Animal Crossing meets Fjord Trends 2021
What Animal Crossing Taught Me About Data and Interaction Design
Hidden in Nintendo’s utterly charming digital diorama are great decisions around humanising data!
Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Nintendo’s life-simulator game places the player’s avatar on a remote deserted island.
Released on 20th March 2020, as people collectively experienced displacement and entered their houses not knowing when things will go back to normal again, Animal Crossing’s “Island Getaway Package” provided the purest form of escapism.
As you sink in dozens (if not hundreds) of hours into Animal Crossing, you fish, harvest fruits, chop wood, sell resources, all to serve the purpose of building your dream island — replete with restaurants, libraries, parks — limited only by your imagination. You aren’t alone though. As you progress, a pack of delightfully chipper AI Animals, or Villagers, come to inhabit your island, and you can also host your (real life) friends who own a Nintendo Switch console too.
How do we end up suspending our disbelief despite the deliberately cartoonish aesthetic, and fairly simple interactions with the animals?
What design decisions did they make in handling their data, and in building interactions around it?
I try to investigate these questions through observation and example in this text, whilst also making an attempt to justify the obscene number of hours I have invested in the game.
1. Commitment to Metaphors
Since our world became predominantly digital, we have been looking for ways of carrying our older analogue habits to the digital world, as exemplified by Skeuomorphism in the early years of digital design. Clever metaphors are a fascinating way of tying digital interactions to physical rituals, or to produce familiarity, or even delight.
Think diegetic prototypes.
Animal Crossing commits relentlessly to its “deserted island getaway” metaphor. So much so, that the Settings menu of the game is a conversation that you have with the island owner, the Tanuki Racoon, Mr. Tom Nook, for you to request tasks of him, to make your island experience better.
Example 1: Airports and Airplanes
Visiting other players’ islands via the internet could easily have been a simple loading screen, as online multiplayers in other games often are. The choice of using affordances of “arriving” and “departing” are carried with fierce belief that AC is not a game. It is an island getaway, through and through.
A quick refresher on the definition of affordances in design:
“When affordances are taken advantage of, the user knows what to do just by looking: no picture, label, or instruction needed.”
Example 2: Dreams
How do you save your island for posterity? Why, in a dream, of course. And how might you visit your favourite celebrity’s island, or that of a YouTuber that’s not on your friends list? You enter their dream, by going to bed on your magic bed.
Here’s a chart I made to see how AC remains narratively coherent in all its interactions:
These affordances can be deemed as strictly not required for the game’s experience. In a classic Nintendo fashion, they’re there only for the element of fun and make-believe. Had the design principle been speed, efficiency, or that of progression like in most other games, these charismatic metaphoric bits could be labelled as unnecessary effort for the designers and the developers.
The Fjord Trend 2021, “Interaction Wanderlust” underlines the screen-fatigue we’ve all been experiencing in light of our predominantly digital lives. In a time where every service can be availed through a user interface, AC’s take at digital interactions is a breath of fresh air.
As we head into a world with increasing amount of amorphous technology like blockchain or machine learning that have no physical-world parallels, finding clever metaphors and committing to them in design might not only help us exploit them well, but also create delight in daily mundaneness of services.
I continually test the “commitment to metaphors” principle in making my own island on AC. I have made a maker-space within the game, where I can do “crafting”, the game’s feature which lets you make items from raw materials. This way it goes beyond being just a decorative diorama to being a something that’s narratively coherent with the activity of crafting!
2. Data Minimalism and Purposeful Extrapolation
AC knows little about you apart from your chosen birthday and name. It builds on your in-game choices in ways that come back to you at surprising and refreshing points. Remember Fjord’s 2019 trend, “Data minimalism”? That line of thought is very much a principle for interactions in this game.
It’s the extrapolation of the little data from your playing choices, that makes for qualitative outputs rather than large quantities of data needing synthesis.
Example 1: Birthdays
One output of measuring quantitative data in the game is how close friends you are with a villager. In my observation, it is squarely a result of how many times you interact with them, while also being helped by things like gifts you get for each other. However, your stats are never shown in the form of a dashboard, or just numbers. There is no apparent “friendship index” or a made-up-metric like other games are known for.
Instead, you’re rewarded through more qualitative reactions like certain villagers starting to call you their best friend, attending your birthday party, etc.
Compare this to your year in review at Spotify, which is solely based on numbers, and it leaves it to the user to infer the quality of that data. There is no “interaction wrapper” to show the value of that data. As much as I enjoy seeing trends in my music listening habits at the end of the year, I wonder what qualitative conclusions could be reasonably drawn from them. For example, was I brooding with Radiohead on Friday Nights more than I was grooving to Daft Punk?
Example 2: Gifts to your animal friends
This one’s far simpler. You gift something to your animal friend, and they keep it on display in their house. However, the ability to gift an animal friend is unlocked after you’ve had a certain number of chats with him. That’s ’cause you are friends only after getting to know them well, aren’t you? And you shouldn’t take gifts from strangers.
Based on these examples and more, here’s a Villager Friendship Progression Chart I put together:
In a contrast to wanton gathering of data, the legislations that have to be brought about in light of it, and the constant fight to find the best ways of using all that quantity, might we get more value if we looked at the qualitative value of the data that we give and gather?
What qualitative wrappers can we wrap our data in so it creates more value than just presenting numbers in a dashboard?
3. New rituals and likeness to real world elements
Example 1: Remembering Friends
Audrey (a real human that I know in real life) came to meet me on my island, following which, my animals would think of her every once in a while.
There’s also a disembodied presence of a “Mom” in the game, who you receive gifts from, who writes warmly to you every so often.
Example 2: Spreading the Word
Actions that you do spread beyond the villagers that you do them with. Papi once asked me if I could tell him a catchphrase he could use. I went with “Neigh”, because he’s a horse, and it might sound like he’s conversational when he ends a sentence with a word that sounds like “Nay?” Lo and behold, in the next week, even the silly penguin and the deer were saying “Neigh”.
The Fjord Trend 2021, “Rituals Lost and Found” brings forth the idea that as a response to new habits that the pandemic has forced us into, we need to find new ways of working, socialising, having water cooler banter, etc. Animal Crossing has reportedly been a haven to weddings, college graduations, and even work sessions at Fjord.
Animal Crossing locks you in, and makes you make a routine within its world. Escapism from a year as seminal as 2020 to your dream island is fantastic and pure, and it’s shown in Nintendo’s numbers too.
That said, shouldn’t design empower, and not make you dependent on it? In a world where every product and service on every screen demands your attention, how might our escapism escape the screen? Better yet, what’s a world you don’t need to escape from? I bet that world has Papi.
About the Author
I’m Viraj, a Service and Interaction Designer at Fjord Stockholm. I have keen interest in physical/digital interactions, emerging technology, and futures. The previous hats I’ve worn include designer and inventor for a gesture driven interactions technology, and writer and film-maker for some speculative fiction pieces.
Visit my island on Animal Crossing! Dream ID: DA-3195–6814–3614
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