Plastic People
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Plastic People

How Animal Crossing has helped autistic people during lockdown

I speak to five #ActuallyAutistic people about routine, special interests and socialising in the virtual world during Covid-19

Hannah’s Animal Crossing character sits back-to-back with Apollo, an anthropomorphic eagle in a pinstripe suit jacket.
Hannah with islander Apollo.

Plastic People is an ongoing series of articles and interviews which examines culture — films, TV, music and so on — from the perspective of neurodivergent people. Conditions categorised under the neurodiversity umbrella include but are not limited to: ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dyscalculia and bipolar disorder. I made this as a platform for doing more writing and interviews but have been keen to feature or work with other neurodivergent writers! See the bottom of the article.

If you’re a Twitter user and follow people in the #ActuallyAutistic sphere — a hashtag for self-diagnosed autistic people — you’ll almost certainly have seen lots of Animal Crossing: New Horizons in the last few months. The latest in Nintendo’s long-running social-simulation series, the game drops the player onto a remote island populated by anthropomorphic animals, with gameplay focused on upgrading and designing your home, island, and outfits, collecting fish and insects and socialising with the villagers. That the game might appeal to autistic people seems obvious. The gameplay loops revolve around collecting and categorising objects: home decorations, flowers, fish, animals, fossils. This practice of collection and accumulation is something that autistic people already love to do in the real world. The tried and tested gameplay loops of resource-gathering, building and customisation are shared, along with the capacity for socialising and showing off your creativity online, with 2011 smash-hit Minecraft, a game which is well-known for its autistic fanbase.

Released in March, the game dropped only days before lockdown began in some countries. As with other disabilities, Covid-19 has been extremely challenging for autistic people. Some of us have had to move away from where we are most comfortable; our calming spaces like cafes have closed or otherwise become inaccessible. The closure of workplaces and universities has caused massive disruption to working and life routines. Amidst all of this, for some people, AC:NH provided much-needed respite. Keen to learn more about what has made the series so appealing to autistic people and how they’ve integrated it into their lives during a global pandemic, I spoke to five autistic people about their experiences playing the game.

There’s not a lot of choice or space to be random in Animal Crossing, and I like that. You can’t just go to the shop whenever you want.

Beth’s character stands amid lots of plants, a lime green butterfly perched on one of the flowers.

Unlike most games, the in-game time in Animal Crossing is always synced to wherever you are in the real world — unless you ‘time travel’ in the settings. This parallel between the game and real time can offer a great deal of stability and calm during lockdown. On a Skype call all the way from Chile, Josefina, an autism advocate and patron for the charity AmbitiousAboutAutism tells me about how the game has helped her. ‘With quarantine and with being isolated in a country that’s so far away from all my friends, waking up and checking out my shop in Animal Crossing or catching new fish or bugs or sea creatures can bring a lot of excitement to my day.’

Not only does the activity of playing the game become routine, but routine can be established within the game itself. Josefina has a set pattern in the mornings: unearthing fossils, giving them to Blathers the Owl in the museum, checking the visiting NPC of the day, checking the shop. ‘I get to do things throughout the day in a very routinely manner. There’s not a lot of choice or space to be “random” in Animal Crossing, and I like that. You can’t just go to the shop whenever you want.’

Hannah, a languages student from Edinburgh, tells me that part of the appeal of Animal Crossing is how little there is to do. Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the most recent instalment in the long-running RPG series, daunted her with the sheer scope of activities and tasks: ‘In order to cope with the open-world, I had to literally write down plans of where I wanted to go, or I would’ve been far too overwhelmed.’ In AC:NH, she follows a routine as if it were a day in the life of her character. ‘In the absence of uni and my social life,’ she says, ‘This has helped me feel like I was making small achievements every day.’

‘It’s become as much of a daily routine as anything else could be,’ Aoife, a postgraduate student from Edinburgh tells me. ‘I’m working from home and tend to check in while I’m having my breakfast, and then on my lunch break. Animal Crossing at its core is a very routine game — it’s designed to be played for one year straight.’

When change does come, it is complementary rather than disruptive. This is so valuable because change can be so difficult for autistic people in the real world. Life coming more or less to a grinding halt in March of this year was a traumatic experience for many of us. AC:NH notifies you on the village bulletin board if anything different or new is going to happen, and the anthropomorphic villagers even ask you for your permission before they can give you a nickname. Beth, a student and musician from Glasgow, tells me how helpful this has been for her: ‘Everything is scripted and big changes are few and far between, it’s like a life simulation without all the difficult parts of life.’ When surprises do come, they arrive in the form of catching a new fish, finding a new islander, or seeing a different special character. These keep the game fresh without disrupting the stability that it provides.

There is plenty to do and the scope for customising your island is seemingly endless, but at the same time the gameplay loops are generally stable and repetitive. Aoife says: ‘I love the repetitive and predictable nature of it, I think. I love a good monotunous task because I always need something to do with my hands. So maybe it’s kind of like a stim* thing?’

*Stimming or self-stimulatory behaviour is a soothing or repetitive action that people with autism and other neurodivergent conditions (such as ADHD) do to distract from sensory stimuli and provide relaxation. Examples might include singing a phrase over and over again (also known as echolalia), rocking back and forth or flapping your hands.

I really got into trains last year — I know, classic autism — and I’ve built a wee train station on my island, which makes zero sense since it’s an island.

The freedom of that AC:NH offers to customise clothing and decorate your island has also let autistic players carve out safe spacers for themselves. Trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people can dress however they want. Spaces, indoors and outdoors, can be carved out on the island which replicate real-world havens of calm. For Josefina, who admits this slightly sheepishly, the game’s range of customisation allowed her to recreate the library of her university college: a routine, calm space of normality. ‘I really miss living in Japan,’ Hannah tells me, having travelled there as part of her studies as a student. Having had a trip back there on hold because of the pandemic, she named her island after her favourtie region of the country and recreated real places she had visited: a festival area, a bamboo forest, a classroom based on a school that she taught in.

Josefina in the town square of Pururu and Puru, her cat.

Hyperfixations or autistic obsessions, too, are something which autistics find themselves exploring in the game. ‘I really got into trains last year — I know, classic autism,’ Hannah says. ‘I’ve built a wee train station on my island, which makes zero sence since it’s an island.’ Josefina’s island, Pururu, is named after one of her cats, Puru — a spherical orb of fur to whom I got to say hello on Skype — who is depicted with artistic flair on the island’s flag. She also constructed a theme restaurant on her island, based on the Italian restaurant lovingly termed ‘the Olive Garden’ by fans of the freewheeling, decade-spanning anime series Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, replete with jackets worn by two of the characters.

I don’t think half of us would’ve gotten through lockdown if it weren’t for things like Skype, Twitter and online gaming.

Animal Crossing is, at its core, a social simulator rooted in interactions with different villagers, each of whom has a different personality type. They can be normal, lazy, peppy, smug, jock, sisterly, or cranky. Recurring villagers have the same personality type in each game and each will have different likes and dislikes to bear in mind when buying them a gift for, say, a birthday. Much like other aspects of the game, these interactions are governed by stable rules and logic, things which autistics find particularly helpful. Cameron, a postgrad student from Sheffield, explains the appeal to me. ‘You can go Google what personality your villagers have and thus know how they’ll react to different things.’ When so much difficulty for autistic people lies in second-guessing the often confusing, wayward responses of allistic people within unstable social dynamics, this simple and rigid framework can be reassuring. This might give rise to the common accusation that autistic people are being shielded from harsh realities. Is interaction with pixelated, anthropomorphic villagers a crux for us getting to grips with the difficulties of real life social interaction? Like most games, Animal Crossing is escapism. While the interaction with villagers is clearly no substitute for actual social engagement, it helps that this facet of the game is not a cause of added stress. It just so happens that the kinds of social interaction depicted in Animal Crossing, perhaps due to Nintendo’s focus on simplicity as a design philosophy, are modelled on predictabilty that autistic people find so reassuring.

Through its multiplayer features — long a staple of the series — AC:NH also allows for other players to visit your island, to buy items from your shop, trade, to look around or hit each other with nets. Such has been the success of these features that the MIT Technology Review recently called the game ‘the new social media of the coronavirus era.’²

The tendency for autistic people to socialise through the use of technology has been well-documented. In Neurotribes, Steve Silberman documented the emergence of ham (or amateur) radio among autistic people in the US in the early 1900s:

With parts available by mail at reasonable prices… it was an afffordable hobby that could be pursued in solitude. Hams [radio operators] who struggled with spoken language could avoid talking by communicating in code. (A photograph of an early gathering of hams shows two men sitting across a table from one another, communicating by tapping out dots and dashes on milk bottles with spoons.)¹

The neurodiversity movement emerged in the 1990s on early autism-specific web forums such as the one founded by the US-based Autism Network International (ANI). Animal Crossing, like video games as a whole, has been just one facet of the autistic tendecy to embrace new technologies as a way of facilitating communication. ‘A lot of my friends I have met online so communicating by voice and text is what we do best, and in Animal Crossing we can do it while hitting each other with nets dressed as Final Fantasy characters, so that’s nice,’ Aoife tells me.

Hannah also found the social aspects of the game particularly valuable. ‘It’s been fun to just talk to each other’s villagers, tour each other’s islands, smack each other with bug nets and play hide and seek. On Beth’s birthday, we even threw her a little virtual party and gave her some in-game presents, which was really fun!’ AC:NH has also become its own special interest of sorts for some people, facilitating easier interaction with other people. ‘My special interests are never normally things people my age or in my social circle care about,’ Cameron tells me, ‘so it’s good that I can connect with neurotypicals.’

For Josefina, the game allowed her to form form bonds with new people and make new autistic friends. The simplicity and the dynamics of the game also eliminate the small-talk that so many autistic people malign. She tells me, ‘There’s no small talk, there’s no hey how are things? — when I look at a person in real life, there’s no script, in Animal Crossing, you don’t have to talk about anything. It’s just show me your house! There’s always a purpose, there’s no fussing.’

Beth and her friend’s characters stand on a green plateau amid trees, with the visiting NPC, Celeste, a red owl.
A visit from Celeste the Owl!

The game does also present its own unique challenges when it comes to social interaction. ‘I do become tired from socialising within it… the mechanics of getting a friend to come join you in your island are very extensive,’ Josefina says. ‘While some of [my friends] say that they love having people on their island, they also say “I don’t feel like having you at my island right now, it’s nothing personal I’m just autistic.”’

We obsess to the point of not being able to take a break until we achieve that unobtainable result

The desire to have your island look presentable for visitors, as beautiful as the ones that you see on Twitter or other social media sites, can be a particular point of stress. ‘I’m happy with my island until I log onto Twitter and see everyone else’s.’ This is certainly less an issue with the game itself and more with human dynamics playing out in virtual spaces. Autistic people, prone as we are to obsession and fixation, can veer into bursts of doing things without considering whether we are really enjoying them. ‘It becomes a bit of a chore,’ Josefina tells me. ‘Especially when you can measure your own progress by other people’s, withot knowing how much time they’ve invested in their islands. We obsess to the point of not being able to take a break until we achieve that unobtainable result.’

The only solution, it seems, is to try and step back. ‘It’s better to go at your own pace,’ Beth agrees. Josefina has decided to play idly and temporarily refused visitors to her island, until she’s ready. ‘Not all of them get this to the same extent because they’re not autistic, but they’ve known me for a while and, they know that I do certain things differently to them.’

The reaction where you clap your hands in front of you is a closer expression of my natural body language than I’ve found in any other medium.

What I’ve learned from speaking to #ActuallyAutistic people about Animal Crossing is not that there’s any, intrinsic autistic quality built into the game design. Sure, there is the in-game clock, and the predictable gameplay, the categorisation and sorting of things. There are lots of other small things too. ‘The reaction where you clap your hands in front of you is a closer expression of my natural body language than I’ve found in any other medium,’ Cameron says. But fundamentally, what makes the game so autistic is how autistic people play it: buidling it into daily routines, integrating special interests into it, recreating real-world environments, and using it to socialise where it might otherwise not be possible. And all of this, in the context of a global pandemic that has left people with no routine, separated from friends and family, and stuck inside in very difficult circumstances.

If nothing else, this is a testament to the resilience of autistic people. Leaning into the digital forms of communication we already favoured has been a lifeline. ‘People can say what they want about technology and connectivity,’ Hannah says, ‘but I don’t think half of us would’ve gotten through lockdown if it weren’t for things like Skype, Twitter and online gaming.’

Extra bits

Thanks so much to Cameron, Josefina, Aoife, Hannah and Beth for agreeing to speak to me on their experiences playing Animal Crossing! My other writing, pretty much all of it on either music or neurodiversity, can be found here, here and here.

If you’re eager for more content of this sort, Game Assist produce video essays on disability and liberation in video games, including one on autism in Mass Effect 2: Overlord and the relationship between Nintendo and the LGBTQ community. Their twitter can be found at @ GameAssistYT.

As noted at the top of the article, I’m keen to work with other neurodivergent writers. If you’d be interested in writing something — or want me to plug something you’ve written and published elsewhere on neurodiversity and culture — I can be reached at @ 128harps on Twitter. Please get in touch!

Citations

¹ Tanya Basu (2020), ‘Why games like Animal Crossing are the new social media of the coronavirus era,’ MIT Technology Review.

² Steve Silberman (2015), Neurotribes, pp. 244.

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Writing about music, neurodiversity and disability.

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