Crossing in Quarantine
I never cared for Animal Crossing.
Not that there was ever anything wrong with it, but I grew up on the likes of Final Fantasy, Zelda, and Sonic. My favorite thing about games was always the story, the world-building, or simply the satisfaction of completing a level. I played games to learn the mysteries of Darth Revan, to explore the world of Azeroth, or to simply challenge my skills in Mario 64. There are specific things I look for in games and Animal Crossing doesn’t really have any of that.
I remember my first introduction to the series, a sleepover at a friend’s place as a young teen. His family had a Gamecube while my family only had an Xbox so much of our time in the sleepover was spent exploring games I hadn’t gotten a chance to play. Animal Crossing seemed interesting enough to mess around with, but I quickly grew bored of it before we swapped to playing Melee for the rest of the night.
Fast forward a few years and I gave the series another shot on the Nintendo DS with the release of Animal Crossing: Wild World. But once again the game just didn’t click with me. The routine seemed simple enough, but there was only so much you could do in a day, and I was the type to marathon through as much of a game as I could before moving on to the next release. Animal Crossing wasn’t built for that and within two weeks I found myself trading the game in towards something that was more my style.
Over the next 15 years Nintendo would continue to release Animal Crossing games, and I would continue to ignore them, despite being a pretty ardent fan of nearly every single one of their other IPs. I had more or less written the series off as while my tastes had changed slightly over a decade and a half, I’d still always gravitated towards those same kind of games I liked when I was younger. When Animal Crossing: New Horizons was announced I didn’t even bat an eye, but one of my good friend was hyped. Over the next year Nintendo would continue to release news and I continued to ignore it. But as we got closer to release my friend’s hype only increased and it honestly became kind of infectious. I figured it had been long enough since my last foray into the series that I decided I would give the series one more shot and pre-ordered the game, wagering I would probably poke around with it for a bit before moving on much like I had done with Wild World in the past.
Of course I wasn’t accounting for a global pandemic.
In comes early March and we all started to realize that this “Coronavirus” thing was maybe a bigger deal than we had thought it was going to be. This was no mere flu bug. By mid-march I was already working from home and quarantining heavily. It was a sudden change that up-ended much of my life like it has done for most of the world. Gone were the weekends spent at the local meadery drinking with friends, gone was my weekly D&D game, gone was my commute and seeing my co-workers faces every day. Gone was any sense of routine in life.
By late March my copy of New Horizons had arrived and while I still wasn’t expecting much, I booted up my Switch and started playing.
…And I just kept playing.
As much as one can with an Animal Crossing game at least. But the entire gameplay loop, the same loop that I had written off and had never enjoyed before, was exactly what I needed. My life had been turned upside down and this silly game that amounted to little more than doing chores, talking with my animal neighbors, and decorating my house and island, had become my new routine.
I found myself booting up the game as I poured my morning coffee and checked my emails for the day. I would make sure to complete my daily chores before settling in and beginning my work day, and I would spend my evenings catching fish and bugs. It wasn’t the kind of game I ever expected to be playing like this, but it was the exact kind of game I needed. It gave me structure and a sense of normalcy when the world was anything but.
“It wasn’t the kind of game I ever expected to be playing like this, but it was the exact kind of game I needed.”
At the end of the day, humans are still creatures of habit. To quote psychologist Wendy Wood in a fascinating interview from behavioralscientist.org —
“In research that I’ve done, we find that about 43 percent of what people do every day is repeated in the same context, usually while they are thinking about something else.”
Those habits, those routines, they become part of how we interact with the world and while its one thing to try and change those habits of your own accord, it is a different thing entirely to have them changed for you.
In comes a game that is built on routine. Nearly every video game has these “gameplay loops” but in many games a lot of these loops are tangential. They exist, but they exist as a way to keep you interested or hooked. For Animal Crossing, the loop is the whole point. And yet it never demands you finish that loop, and I think that is part of the secret to it’s success.
That’s not to say there is no sense of progression. I can pay off my loans and get a bigger house, and my island can be rated on how well I’ve decorated it, but outside of perhaps unlocking terraforming, this progression largely leaves the experience entirely unchanged. Even paying off your final home loan does not provide you with any particular material changes, simply the ability to customize the appearance of your home for free. A nice perk sure, but not one that changes the game in any substantial way.
There’s a certain beauty to this lack of definitive goal. Sure I can spend an afternoon fishing to try and fill out the Museum, but I can also just as easily spend the afternoon fishing because it’s relaxing. And not only do I not get “punished” for it, but the game will even rewards me via the “Nook Miles” system where I get rewarded for simply completing tasks. This system I think is part of what transformed the game for me, as I still get that sense of accomplishment I receive in other games, but this time without any other real demands made of me.
So here I have a game that offers me a sense of routine and structure when those words had almost lost meaning overnight. And yet it makes next to no demands of me as a player, an incredibly valuable feeling in a time where the world itself feels so stressful and I don’t necessarily want or need anything compounding that sensation.
It’s hard to say if I would have become a fan of Animal Crossing without the nature of world as it exists in 2020, but as it stands, they’ve hooked me on the series for the future. If nothing else, there’s something to be said for changing tastes in changing times.