One of the many features Animal Crossing: New Horizons asks players to embrace is taking photos. Your islander’s “phone” has a built-in camera function to set up photo opportunities with animals and friends and when players reach milestones they can hold “ceremonies” where everyone gathers together for a guided photo opportunity, complete with popping confetti. There’s even an entire island dedicated to dressing up and staging photos with the help of a hippie dog.
The Nintendo Switch’s one-touch screenshot button is a blessing for a game writer like me making images for reviews and other posts, so reaching under the left joystick was already common practice. But it took nearly a month with New Horizons to realize I kept instinctively taking a screenshot of the same moment, again and again. Once you get settled into the island after a few days the game lets you build bridges and inclines to make it easier to get around, and I kept saving my digital avatar celebrating the payment in full for these dumb stone bridges.
Basically anything you do in the game sounds unhinged outside of its contexts, but the debt is real. It’s a measure of progress, even if you pay down that debt with fishing and catching bugs and enduring localized puns. Bells may replace dollars in the Nintendo-made universe, but the feelings associated with paying off debts are the same. It took looking back through the images to make a composite for this post to realize what the feeling was: the rush of satisfaction over progress I’ve also gotten when I finally paid off a student loan.
Animal Crossing is a life simulator tethered to the reality in just one very notable way: the real-world passage of time. Its 2001 Gamecube debut took advantage of the system’s internal clock to follow the clock controlling your actual life, which means just like in reality there are moments of downtime. What people do in those moments depends on the player, but the early days of the game are a frantic rush to keep pace with what’s possible. Opening the museum, completing your set of DIY-crafted tools and racing to others’ islands to collect various fruits and furniture to outfit your home.
Unlike games like Stardew Valley, however, there’s no real way to maximize the use of your time. A day on your Animal Crossing island can really last 24 hours, and once you dig up your fossils and pay off your loans you’ll inevitably run out of things to do in the early days. The rush to achieve comes with later accomplishments and abilities looming over it all — there are bridges to be built and, later, terraforming your entire island to your own Frederick Law Olmsted whims. And because sharing images of it has made marking that progress ubiquitous, a lot of gamers unfamiliar with the series were turned off by the daunting laundry list of tasks altogether.
There’s been some predictable dismissal of Animal Crossing from those who don’t get why so many gamers are infatuated with the cutesy title. The words “infantile” and “pointless” have been tossed around, but the complaints are similar to ones the entire gaming genre has endured for decades now. For many of those who were looking forward to the title well before social distancing made it a trendy time-waster, the game’s return has been an escape from an increasingly uncertain reality. It’s also a dive into a world similar to our own where you can actually be rewarded with progress in the traditional ways we’ve always been told will work out in reality. Problems and debts just need time, homes are plentiful and you can always just pay off a bigger place to live with a timely sale of turnips on the Stalk Market.
It’s a concept that sounds absurd because of the nouns involved, sure, but it’s also one that’s equally silly for many outside of the game. As a generation, those most familiar with Animal Crossing are faced with record unemployment that’s shattered career growth, some for the second time in their lives. They also own less property than other generations and largely lack the savings of their immediate ancestors. For millions of people of a certain age, the American Dream is quite literally only possible in a digital world controlled by a crypto-fascist raccoon.
The last two console releases of Animal Crossing have been swiftly followed by a pair of global economic crashes previously thought to be generational. For millions of people playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons, it’s become an alternative to sitting around helpless as politicians, health experts and once-benevolent billionaires decide their fates. Put in that context, turning to a video game for some tangible semblance of control over something is honestly one of the more responsible coping mechanisms currently out there.
It’s also a way to offer kindness to others when faced with a reality that offers few current options for human connection. Small gifts — an MVP shirt for a friend’s son or a pixelated football sent with a somewhat inappropriate letter to an adult friend for 200 bells each — can bring about a smile in real life that must be covered by protective cloth when out in the real world. A friend who actively dislikes my soccer team made an Arsenal jersey design I was able to snag at his island a week ago. Small moments of joy like that are just the beginning of the ways the game has been utilized in a world largely shut down by uncertainty and unimaginable loss.
Through a month, Animal Crossing is a far from perfect game. The menus are dialogue trees and , especially navigating online play, is tedious. Crafting and customization, while a clever system as a whole, are slow and frustrating processes that hopefully will become streamlined through updates. But when major complaints include phrases like “there are not enough tables for my liking” and “the shovel is a bit wonky sometimes” it speaks not only to the kind of game Animal Crossing is, but also how low the bar is for finding something worthwhile in the game itself. There’s a whole lot not to like out there right now, and for some New Horizons scratches the itch of productivity and control they can’t find outside of their Nintendo Switch.
It’s a dissociative act, for sure, but in a world where just staying apprised of the day’s news can be an exhausting task, sometimes you just need to forget about reality and live on an island where money can quite literally grow on trees.