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Entertainment & Arts

What ‘Animal Crossing’ taught me about myself in coronavirus quarantine

Life in "Animal Crossing: New Horizons" presents itself as a welcome break from reality.
(Nintendo)

Every day since it launched in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, the community of “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” has found new ways to inspire. Reports, for instance, of virtual weddings and birthdays taking place in its world illustrate how the Nintendo Switch game is bringing us together at a time when we can’t gather in real life. And plenty are having fun with the game’s creation tools, even finding ways to turn the game’s idyllic setting into something more twisted.

The game, which places players in an island paradise and asks us to shape it into a dream-home / dream-getaway, truly is an interactive work for these stressed-out, stay-at-home, coronavirus times. While far from the only calming game out there, “Animal Crossing” is blessed with a slow pace and daily tasks, a thinly veiled real-life simulator in which where we balance desires and endless debts with daily job-like activities. Only the chores include fishing, catching bugs (stay away from tarantulas) and chopping wood.

In the month or so that I’ve spent with the game (although it was released on March 20, Nintendo provided The Times with a pre-release download), it’s become as necessary to my day as exercising and showering. Roll your eyes, but that’s not an exaggeration. “Animal Crossing” offers both the ability to socialize and the illusion of it, depending on what I’m in the mood for, and provides just enough interaction to keep me engaged to prevent my mind from wandering, but not so much that it becomes an added stressor or task.

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And in this time of social isolation — it’s just me and a cat here in Los Angeles, with most of my friends and loved ones in other cities — “Animal Crossing” has led to plenty of introspection. While one can likely write a book about the raccoon Tom Nook and his borderline predatory lending techniques — essentially, we are trapped, unable to progress along to the game’s larger tasks until we pay off the debt of the current ones — I’m starting to wonder if I should devote my weekly Zoom sessions with my therapist to my “Animal Crossing” habits. It would be more revealing.

Here are some truths that “Animal Crossing” is driving home.

I don't like Clay, and he sneezed on me during a pandemic, but I can't confront him.
(Nintendo)

1. I don’t stand up for myself. Look, I don’t like everyone on my “Animal Crossing” island. Although I overall like the way Kungaloosh is shaping up (I borrowed the name from a drink once served at Walt Disney’s World’s Adventurer’s Club, which you can request at Disneyland’s tiki bar Trader Sam’s), I immediately regretted inviting Clay to Kungaloosh. I thought at first Clay was a bear cub, but I guess Clay is a hamster and I disliked him as soon as he landed. For one, he came in sick, which right now is more than my extreme hypochondria can handle (he literally sneezed on me and then laughed).

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Clay also has a tendency to plant flowers in my flowerbed, in places I don’t want flowers. At least I’m pretty sure it’s Clay as I’ve spotted him wandering my yard quite a few times. Also, when I gifted Clay a T-shirt — which was, admittedly, a re-gift — Clay commented that he hadn’t changed his clothes in days. I know we’re all social distancing, but you still have to bathe.

And yet I’m stuck with Clay. I believe Kungaloosh is a place were everyone is welcome, at least that’s what I say to stop myself from beginning a campaign to force him out. On Saturday when I visited a friend’s island — Londontown — I watched my seemingly nice-in-person pal repeatedly smash a resident over the head with a net and then report the offending neighbor to resident services. Twitter is filled with people doing more drastic things.

I don’t want Clay on my island, but he will be there forever because the thought of confrontation, even in “Animal Crossing,” is too much for me to bear, even when it involves a make-believe hamster.

Social distancing doesn’t mean not being social. These games, an inherently social medium, can help you stay calm and keep in touch with other people.
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My home in "Animal Crossing" is just like my home in real life -- a collection of random stuff with no real organization. Compared to my friends, the state of my digital home makes me feel insecure.
(Nintendo)

2. “Animal Crossing” is reinforcing my low self-worth and extreme class consciousnesses. I have big plans for Kungaloosh. One can buy, if one saves up enough perks from the game’s mileage-plus-like program, a Disneyland-style teacup ride. Someday, if I play my miles and my bells (“Animal Crossing” for money) right, I’ll have a little theme park on Kungaloosh (I love theme parks).

But I doubt I’ll ever get there. I want to play the game with friends, which means people can come to the island today, when I have little. I don’t want them to look down on me, so I spend every bell and mile on random knickknacks to make other visitors think I have things besides debt.

And still, my house is a mess, my campground is dull and I haven’t used the game’s tools to craft any cool-looking signs. Other people’s islands have paths and are already filled with resort-like amenities. I’m jealous. I want nice things. And I can’t afford them, even in “Animal Crossing.” I found out today, via this article by Patricia Hernandez in Polygon, that such thoughts are relatively common, as Hernandez quoted one player as feeling “shabby and inadequate.”

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That’s me, on the daily. Heck, every time I sit on my couch, which is currently my office, I hear the echoing words of a date from four years ago who said, “You need a new couch, dude.” Her words haunt me like some sort of capitalistic ghost. But back to “Animal Crossing.” The problem now is, with so many playing “Animal Crossing,” and the game dominating many a social-media feed, it’s sort of become a new form of Instagram-envy. I now know that the three or four fish I catch daily are worthless, a fact I came to by checking the work Slack channel dedicated to “Animal Crossing” (yes, we have one), which constantly reminds me I haven’t caught a stringfish.

Apparently they are rare. All the cool kids with the cool couches and the cool neighbors — neighbors who aren’t Clay the Hamster — probably have a stringfish.

This is not a stringfish.
(Nintendo)
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3. I talk myself out of everything and too often accomplish nothing. As I said above, I want that Disneyland-style teacup ride. But what’s the point, since I’m going to need a way for guests get to that park. I’ll need a bridge, but a bridge is a few hundred thousand bells — a bridge to a theme park can’t just be any bridge — and then I’m going to need an archway, and then some other things for my residents and visitors to do at the park. This seems time-consuming and expensive, I say. Better to just buy that pirate ship in a bottle and put it next to my digital bed. This is how my brain works in “Animal Crossing,” and this is too often how my brain operates in real life.

In fact, this moment kind of hit close home. Sitting on my nightstand right now is a little Haunted Mansion toy that plays the ride’s theme song and says, “Welcome foolish mortals.” If I can’t concoct my own rides, at least I’ve got some cool little gadgets. And in “Animal Crossing” that teacup ride is maybe a week’s work. I spent a day fishing and catching some bugs, but I’m no closer to that Disneyland-style teacup ride than I was 24 hours ago.

Maybe in “Animal Crossing,” just as in real life, I’m only running in place? Occasionally this thought will creep into my head and I’ll turn the game off and turn back on NPR. But after about five minutes of coronavirus news, I’m plugging myself back into Kungaloosh.


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