While I haven’t physically left my apartment for longer than an hour at a time since mid-March, I’ve built a museum, two stores, a bridge, and three houses and planted various fruit and palm trees. Though my actual social and work lives have slowed to a crawl or halted entirely, I’ve busied myself with molding an electronic world that is now home to three residents. Though all of the deadlines are self-imposed, I’ve managed to forage, mine, scrounge, and stockpile the materials necessary to build out my island.
The U.S. is facing its worst epidemic in a century against the backdrop of an American dream that is already in tatters for much of the working and middle classes. So it’s no wonder that, with millions of Americans stuck at home, droves of people are embracing a cartoon game whose premise rests on designing and owning your own home and building a small utopian township, providing an escape from the harsh realities of housing instability or economic precarity.
As the newest iteration in the 19-year-long Animal Crossing franchise, the Nintendo Switch game Animal Crossing: New Horizons allows you to populate a formerly deserted island with cartoon “villagers” and act as de facto urban planner and property manager, building shops, museums, roads, houses, and bridges, and harvesting trees, fruit, and plants for an anthropomorphic raccoon landlord/developer known as Tom Nook. While earlier games involved similar activities, none of them debuted during the middle of a global public health crisis when people suddenly had much more time on their hands to devote to gaming.
Since its March 20 release, much ink has been spilled about how Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the game of the moment. One Wired Magazine writer dubbed it “the best possible thing for [their] mental health right now” amid the stress brought on by having to adapt to the changes in daily life that COVID-19 has demanded. Nintendo hasn’t yet released sales numbers for the U.S., but reports show Japan sold 2.6 million copies sold during the 10 days after its February debut, while in the U.K., the game broke records as the fastest-selling Switch game of all time.
Animal Crossing offers uncomplicated entertainment during an unprecedented period, in which a majority of people are expected to stay home but still have to contend with stressors such as job and housing security. Both factors have heightened during the current economic crisis, providing a ripe opportunity for players to escape into a game that eschews violence and adult responsibilities in favor of talking animal characters and easy money.
Ilica Mahajan and Ryder Moody, a renter couple in New York City, say part of the attraction is that the game ensures them that their efforts to maintain a home and pay off any related debts are rewarded in a way that the current real-life housing market does not always promise.
In Animal Crossing, the player starts out living in a tent and can upgrade their living quarters to a house—but must pay back Tom Nook before they can add more square footage and levels to their home. Unlike the real world, however, there’s no interest rate on the loan and no payment plan structure, so players don’t feel pressure to pay it off immediately.
“You don’t have to stress out in the game over your debt,” says Ilica. “There’s no time limit on the debt, which is not the same in real life. You can just keep making money and paying it off. In real life, the longer you wait to pay off something, the more it will cost you.”
Moody agrees, adding that reward for hard work in Animal Crossing is automatically guaranteed, unlike reality, where one’s social class and connections often play a role in one’s success. “There’s a level of equality of labor [in Animal Crossing] that doesn’t exist in the real world,” he says. “In Animal Crossing, the world is more of a meritocracy. You have to mine things and you have to work to get the things you need in order to build infrastructure. You have to put in actual time and effort.”
The game allows you to hop between “islands” if you’re connected via the Switch network, making it possible to visit other players’ communities and houses. Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, who lives in San Francisco, says that he’s noticed a marked difference between his friends who play who are renters in real life, as he is, and those who own their homes.
“I’ve noticed lots of my friends who are homeowners have been more into developing their homes than building out infrastructure and building their towns,” he says, noting that homeownership in the Bay Area is in itself a rare feat, since it’s the most expensive real estate market in the country.
Rodriguez, who grew up in a one-bedroom apartment with his mother and brother in San Francisco, says he was less attached to the idea of maintaining his own home even in the game, and has spent more time and effort on building his island town into a replica of the Richmond neighborhood where he currently lives.
“I’ve noticed that my friends who are homeowners have been more into developing their homes than building new infrastructure, new shops, or new homes for other residents. I only have one room in my [game] house,” he says. “I spend most of my Bells [in-game currency] on streetlights and roads. I have bus-only lanes and bike lanes, just like in real life.”
Will Dundon, another renter in San Francisco, shared the same sentiment. He speculates that his status as a non-homeowner leaves him less inclined to go wild decorating a cartoon house and more interested in things like buying and selling turnips, which are a hot commodity in Animal Crossing.
He also echoed Mahajan and Moody in saying that the game gives him a sense of purpose and control in a way that his current real-life circumstances may not, due to the pandemic.
“Because the game is just, like, simple tasks, it’s nice to have shorter rewards and short-term feelings of accomplishments to keep you going,” he says. “When I’m working at my job at home, it’s sometimes frustrating and feels a bit aimless, but in Animal Crossing, I enjoy doing things like fishing because to some degree, it’s work, but it’s simple and makes me feel like I have purpose.”
The renters I spoke to said that the idea of “home” was a more nebulous concept when it came to Animal Crossing than in real life, but that the experience playing the game was what made it familiar and cozy and “homey.”
“My home in real life is a very different way of thinking than in the game,” Moody says. “In real life, my home is a place I exist for long periods of time, whereas in the game it’s simply a facility I store things in while I’m doing other things outside.”
Rodriguez, the San Francisco renter, has shaped his Animal Crossing world into something closer to the city where he grew up, which has undergone an accelerated period of gentrification in recent years in tandem with an unprecedented housing crisis.
“For me, personally, the game lets me feel like I’m making accomplishments even as I’m not able to leave my actual apartment,” he says, noting that he hasn’t left much since March 10. “Going from island to island feels like being able to go outside. Spontaneous things happen in Animal Crossing similar to the real world.”
He says that due to the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place orders, he hasn’t been able to see his partner or friends, and has made much more of an effort to keep in touch and “hang out” virtually instead, regularly setting up times when they can all meet on one another’s “islands.” He’s also been going on virtual “dates” with his partner, harking back to a time when they first began dating and he played an earlier iteration of Animal Crossing on his handheld Nintendo DS Lite while traveling the 90 minutes between his San Francisco apartment and the partner’s place in Alameda on public transit.
While in quarantine, he also had a birthday.
“Normally we would’ve had a house party and some music, but since we can’t do that, I had a birthday party with seven of my friends on my island,” he says. “There were balloons, we had a [virtual] birthday cake, music, even vending machines for snacks. I arranged a treasure hunt and we all went around looking for it. My heart was filled 20 times over again in this goofy, virtual space.”