As the COVID-19 pandemic caused global lockdowns and mass panic, a game came along that turned out to be exactly what we needed.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons – about making friends with neighbours and the joys of community and everyday life – was released on March 20, 2020. People pounced on it.
The Nintendo Switch game is the fifth main title in the Animal Crossing series that began in 2001. According to Nintendo’s 2020 financial report, it sold 11.77 million units in the 11 days after its launch.
In December 2020, Nintendo reported that over 31 million copies had been sold.
One year on, Nintendo continues to release new content as the gaming community reflects on the cultural impact Animal Crossing: New Horizons has had on people worldwide.
Melbourne gamer Arin Oliver, 30, says the game came at the best possible time.
Generationally, [young people] have this longing for a sense of home and community which we already weren’t getting, and then COVID lockdown hit and that sense of community was moved even further away from us. Then, right at that moment, Animal Crossing came out and gave people something they really needed.
The sense of community is not just out of game or in multiplayer situations – the animals that inhabit the player’s island cheer them on, send them gifts and help each other out in a way that inspires the player to do the same.
Oliver’s sentiments are shared by other Animal Crossing players, many of whom didn’t regularly play video games before its release and used it as way to comment with friends during lockdowns.
Facebook groups dedicated to the game remain active, some with upwards of 400,000 members who post daily to share tips, help other players, and enthuse about the game and its impact on them.
In one group, 1591 people responded to a survey that asked what level of impact the game had had on them since its release. Of those who responded, 75 per cent said the game had a major positive impact on their mental health.
Overcoming isolation through play
Many players used the multiplayer function of Animal Crossing: New Horizons as a substitute for in-person interaction while stuck at home.
Harry Blight began playing the franchise on his commute to the city, after moving to regional Victoria. For him, the game holds a comforting nostalgia.
Blight began creating in-game events for his friends so they could see one another virtually during isolation, holding trading events and markets.
He is a member of a small Facebook group that, at the height of Victorian COVID-19 lockdown measures, played together almost daily to stay connected.
The ability for players to “visit” one another and interact positively in a low-pressure situation appealed to many more than just the usual game players. It generated Twitter anecdotes on celebrities, sports stars and politicians around the globe, playing with others as a means of connecting.
A sense of normality
For players such as Blight, Animal Crossing: New Horizons provided a sense of routine and normality to get them through lockdown when days began to blur into one.
He says the changing of the seasons and passage of time within the game kept him sane.
The game’s internal clock runs on the same time as the real world, a feature that many similar life and community simulation-focused games—such as Stardew Valley—don’t have.
There are daily tasks, such as the changeover of stock in the stores, ever-growing plants and trees and collectibles that are only available at certain times of the day or year.
Villagers even question where the player has been if they don’t log on for an extended amount of time and can move away if they’re not spoken to enough.
These gameplay mechanics encourage players to return every day to engage with their island, something that had a likely unintended impact on people struggling to find routine while stuck at home.
Blight says the game helped give structure to his day.
“Just having that routine of getting up every morning, playing Animal Crossing and then starting my day helped a lot because it made me feel like I was actually doing something and not just sitting at home in my pyjamas. It was a great relief to have that stress and routine in-game, to help me get into a routine as well,” he says.
Mhairi McIntyre from Melbourne says that while the routine of the game helped her through lockdown, she also found a sense of escapism and distraction through playing.
“It sort of acted like a security blanket, just something that was light, cute and fun to distract me from being inside all day. It was the consistency of it that helped the most, I think, since all the lockdown days blended into one another to form one long endless year.”
Animal Crossing was the game that kept each day interesting.
A new generation of players
Animal Crossing is one of a handful of games that has seen success across the board, from hardcore gamers, casual players, and non-gamers.
Nintendo’s May 2020 financial statement revealed that the majority of Animal Crossing players were aged between 20 and 30, a major shift from the demographic of previous franchise instalments.
While for many, the nostalgia of playing a game they grew up with as kids was a major selling point, for many more this was one of the first few games they regularly played and engaged with.
McIntyre describes herself as a “casual gamer” who has avoided playing many multiplayer games in the past and hadn’t played any games in the franchise prior to New Horizons.
“I have never been so obsessed with a game before like I am with New Horizons.”
A cultural shift
Animal Crossing: New Horizons continues to be a sales powerhouse. It is one of Nintendo’s best-selling games, with higher sales than almost every previous franchise instalment combined.
However, sales figures don’t communicate the entire picture of the wide impact the game has had on a global community of players.
At its core, the game is about building connections and community, a message that has resonated with players during a time when they feel more isolated than ever before.
While the gaming community is often painted as toxic or competitive, Animal Crossing: New Horizons pushes against this with a slower paced, journey-focused gameplay that has no definitive end.
With such a large onslaught of new players learning to take things slow and enjoy the process, players like Oliver suggest that this has signalled a potential change in the gaming and wider communities.
Time and time again Animal Crossing: New Horizons has been lauded as being released exactly when it was needed in the world, purely by coincidence.
It’s difficult to predict whether any long-term shift in gaming culture or general lifestyle and attitudes will come from the game.
But for Oliver and many others, this ongoing impact is less important than the acute respite Animal Crossing: New Horizons provided millions when it was released a year ago.
“Animal Crossing [was about] embracing positivity in a time when people really needed it.”