Last March, as states and cities were locking down to curb the spread of COVID-19, I found myself on an island paradise. While it was woefully underdeveloped, I worked hard to build up the island, progressing from a humble tent to a humble home, slowly paying off my loan to local developer Tom Nook, an anthropomorphic raccoon dog.
The island, of course, wasn’t real—it was the setting of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the latest in a series of life simulators from Nintendo, released on March 20, 2020, the same day Cuomo issued a stay-at-home order in New York. The game took the world by storm, becoming the best-selling entry in the long-running franchise.
It’s not hard to understand why: while people were trapped inside their homes, uncertain of the future, Animal Crossing provided a sense of control and relief from real life. You could also visit your friends’ islands, turning Animal Crossing into a sort of metaverse that I’m sure Mark Zuckerberg was salivating over.
Once businesses started opening up and people started seeing each other again, the need for Animal Crossing died down, and all but the most devoted players left their islands to rot. Last month, Nintendo announced a massive 2.0 update to Animal Crossing that brings Brewster (the owl barista), cooking, new shops, a storage shed, and more, along with a paid expansion where you can design vacation homes for other characters. Both of these drop later this week.
But will that be enough to bring people back into the Animal Crossing fold? I can’t help but think of Jack from the TV series LOST, at the end of season three, pleading to Kate that they have to find their way back to the mysterious island they crash landed on three seasons ago. Will pandemic Animal Crossing players be the largely indifferent Kate, driving away while Nintendo screams “We have to go back”?
To help answer that question, I turned to three of my friends who played Animal Crossing: New Horizons throughout the pandemic. I featured all three of them in Museum of You, my video zine about the places we live in and the stuff we own. During the pandemic, I couldn’t go to people’s homes to film new videos, but I could visit Animal Crossing islands to see how people were living in virtual worlds.
When I visited Patrick’s island, Goodness, in May 2020, he hadn’t progressed very far. Preferring to think of his island as an anarchist worker’s commune, it was difficult for him to make much headway with the Nook Company in charge.
He won’t be back to Goodness any time soon. “I started playing early in the pandemic as the victim of both popular hysteria and non-aggressive peer pressure.” Unfortunately, the game just wasn’t for him. “I stopped playing like a week after. Mostly because I have serious unaddressed issues that make it hard for me to sit still.”
When asked if he ever thinks about the islanders he left behind, Patrick told me that he assumes they’re fine. “I hope they inherited it and made it their own. I hope they are kind to one another. I hope they eventually gutted the colonial mindset of whatever that parent company was. I hope they shook their unhealthy obsession with expansion and discovery. I hope they took more time to realize the beauty of the world around them. I hope they have hope that there is more than all this.”
While Patrick will not be returning his Animal Crossing island, he is looking forward to the upcoming Pokémon Diamond and Pearl remakes.
Of the three people whose islands I featured on Museum of You, Kathryn is the most familiar with the Animal Crossing franchise. While she wasn’t allowed to play video games as a kid, she was taught how to play Animal Crossing by the son of a family friend. “My sister and I would spend every visit holed up in their basement in our pajamas ruining the son’s town.” She decided to buy a Nintendo Switch and New Horizons before the pandemic had even started.
In Animal Crossing, Kathryn is a hoarder—she even made secondary characters on her island so she could have more storage space for all of her digital goods. Her island also featured a collection of creepy dolls and rotting seaweed.
Kathryn played regularly for a year, but after completing her collection of bugs, fish, and fossils at the island museum, she lost steam. “I also moved, started a new grad program, and just generally had less time in real life.”
A few weeks ago, she visited her island for the first time in months. “I had forgotten who was on my island! Apparently I had let two creepy horses move in.”
Kathryn isn’t interested in the paid expansion, but she does anticipate coming back to the game after the 2.0 update. “I like all the goofy little tasks of unlocking stores and building new buildings, so I’ll play for long enough to get those set up. I am still a proud Animal Crossing hoarder, so I’ll expand my storage and build a storage shed I’m sure!”
Like many of us, Alexis started playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons because she needed something to do in quarantine (“and because someone I had a crush on was playing it a lot at the time if I’m being honest”). For a time, she visited her island crönchwrap, named in honor of the Taco Bell menu item, for hours every day, but she gradually dropped off.
“I had to start studying for the bar exam pretty intensely and didn’t have as much free time as before.” She started playing less frequently, and then not at all, “because it emotionally shattered me when my villagers made comments like ‘wow haven’t seen you in a while!’ My fear of being bullied by my islanders when I return is a primary reason I don’t play anymore.”
“I think of them often,” she adds.
She would occasionally boot up the game just to pull weeds, then get stressed and give up. While the 2.0 update is appealing, she likely won’t play again because of the “aforementioned weeds.”
“If I could pay $15 to have someone go clean everything up and leave a fresh start for me, maybe.” If you or someone you know is interested in an easy $15, get in touch!
Are you going back?
Like my friends’ islands, my own island, Okapi, has long been abandoned. While I might pop in for a bit after the 2.0 update drops, I don’t anticipate returning full-time—I have Pokémon to capture and train instead.
What about you? Does your Animal Crossing island now lay dormant? Or are you still going strong over a year after your stay in paradise began? Sound off in the comments.
crazy to think that everyone on the island is dead and the “crossing” in animal crossing refers to crossing to the other side.