Written by Ellen Branch
Graphic by Abreshmi Chowdhury
This piece was originally published in ‘Pleasure and Danger’, Bossy’s 2020 print edition.
Late on the night of March 19, 2020, I joined a Discord voice chat with my friends and family. The group was a pretty diverse one; all of us at different stages of our lives, working different jobs, and even in different parts of the country. There was one special thing that brought us together that night – we were all eagerly awaiting the digital release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. At midnight, we began our newest Animal Crossing journey, on separate consoles, but staying in that Discord chat together well into the early hours of the morning.
In March 2020, the world had been thrust into chaos by the COVID-19 pandemic. People everywhere were feeling scared and hopeless, facing a nightmare that infiltrated every aspect of life. It was everywhere we looked and everything we talked about. Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out at the perfect time. It offered an opportunity to seek comfort and stability in a time of unpredictability and fear.
It offered a way to escape.
Escapism is not a new phenomenon; it’s been going on for as long as people have been telling stories. Through stories, it is possible to hold an entirely new world in your hands; and for a few harmless moments, jump into it, and escape the real one.
In the case of Animal Crossing, you are escaping into the sweetest world imaginable.
You have adorable animal friends who talk and give you nicknames and gifts. Your days are spent visiting their houses, attending birthday parties, and helping them when they need it. There are flowers to cultivate, fruit to harvest, and furniture to craft and collect. You can play dress up as an astronaut, or a knight, or a frog. You can even dabble in some amateur archaeology, donating findings to the beautiful museum. Every day is new in Animal Crossing, as the time in the game is in sync with real-world time. Every day, your animal friends are glad to see you. Every day, there are new things to discover.
I am no stranger to Animal Crossing; my first game in the series was Wild World on the Nintendo DS. Each game offers something different, but the core activities remain the same throughout each iteration. When I explain the game to people who know nothing about it, though, I feel sort of silly. It sounds like a kid’s game – and to be fair, I think it is designed primarily for children. But what’s the appeal? Why haven’t I outgrown this franchise? Why are adults starting to play it? Why has it been so intensely popular throughout the world?
I think that one of the key reasons people play is that Animal Crossing is a world without consequences. There are suggestions on what to do, but you can take it at your own pace. Your house debt doesn’t accrue interest, so you have all the time in the world to pay it off. There is no pressure to meet deadlines or complete tasks. If you want, you can do nothing but fish all day. If you skip chores or don’t talk to your friends, nothing is lost. There are no setbacks: you can only gain things. It’s your island, your life, and you can do what you like. Nothing bad will happen.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t anything to achieve, though. The game centres around accomplishments: getting a five-star town, filling up the museum, catching every bug and fish, and designing the perfect home. These tasks are challenging, but no obstacle in the game is insurmountable.
The real world is very different. Obstacles, sometimes, can’t be overcome. Collections aren’t always completed. You can lose friends and money. Sometimes, bad things do happen. The real world can be stressful, ruled by money, and fraught with difficulty.
While this world seems worth escaping from, and Animal Crossing is a wonderful world to escape to, the reason for its popularity and addictive quality goes deeper than that.
Every time, my favourite part of escaping into Animal Crossing is who I escape with. The most memorable and important things in the series are the villagers. Pekoe, a cute panda who lived in my town years and games ago, made me so happy as a child that I spent hours trying to find her in New Horizons, just so we could live in the same community once again. People on Twitter are so obsessed with Raymond, an office worker cat with heterochromia, that they are paying real money to have him on their island. Players can’t help but fall in love with these adorable animals. We know they are programmed to be unconditionally lovely: they love players even if we are cruel and hit them with a net, or push them into a hole. It is possible to be mean to them, or make mistakes, but they will never give up on us. And that is such a wonderful, safe thing to feel. These animals give us love, and, as people in trying times, we desperately want to give it back.
Escaping isn’t just about briefly leaving a crappy world for a better one. It isn’t just about living a life with no consequences. It’s about making and building connections.
In-game, I’m lucky enough to not just be experiencing island life with virtual animals, but with other people. Although my family do not all live in one house anymore, I can still connect with them through this virtual world. I’m able to express my love for my friends by buying them gifts and sending them fossils for their museum. They can visit my island whenever they’d like and we can hang out together on the beach, wishing on stars.
I miss doing that in real life. I’m glad I can at least do it in Animal Crossing.
Animal Crossing’s current popularity is unsurprising. We are living through a time defined by our literal isolation from other people; but in this game, we are surrounded by friends. However, I think its popularity is not limited to the current context: it persists across time and is cherished by people from all walks of life because, fundamentally, wanting to escape to where we are safe and loved is a universal desire.
Animal Crossing is a game of connection. Whether you play with friends or bond with your animal villagers, it’s the relationships that stick with you – and maybe the real escapism was the friends we made along the way.