Animal Crossing: Exploring a Video Game’s Realm During a Pandemic
Now more than ever, socio-cultural relations are being nurtured on screens; in-person gatherings are being replaced with video calls. The aim of this exploration is to take a walk around how life-simulation video games fit into the lockdown.
Hanine El Mir
During these unprecedented times, unfamiliar to at least people from my generation and younger, everything is taking a shift to become more accessible online. Museums which had not updated their websites in a long time uploaded all their collections and started offering virtual tours. Magazines like Vogue are scheduling photoshoots on FaceTime with models as big as Bella Hadid. Musicians like Lady Gaga are performing live concerts on social media. Since the day it launched (March 20), I’ve found myself staring at the small screen I’m holding, playing the new edition of Animal Crossing: running around on a deserted island, picking fruit, fishing, even hosting parties, to get miles and bells. I’m not alone in this; the Switch console sold out on the official Nintendo website worldwide, in local gaming stores in Canada, and even in Pharmaprix, within hours. A friend humorously said it’s almost as if the creators planned the lockdown.
If you’re not familiar with the Animal Crossing franchise, the premise is quite simple: you, a human, move in somewhere deserted, along with anthropomorphic animals and you are tasked with making it a better place to live. It’s covered in weeds, stones, and branches. For some people playing in 2020, this edition of the game is the first time they are exposed to a world of virtually doing everyday tasks for rewards, as they can now dedicate hours to playing it.
In Denielle Elliott and Dara Culhane’s A Different Kind of Ethnography, each chapter introduces us to a set of short exercises to break away from traditional research methods. These exercises include postcard ethnography, sound ethnography, and fictional screenwriting ethnography. The exercise that struck me the most is the walking tour from chapter 5, seeing as this book had been assigned to me around the same time as the Animal Crossing launch. In this chapter, Cristina Moretti begins by probing the definition of a public space, depending on who can use it and when. Moretti argues that anthropologists have shown interest in public spaces seeing as they encourage cultural and social and political interactions (p. 92). They can also be places of exclusion and discrimination (p. 94). Inspired by Moretti’s chapter, I decided to take my readers on a walking tour of my virtual island in the game. What I wish to address in this walking tour is the spaces video games enabled during pandemics and the way they present a temporary alternative to activities done in real life when you can’t leave the house. It is nothing new to forage and talk to NPCs (Non-Player Characters) in many video games, however this particular edition includes more features that simulate real life like world-renown museum tours and work meetings.
Hello, everyone, and welcome to Hoodchelaga, the island named oh-so-humorously after a neighborhood in Quebec, Hochelaga. Hoodchelaga is native to some of the juiciest cherries so make sure to pick some as we stroll past the trees. Its flag, which we will see flying on the town hall building as well as the airport, is adorned by a brown chicken, four mountains and a starry night sky. Hoodchelaga and other islands use a currency, just like in real life, called Bells. You earn bells through selling things you’ve collected from the island, be it fish or fruit or natural resources, or through selling items you’ve crafted. Our store, marked on the maps you were given as “Nook’s Cranny” (see fig. 1 in annex), has a buy-anything policy in which they won’t turn down anything you sell them, even the trash you fish out of the ocean. We highly value keeping our oceans clean and repurposing waste. Bells also have an exchange rate with something called Miles which residents get as a reward for doing tasks to maintain the island’s neat image and economy such as fishing 100 fish in a row, picking 20 weed stacks, or placing decorations. They can also earn Miles by spending Miles to travel. Pretty similar to airports on Earth, right?
I am Hanine, your tour guide for the day, but I’m also considered the main resident of my island. I am responsible for inviting other residents, as well as acting as a liaison between them and the island manager, Tom Nook. As you can see, we are starting the tour outside my house (see fig. 2 in annex). My house has a red roof, as chosen by me. Houses look the same from the outside no matter which level of expansion they are at. My house is currently at its third expansion and has three rooms on the first floor as well as a room on the second floor, which you can check out later at your own pace. I’m looking forward to the last expansion which adds a basement. Everyone starts with a tent on the first day, including the extra two characters who moved in the same day as I did. To pay for the tent, as well as the flight to the island, the main resident starts with a loan of 5000 Nook Miles, instead of money to help them get on their feet. Once paid, the tent gets replaced by a one-room house priced at 98,000 bells now that they’ve started making money in-game. Further expansions cost more bells.
Now, let’s check out our currently empty campsite (see fig. 3 in annex). As the main resident, I was tasked to find a location for this campsite, so I chose to build it by the sea but also not too far from my house in case the guests need me. It’s made out of wood and colourful garlands. It can host one visitor at a time for the time being so you might want to check the waitlist. People who choose to stay at the campsite have a choice to move in after talking to the main resident. Once they decide to stay, they move into a house and not a tent like the starting characters. An article published on Polygon states that characters who move in after the main resident get a house that fits their personality and constantly evolves to incorporate more items, whereas the starting characters remain the entire time with the basic house they got at first: “Initial villagers, by and large, had basic set-ups, such as dirt floors and simple furniture – but everyone who moved in afterward had elaborate interior design that actually reflects their specific personality.” They also offer some visual examples of the same villagers on different islands.
The town hall and plaza it sits on (see fig. 4 in annex) are a great site which hosts ceremonies, fishing tournaments, and temporary pop-up stores. Our very own Able Sisters Clothing store started as a small kiosk in this plaza. You can stand here and sing, dance, do yoga, chat with other villagers, or you could pitch an idea to Tom Nook to host your own event. Inside the town hall, residents can chat with our representative, Isabelle, about another resident or any problem they may be facing. The main resident can also talk to Tom Nook about constructions, guests at the campsite, or any plots of land they wish to sell. There’s an ATM inside the town hall as well, to pay loans, deposit or withdraw Bells, or exchange your Miles.
This is what our airport looks like from outside (see fig. 5 in annex). Our airport is maintained by diligent Dodo birds, two brothers, whom I’m sure you’ve met when you arrived. Could the airport replace physical flights, at least for the time being? A Japanese company has been reported to host team meetings virtually on Animal Crossing through island visits (see fig. 6 in annex). Last but not least, we shall hop on a plane and go on some flights. Our first flight will be to a randomly selected deserted island which Dodo employees chose for us (see fig. 7 in annex). Random islands have pretty much the same resources as our islands except in more abundance. Sometimes, on rare occasions, the native fruit is different from ours. Other times, you might randomly unlock a ‘money island’ on which trees carry bells instead of fruit and smashing rocks gives you money instead of stones. Now let’s visit a friend to show you how islands can look different based on who is maintaining them. The island of Outset is maintained by Matt, sitting right next to me here (see fig.8 in annex). Its native fruit is oranges. Right to the left of the airport you see a lovely design in the shape of a Pokeball with two kinds of flowers, red and white, and stone.
The exercise was meant to be an imagined walking tour which takes place in a public space. The definition of a public space is a rather subjective and conditional one (such as people not being allowed to sleep in parks). Moretti refers to public spaces as an “unstable category” (p.93) in A Different Kind of Ethnography. I’d argue that islands on Animal Crossing are somewhat a form of semi-public spaces considering anyone on your friends’ list can visit you once you open your airport gates, and random characters from the game can move in. In addition to that, even if you’re not friends with someone on the Switch console, you can still generate a code to invite a stranger. It is selective, considering you need to purchase a console, a copy of the game, have an internet connection and a Nintendo Switch Online membership. The latter can be purchased for one month, three months, or one year. From the tasks and rewards, we can notice that these islands are a reflection of our own society, covered up to look like a kids game. I have certainly tackled the exercise in a different way than the author intended. However, the way we tackle and think about things has been shifting a lot lately. Many things aren’t the same as they used to be, including being out in the public. Supermarkets have new rules of only letting one person per household in, choirs are meeting online… Even streets are inaccessible after a certain hour. I think video game realms, much like Zoom calls with modified spatial backgrounds, hold in them the potential to become gathering spaces. Animal Crossing New Horizons is just one example.
Hernandez, P. (2020). “It Actually Matters When Your Animal Crossing Villager Moves In.” Polygon. https://www.polygon.com/2020/4/6/21210204/animal-crossing-new-horizons-villager-houses-decorations-furniture-upgrade-nintendo-switch-move-out
Moretti, C. (2016). “Walking.” A Different Kind of Ethnography: Imaginative Practices and Creative Methodologies. University of Toronto Press.