By Josh Joseph
Tess Bergman was bedridden for two weeks. Upon testing positive for COVID-19, she was forced to self-quarantine in her Ronkonkoma home. But a strange new world came to her rescue, in the form of Animal Crossing: New Horizons — a recent release for her Nintendo Switch. Developing and cultivating a miniature digital island full of plants and wildlife kept her sane.
“It basically carried me through the days I couldn’t get out of bed,” Bergman said. “I wouldn’t have played it nearly as much if that wasn’t the case, and I feel everyone having to stay at home, regardless of their health status, has given them more time to play it.”
For 7.5 million Long Islanders, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought on a time of physical and social isolation. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s statewide PAUSE order, enacted on March 20, has forced all but the most essential businesses to close until at least May 15. CDC guidelines are encouraging people to remain at home and socially distance from each other. But Animal Crossing: New Horizons has helped bridge that gap.
New Horizons, like previous entries in the 19-year-old Animal Crossing series, is a life simulation game. There’s no conflict, no enemies or bosses to fight. Instead, players inhabit their own deserted islands. The challenges the game presents are fundamentally low-stakes: weeding grassy fields, fishing, bug-catching, crafting furniture and paying off home loans.
“The game moves as fast as you want it to,” Brooke Lamere, a player from Seaford, said. “You just do your silly little tasks, and it means nothing really, but it also feels good to work towards something — even if that something is ‘nothing.’”
As players slowly progress through New Horizons, each island becomes its own community, full of artificially intelligent animal villagers. The plot moves forward in real time, often making players wait days to get goods shipped or finish construction projects.
“In general, games have always been set up for very fast consumption, and even games that are very long tend to push you to the end as fast as possible,” Federico Fasce, a game designer and lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, said. “In Animal Crossing, everything is done to make you take your time. And I think it’s something that we really need to learn right now, because we are in a situation where we have way more free time, because we don’t have to commute, we don’t have a lot of things that we had before.”
New Horizons’ online mode allows players to use their island’s airport to travel to other islands and explore with each other. Ordinarily, this feature would simply be convenient, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become a vital way for friends to have fun together while maintaining social distance.
“It’s really nice to see friends who I haven’t seen in a while,” Winnie Lu, an Animal Crossing player from Ronkonkoma, said. “It’s just a nice conversational medium and it’s like a ‘Hey, let’s FaceTime so we can play Animal Crossing and catch up’ kind of deal.”
Players are finding new ways to replicate real-life social gatherings on their islands. Some are throwing birthday parties for their friends. One New Jersey couple, frustrated after multiple postponements, held their wedding within the game. And recently, the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, which has been closed to the public since March 12, began giving virtual tours in New Horizons’ museum.
“I think you’re seeing a lot of ingenious ways that people… are hanging out with people, or miming hanging out with people,” Alyssa Mercante, a reporter at GamesRadar+, said. “Animal Crossing happens to be one of those games where you can do that very, very easily.”
Beyond the game world itself, Animal Crossing players are congregating in online groups. On Twitter, fans share memes about the game and commiserate over common grievances. The community is a respite for people bombarded by news of a world in crisis.
“I do feel like our generation in general is definitely going through a shit-ton mentally, as it seems like our futures are looking more and more bleak,” Jessica Figueroa, an Animal Crossing player from Farmingville, said. “Having a tiny outlet where we can pretty much escape from negativity… helps us feel like maybe the world isn’t just all terrible.”
On Discord, a private group-messaging platform, players have created local groups to play with classmates and neighbors. Duy Bui, a student at Stony Brook University, made one such group for the college friends he could no longer see in real life.
“I am actually very lucky that I get to join a group with other SBU students,” Bui said. “We discuss a lot and also help each other by trading items and stuff… Animal Crossing is where we spend time with each other.”
New Horizons’ emergence during the pandemic has propelled the Animal Crossing series to new heights of popularity. In Japan alone, it sold 1.88 million physical copies in its first weekend, more than any other Switch game in that time frame, according to data from Famitsu. And new data suggests that in its first month, it became the most digitally-downloaded console game in history, according to SuperData.
The success of the game has had a dramatic impact on Nintendo’s supply chain. The Switch, which hadn’t experienced supply shortages since its launch in 2017, is now selling out at retailers across the U.S. Second-hand sellers are flipping the consoles for big profits as people in isolation clamor to entertain themselves during the pandemic.
This may be the peak of New Horizons’ success, but its cultural effect will likely linger long after the pandemic ends.
“It’s a strange combination of a horrible global pandemic and a cute, pure game about animal villagers,” Mercante said. “It’s definitely one of the weirdest societal things that I think we’ll see in this lifetime… This will be something that, if it’s not in a social studies book, I’d be shocked.”
For now, Nintendo is trying to keep players engaged in their virtual communities with seasonal events that emulate real-world holidays like Earth Day and Easter. With these updates, New Horizons continues to provide respite for a world in quarantine.