horizons Edition.

The simple pleasures of Animal Crossing

My alarm went off at 7:15 a.m., playing the once-loved but now highly detested “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler. I woke up a bit groggy, rubbing my eyes and lifting myself out of bed. My hair looked bad, my beard was unkempt and the bags under my eyes seemed to have grown since yesterday. It was fine. This was life in quarantine. 

I couldn’t really focus on that, however. I had a big day ahead of me. I needed to welcome a new neighbor, plant some orange trees in my front yard and make sure I talked to residential services about the status of my home loan. I walked over to the other side of my room, picked up my Nintendo Switch and plopped back into bed. As I booted up “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” I smiled, knowing that my little island would, without a doubt, keep me busy. 

Many friends, both close and not, have reached out to me, wanting to know more about “Animal Crossing.” For the latter, I give them a sentence or two about how it is a fun slice-of-life simulator, with cute animal villagers set against a lovely tilt-shift aesthetic. For the former, however, things take a turn.

 I delve into the cultural history of “Animal Crossing.” I wax poetic about how its creator developed the first game as a way of coping with a deep loneliness after moving to a new city. I ramble on about the parallels it has in real life — with your community only being as good as what you invest in it. I yell from the rooftops about its wholesome nature as a tool for healing, one that is a far cry from other ultra-popular games that involve mass genocide. I swing wildly from the rafters, crying out about the pioneering of having customization as endgame instead of something like a final boss. In short, I am a fan. And millions of others are as well. 

In fact, an interesting tidbit about “Animal Crossing” is its audience. They are vehement, passionate and fervent. They are obsessive, just like those who play “Call of Duty” and “Halo.” The only difference is… well, everything. Instead of million-dollar prize pools for tournaments or performance-boosting controller augments, “Animal Crossing” has spurred something even more valuable: communities that spring up throughout every corner of the internet. Trading outposts to swap furniture, Instagram accounts to archive high-fashion outfits, hyperspecific photography blogs and much more have sprouted up with the latest release of “New Horizons.” 

But the question remains: What do you actually do in “Animal Crossing?” Well, if the metaphysical explanation above didn’t satisfy that inquiry, let me expand. “Animal Crossing” is made up of emergent gameplay, as there really is no goal. You can use the tools the developer gives you to focus on fishing, interior design, bug catching, crafting projects or even your personal fashion sense.

 Many call these types of experiences “sandbox games,” where players can pretty much do whatever they want. Think of it in terms of childhood pastimes. Sure, the LEGO set with a “Star Wars” ship or a racecar is fun, but after you’re done building it, that’s pretty much it. Now, where it starts to get really interesting is when you look into the corner of the room and notice “the bin.” You know, the bin that’s just filled to the brim with all your LEGO from past sets. You can make anything you imagine; you can build whatever your heart desires. Even at an adolescent age, your brain processes this creative freedom as a magnet for fun, emergent experiences. 

It seems as if it could not come at a better time. In the age of COVID-19, a game like “New Horizons” is perhaps one of the greatest blessings we can ask for in terms of entertainment. I am currently writing this in San Francisco, where the past month has brought rapid change, both culturally and physically. The streets are empty. There are very few cars on the road. The restaurants are closed, and the hospitals are full. You don’t see many people out, and you definitely don’t interact with them if you do. A report released last week showed that our city’s attitude towards social distancing was working — we were successfully starting to flatten the curve. 

San Francisco was starting to make a dent in the pandemic, but were we doing the same thing in regards to our mental health? With our current administration focusing more on the toll this virus will have on the stock market than human lives, it’s an understandably worrisome time.

About two weeks ago, I started “New Horizons” and I was immediately whisked away to a tropical island. I met my fellow islanders. I went fishing. I argued with a Japanese raccoon dog about where, exactly, my tent should go to spend my first night. It was a nice break to know that the most pressing matter of the day was chopping wood for a building or catching a yellow butterfly. There is value in keeping your ear to the ground, listening for updates on our situation as they unfold. But there’s also value in relaxing, taking a breath and knowing this too shall pass. “New Horizons” is this very sentiment in video game form. It was, and still is, an escape.   

On my brief, government-sanctioned daily walk, I observe the ocean. It seems calmer. As I stare, I ponder what will become of global capitalism, of good art and, most selfishly, of commencement. I frown just a bit. Then I remember that a friend of mine invited me to his island later in the day. He wanted to trade some oranges for peaches, in addition to checking out my newly renovated house. My frown turns into a grin, and as I walk back home, I begin to wonder if he’d like some of those newly sprouted apples. 

Written by: Ilya Shrayber — arts@theaggie.org