Videogames

Crossing Art, Politics, and Anthropomorphic Animals

I live part of my life in Animal Crossing. I realize this is not a unique statement to make at this point in time and arguably the Animal Crossing: New Horizons video game is popular enough that it doesn’t really sit in the cultural gutter, but that’s precisely what makes me want to write about it. It’s always interesting to me when something that might usually be treated as “low art” or seen as for kids not only crosses over into being widely acclaimed and beloved, but merges with “high art” and mainstream culture. I can safely say that I never expected to see the Metropolitan Museum and a U.S. presidential candidate seriously engaging with a video game about living on an island with anthropomorphic animals, and that seems worth talking about.  

Let me start by saying that I hadn’t planned to buy a Nintendo Switch. My son saved up to buy one for himself and I figured I’d probably play Animal Crossing New Horizons with him a little and then get tired of it, but once I started playing and connected with friends who were also playing, I got sucked in. I still couldn’t stomach the idea of buying myself my own Switch to play one game, so on the days my son was at his mom’s house I watched the instant messages scroll by in the AC chat group from my friends who were busy creating their islands and visiting each other. It didn’t take long for me to realize that it was actually worth spending the money for a chance to be part of that world.  

It was partly the game itself, and partly the current cultural moment where virtual reality makes up so much of our lives and many of us are longing more than ever for a world that is kind and fair. I can’t leave town to get out into nature, but I can run through the trees and watch the sunset on my very own virtual island. I can’t visit my best friend or parents and go for a walk under the stars with them, but my friends and I can stand together at the edge of the virtual ocean and wish on falling stars together. We can wear hilarious outfits and chase each other around with butterfly nets like something out of a vintage slapstick movie, and have sweet conversations with our adorable animal villagers. It is remarkably rewarding, and it’s also amazing interactive art.

The amount of work that must have gone into designing ACNH is incredible. I wrote a whole bunch about all the things I like and then cut it out because it’s probably not very interesting to read. There are almost 400 animal villagers you can get in the game, with quirky scripts and a wide variety of aesthetics, and the friendship mechanic makes you feel like you’re really getting to know them over time. The landscapes are lovely and it’s surprisingly peaceful and meditative to wander around your island fishing, diving for sea creatures, and watching the sunset. There are also tons of critters, outfits, furniture, and crafting items you can collect, but I think one of the things that has made ACNH resonate with so many people is all the opportunities to create your own art and connect with other people.

One of the first things that opens up on your new island is an airport, and there’s a great series of cut scenes that goes with visiting other islands, including an aerial view as you fly in while they watch you walk through their airport gates in whatever outfit you’ve picked out. You get to decorate your own home, landscape your island, and dress up your avatar, and then you can invite people over to hang out in your virtual living room with you. Or your fairy garden, robotic basement, flowery greenhouse, haunted mansion…you get the picture. Personally, I have a lovely rustic den and an attic full of jack-o-lantern-headed scarecrows gathered around a cauldron. It’s possible to invite either friends or strangers to visit your island in real time and interact with them, but you can also create a Dream Island, which is a snapshot of your island at a specific point in time that anyone with the code can visit and experience when they lie down in a bed to sleep.

Up to this point, Animal Crossing probably pretty much just sounds like a really great game that I love, but here’s where it crosses over into something bigger. Folks have realized that a bunch of the things that we can’t do in real life during a global pandemic, you can make happen virtually in Animal Crossing. One of the high-priced items at the Nook’s Cranny shop is a wedding ring and there are all kinds of custom designs for bridal gowns and suits to choose from, so some creative people who can’t have their friends and family physically come to their wedding have designed the whole thing in ACNH and held the ceremony virtually on their island. Comedian Jenny Yang designed a comedy club in her ACNH house, where she hosts digital stand-up shows called Comedy Crossing with a rotating group of comedians and screens it “live” through Zoom. They use the mechanics of the game, like the ability to change outfits with a magic wand or pull enormous fish out of your pockets, as part of their gags.   

It’s not just individuals, though – Animal Crossing has such a large following that it has apparently become a legitimate advertising/social media channel of its own. It boggled my mind when I found out that Joe Biden’s campaign for the U.S. presidency included a custom Animal Crossing dream island called “Biden HQ”. You can visit a tiny virtual campaign office and polling station, interact with Joe’s avatar, and of course chat with of all of the adorable animal villagers. Whoever came up with that deserves kudos, both for cleverly recognizing that this isn’t just a time-wasting recreational activity but something that is filling a real emotional need in unusual times, and also for creating a pretty awesome job for themselves playing ACNH professionally.

Animal Crossing is essentially lo-fi virtual reality, created at the intersection of technology, virtual interaction, and imagination. Rather than locating the experience of something as real in the physical perception of it simulated with cool goggles and tech gadgetry, ACNH creates an immediately accessible and playable space where real people can interact through virtual versions of themselves in virtual environments but in a way that feels real. I love that they’ve taken something that could easily be treated like a silly game for kids and designed it well enough to give adults what they really need in the form of fubsy little cartoon animals.

Another thing that I was totally surprised by is that you can search the Metropolitan and Getty Museum catalogues for art to hang on the walls of your virtual home. There’s a design tool in the game that you can use to create your own patterns for clothing, art, or paths and share them where anyone else playing can access them on their own island from a terminal in the Able Sisters virtual clothing shop. I used it to dress up as Jack Skellington for Halloween and put the X-Files “I want to believe” poster on my wall, but there are so many possibilities and so many talented creators posting designs. You can also use an internet tool to convert an image to the Animal Crossing design format, and several major museums have made their open catalogues available to be searched and imported into the game. I feel like there’s a point in the not too distant past when the idea that Met Museum would be promoting art through a video game would have been almost as inconceivable as the existence of a virtual presidential island populated with talking animals.   

One of the main aspects of Animal Crossing that I think has made it so many people’s happy place this year, though, is that it’s just so darn nice! It’s like your very own Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. The villagers have fights but they’re not mean about it, and they often ask you to take presents to each other to make up for it. It’s a capitalist system with Tom Nook the raccoon charging an arm and a leg for everything you want to build, but it’s cartoonishly over the top and also money literally grows on trees. Money trees. Need more? Wait a few days. Need more fish? Just keep running around the beaches and they appear. Want more trees? Go to a deserted island and put a bunch in your pocket to bring home.

It’s a world of endlessly renewable resources on a planet that is facing an environmental crisis where the news is full of stories about pollution, extreme weather, melting ice caps, sunken islands, burning forests, and water shortages (I enjoyed Tank Girl, but I definitely don’t want to visit that island). It’s a world of new lands that are truly deserted rather than the terrible history of the places many of us live, which were not deserted when colonizers decided to build their own worlds on top of them and cleared the path by way of genocide and slavery. It’s a generous world where everyone is kind to each other and everything is fair in the face of the real one, where it is such a struggle to get people to treat each other with respect and find solutions that keep everyone equally safe.

I think the popularity of Animal Crossing is a sign that an awful lot of people really do want that better world. As long as we use ACNH to recharge, connect, and give ourselves hope, then bring that energy back into our real lives, I think that it’s a really good thing. We just have to resist the temptation to completely disappear into a fantasy where everything is better while the world around us burns.

~~~

alex MacFadyen definitely has no cauldrons in his real life attic. None at all.

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