Urban legend has it that Isaac Newton invented calculus while working remotely from home as the black plague ripped through Cambridge. In a nod to this tradition, I have spent much of my downtime amid the COVID-19 quarantine thinking about Animal Crossing, a life simulation game released for the Gamecube in 2002. The fifth entry into the series, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, released today on the Nintendo Switch.
Animal Crossing is, at its core, a celebration of small pleasures. Where other games reward players for kill counts or quick reflexes and terminate in a definitive conclusion, Animal Crossing sets no discernible purpose or goal for players other than to help others and enjoy themselves along the way. It’s just a happy coincidence that this latest entry arrives as the world falls apart outside.
In an oddly delightful way, Animal Crossing more closely reflects what it means to live a good life than perhaps any other game. The McGuffin of the series is to pay off your mortgage. To the extent that the series has a story at all, you are new to a small town, inhabited by animals, and you need to incrementally dig yourself out of debt. What comes next is up to you.
Watch any of the innumerable “Let’s Play” series for the game on YouTube, in which people film themselves playing Animal Crossing, and you will see how many possible ways there are to play it. One player may try to set the record for how fast she can pay off her mortgage. Another may spend all day designing fabrics in the shop or furnishing his home from the catalog. A third may cultivate relationships with the locals just to see what they will say.
The game clock runs in real-time, meaning that players are expected to play for short spells across a long time horizon to enjoy the full experience. The only strategy, really, is to keep at it and be open to surprises. Real-world holidays and seasons are reflected in the game and provide a kind of drumbeat of progression, but beyond that, players bring the story.
Part of the beauty of Animal Crossing’s depiction of everyday life is that it is non-judgemental. Where so much of our media shame impulses to build a home or collect things that make us happy as crass consumerism, the series appreciates this as natural and perhaps even admirable. One of the great joys of the game, for example, involves simply sharing your home with other players.
For all the talk of the corrupting influence of money, the relationships that drive the game often start as transactional. Animal Crossing’s resident shopkeeper, the raccoon Tom Nook, starts as your mortgage lender, becomes your boss, and finally your friend. Friendships with other animals likewise start with running favors for cash. Whether by accident or design, the world of Animal Crossing is a kind of egalitarian capitalist utopia of homeowners and shopkeepers.
According to one interview, the idea for Animal Crossing first came to series creator Katsuya Eguchi after moving 300 miles from his hometown of Chiba to Nintendo Headquarters in Kyoto. Missing the company of friends and family, Eguchi wanted to create a game about building and maintaining relationships. The series’ resulting aura of small-town stability undoubtedly attracts many to the game.
Yet as James Newton observes in Nintendo Life, Animal Crossing could equally be interpreted as a game about striking it out on your own. Entries to the series begin with the player arriving in town with nothing more than the clothes on your back. Don’t be deceived by the surface-level calm, either. Animals frequently move in and out of the town, businesses steadily grow and vegetation changes as residents remake their environment. Animal Crossing is, principally, a meditation on cultivation and growth.
Its therapeutic value in this regard has not gone unnoticed. Video essays abound about how Animal Crossing helped players get through tough periods. Indeed, as millions of Americans prepare to spend the indefinite future in their homes, with uncertainty swirling around them and careers taking a backseat, there is a lot to be learned from Animal Crossing. You may not invent calculus, but maybe that’s not what life is all about.
Nolan Gray is a research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a Senior Contributor to Young Voices. Follow him on Twitter.