To no one’s surprise, gaming has seen a sharp increase during the pandemic. However, the explosive popularity of Animal Crossing and similar games (such as Stardew Valley and Harvest Moon) has been especially notable, as I, and many of my friends, have explicitly bought a Nintendo Switch to play the game for goodness sake.
It’s questionable if the inherent cuteness of Animal Crossing is enough of a selling point to justify the craze, especially considering that the series’ first game released in 2001 and the game hasn’t changed much in its basic content since. Instead, I’d argue that the release date of Animal Crossing: New Horizons being at the very beginning of Europe’s first lockdown (March 2020) had an immense influence on the initial trend, and the game dynamics played into the continued popularity, which also influenced the revival of games in the same genre.
For those living under a rock – or (understandably) unwilling to pay for a 200 Euro console and a 60 Euro game – the premise of Animal Crossing is that you move to your own getaway island which you are free to terraform and decorate to your liking. For this, however, you need resources, which leads to repetitive resource gathering tasks that you attempt to fulfill every day to advance in island designing. The only real plot provided is the continuous debt (with no interest!) you have to pay off to Tom Nook with every house advancement you purchase and the goal of getting the famous K.K. Slider to perform on your island, which is achieved by making your island look nice enough. That’s enough for game mechanics. Now on why I think this game was the perfect game for the pandemic and why Stardew Valley is now gaining a resurgence for the same reason (bold claim alert: I think Stardew Valley is better than Animal Crossing, by the way – my co-author would strongly disagree).
For one, not only did the release of the game perfectly coincide with lockdown numero uno, but it also is not a game that requires much concentration. It is rather whimsical and you can decide how much or how little you want to do as the days progress. There are no enemies to either fight or outsmart and there are also no in-game penalties for failure. It allows for low-effort distraction, providing a – sometimes very much needed – escape from reality.
Additionally, not only is the game cute, but it also plays into a feeling of control and our capability to enforce change. The game progresses at the rate that the player sets, but due to the game being indefinite with no prescribed ending, the player is also not under pressure to meet any type of deadline, despite the game following a real-time clock and calendar.
Due to how the game is set up, many of us have probably already moved on from the period of logging into our island daily to check in on our residents or water our flowers. Yet due to the setup – even if you log back in years down the line, your island having become weed-infested – the game and your sweet animal residents will still welcome you back with open arms.
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