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‘A fascinating insight into pandemic psychology’: how Animal Crossing gave us an escape
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‘A fascinating insight into pandemic psychology’: how Animal Crossing gave us an escape

‘Today is the first day of your new life on this pristine, lovely island. So, congratulations!” says Tom Nook, the benevolent tanuki landlord, a few minutes into Animal Crossing: New Horizons. (Nook is often besmirched online, but you can’t argue that he’s extremely welcoming.) Many players read this comforting message at a destabilising and frightening time in the real world: Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out on Nintendo Switch on 20 March 2020, a few days before the UK entered its first Covid lockdown.

This was fortuitous timing. When we were all stuck at home, the game let us plant our native fruits, tend to our flowers and see what the town shop had on offer, repaying our extensive loans (interest-free, thankfully) to Tom Nook as a way of escaping the chaos and daily death tolls. We opened the gates to our islands and welcomed friends and strangers into our pristine little worlds. As real life crumbled, we started anew with bespectacled cats, sheep in clown’s coats and rhinos who looked like cakes.

The game’s sudden popularity caused Nintendo Switch sales to skyrocket among pandemic-induced shortages. New Horizons had sold 44.79 million units by December 2023 – nearly three-and-a-half times more than any other game in the Animal Crossing series, which has been running since 2001. It’s the second best-selling Switch game to date, behind Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.

‘We visited friends I was far removed from in reality’ … many people still play the game now.

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Player April tells me she and her partner, Matthew, amassed over 700 hours in the game, turning their island into a joint creative project. “We planned the specific themes and items we were going to use, how the neighbourhoods would look, and even the lore behind some of the places and characters,” she says, adding that an in-game party organised by Matthew was one of the best birthdays she’s ever had.

Amy explains that she has never considered herself a gamer, but recently purchased and played her first game since her pre-teen years. She appreciated the sense of community it provided for her friends, especially during a time when they couldn’t physically gather. They used the game to have virtual date nights, stargaze together, and even visit friends they were not able to see in person.

Several individuals, such as Amy, continue to engage in the game. She introduces her five-year-old niece to the game, stating, “We now play together and I can share my knowledge while enjoying the game.” Amy’s island is a treasure trove of fond recollections from the past four years.

John O’Shea, the creative director for the National Videogame Museum in Sheffield, is extremely proud of his team’s efforts in creating the Animal Crossing Diaries. This digital exhibition aims to record the significant and meaningful moments that players experienced while in lockdown around the world. O’Shea compares this project to the Science Museum Group’s collection of significant items from the Covid era, such as the initial vaccine used for mass vaccinations.

“In the future, we will be able to refer to these diaries and see them as a reflection of what the pandemic was truly like. However, I believe that the Animal Crossing Diaries, serving as a record of people’s personal accounts, offer a captivating glimpse into the psychology during that period,” he explains.

Christine Davitt (avatar right) and her partner on their first date, which happened in Animal Crossing.View image in fullscreen

The submissions are very intimate and give us the opportunity to revisit a part of the pandemic through the perspective of someone else. These include events such as virtual Pride celebrations and a 50th birthday party with a mandatory dress code. One writer shares that playing the game helps them to escape from the negative effects of the pandemic. In her entry, Shivani details the process of creating her island, Bollywood, in the game to honor her cultural heritage. When their country, India, was facing difficulties during the pandemic, they turned to the game as a way to express their creativity. Hoping to educate players about Indian culture, they welcomed visitors to their island despite travel restrictions.

After lockdowns ended, some players of Animal Crossing found inspiration to explore outside the realm of the game. One player, May Naidoo, set a goal of seeing all 43 pieces of art in the in-game museum in real life. Naidoo shared his journey on TikTok, gaining over 1.8 million views on the video that marked the completion of his challenge.

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We can build it … Animal Crossing: New Horizons helped players set goals and challenges when lockdown ended.View image in fullscreen

According to Naidoo, completing the challenge has broadened their understanding and admiration for art as a whole. They were able to see famous artworks in real life and travel to their dream locations for the first time. Without this goal, they may never have had the opportunity to visit these places. The experience feels worldwide, and during their recent visits to cities, they were able to connect with people and make friends. Some museums even invited them for private tours after their videos gained attention online.

Naidoo and other volunteers are grateful for the chances and lessons they have learned while playing the game during lockdowns. Even as the world opens up, they continue to carry these experiences with them. Some find that remembering these memories makes them want to return to the game.

In her book “Playing With Reality: Gaming in a Pandemic,” journalist Alex Humphreys explores the impact of video games during the Covid era. While reading through Diaries, Humphreys discusses how the lines between virtual and real worlds were often blurred. In some cases, the only way to distinguish between the two was through references to the virtual currency of “bells.” Animal Crossing became more than just a game for millions of players.

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    The National Videogame Museum in Sheffield, UK has arranged a digital exhibit titled “Animal Crossing Diaries”.

Source: theguardian.com