Is Animal Crossing: New Horizons the answer to renewing our creative energy?
From independent fashion design to solo show openings, the charming game reimagines creative ventures in its wholesome, carefree image.
Once in a while, you read a book that’s just so utterly charming that upon reaching the last few pages, you’re met with a mix of excitement and anticipatory melancholy. Attempts to describe its charm are fruitless and in trying to share the experience with a friend, you’re usually left hapless, gesticulating vaguely into the air, saying: “You just have to read it! I’ll give you my copy if you want.” If your friend happens to have the same taste, the pleasure lies in knowing that they’ve read the same turns of phrase that gripped you, that you went to the same place despite never really being there, soaked in the world’s inner logic that makes you wish that you never left the first time.
Playing Animal Crossing is like getting to read these last few pages anew. This is why it’s hard to explain the game’s magnetism, because it’s mostly about its charm, comforts and routine. If you’re already a player, here’s a fun test: try explaining why you love playing the game to someone else (“So...you just fish and shake trees?” “Why would I want to play a game where I virtually have to earn money?” “Your landlord’s a raccoon?”).
For the uninitiated, Animal Crossing: New Horizons (ACNH) is the latest instalment in the franchise that’s garnered 11 million players since its release in late March for the Nintendo Switch. Conceptually, the game hasn’t strayed far from its previous iterations. You help Tom Nook, a dad-bodded tanuki in a Hawaiian shirt, make an initially deserted island suitable for you and your band of anthropomorphic animal villagers to live on. You fish, shake trees, craft, garden, chat to your friends, all while decorating your little house. It’s perhaps best described as a great lounging game, as its open-endedness and lack of pressing objectives means that you never feel pressured to do anything you don’t want to.
The game recently set the record for the highest monthly digital sales as it became the console’s highest-selling title, its popularity contributing to the recent Nintendo Switch supply shortage. Social distancing measures meant that many of us craved new face-to-face interactions as well as the opportunity to simply move through the world. For a brief moment, the game lets you feel like everything’s alright, since all you’ve got to do today is dig up fossils for Blathers, the island’s argyle-chested museum warden owl. My favourite part of my own routine is when I water flowers in my haphazardly scattered gardens, watching their small petals of budding roses well up with droplets.
Within a month, the cultural and creative industry seems to have co-opted the game all at once, with Elijah Wood’s polite visit to a fan’s island in search of better turnip prices and Yaeji’s island merch drop happening within two days of each other.
The islands now bustle with players looking for low-stakes escapism, who have found a new drive to create and share their world through the lens of the game’s carefree charm. For instance, we see upcycling queen Nicole McLaughlin building herself a studio in the game, complete with posters of some of her favourite stitch-happy shoes. Its built-in pattern designer lets you customise anything from hats and dresses to paintings and floor tiles as long as you can render it on a 32x32 pixel grid.
With the Animal Crossing Pattern Tool, any image you upload will be converted into a game-friendly version that you can then incorporate using their QR code generator. This is what the Met’s digital department used to upload their collection of more than 406,000 open-access artworks that you can download at your own leisure. Now, you can join Redd, the roaming bootleg painting peddler and Tom Nook’s rival in business, in giving away “cousin” discounts for black-market artworks. Doesn’t get much easier than that.
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In-game character Redd will sell you a famous painting, but he’s been known to sell a fake or two
With independent makers imitating high fashion garb, making up for cancelled graduations and even initiating solo exhibitions, players have found a way to reproduce whatever it was they were missing out on in real life. The ease of digital reproduction that the game provides has revived a particular sharing culture that has been relegated to hesitantly shared links in your group chats. Much like being in other exciting cultural moments, we return briefly to being less precious in saying “look at what I found!”
However, the digital realm often replicates the structures that we see in real life, so it should come as no surprise that many household brands are now flocking to Animal Crossing to take advantage of this moment of hype. Releasing codes for free gives valuable attention to outfits now that there’s barely any reason to dress up at all. In a reproduction of Adidas by 424’s SS20 campaign by ACNH Fits and LN-CC, a crowd of identical crew-cut villagers decked out in the collaboration’s black-and-red outfits pose in formation. One picture captures the atmosphere of what shopping in a Hypebeast boutique really feels like, as we see three villagers with virtually identical black outfits deliberate around a white Macbook resting on a metal stool. Eerie.
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The game’s built-in pattern designer lets you customise anything from hats and dresses to paintings and floor tiles
We’ve yet to see the peak of Animal Crossing adoption, although we know it’s still only sold about half the number of the latest iteration of the Sims series. Though there’s a healthy community of fashion-focused Simstagrammers out there, customising clothing and decorations in the Sims is more involved and requires you to get hands-on with game modifications, intimidating the casual player. And though a much more expansive customisation suite was included in mid-2000s media theory favourite Second Life, it was a game that embraced a much more techno-libertarian mindset running parallel with the maturing internet at the time. At the peak of Second Life’s zeitgeist, it was much more about “be anyone you want to be,” while Animal Crossing often feels more like “remember that you are loved” at this particular moment. From QR codes to furniture cataloguing, the possibilities of sharing in Animal Crossing has turned the old to new and the new to, well, the new and cute, breathing new life into an existing piece of work.
So whether you’re playing to recreate the bad restoration of Ecce Homo, to reconcile with long-lost friends bearing gifts of fruit or to try your hand at designing your own clothes, what sticks with you is the fondness that you have for the world that it lets you inhabit and the routines you establish. Usually, a surefire sign of a stabilizing moment of digital culture is when its banality overtakes its novelty, like when billboards for AI-powered toothbrushes started popping up in the streets of London last year. I’m sure we have some friends who are at the very least aggressively indifferent to the ACNH oversharing that’s going on right now. But it’s times like these that we should let ourselves cherish small moments of charm and nurture wherever we can find it.