'Animal Crossing: New Horizons' provides welcome break during quarantine

Posted 4/5/20

A deserted island getaway sounds like a dream until the island is your house and your stay there is mandated by the government. Gamers of all ages are passing time during the COVID-19 pandemic with a sleeper hit from Nintendo Switch called “Animal Crossing: New Horizons.”

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'Animal Crossing: New Horizons' provides welcome break during quarantine


A deserted island getaway sounds like a dream until the island is your house and your stay there is mandated by the government. Gamers of all ages are passing time during the COVID-19 pandemic with a sleeper hit from Nintendo Switch called “Animal Crossing: New Horizons.”

The game, the fifth installment of a series that was introduced in 2002, is being hailed as “the distraction we all need right now.” As one NBC News headline put it, “In this time of social distancing, it turns out that a trip to a calming island where all you have to do is build houses and plant trees is the perfect escape.”

The game has no sex and no violence (unless you count the threat of wasp stings and tarantula bites) and is on its way to becoming the best-selling video game of all time in Japan. Here in the United States, stores were selling out of the Nintendo Switch console on March 21, the day after it was released, and certain social media feeds have been filled with screenshots of the islands that players are designing and houses they’re decorating.

Some players have also started hosting ceremonies within the game that have gotten canceled in the real world such as weddings and graduations. Even if you can’t visit those you love right now, you can still jet over to their deserted island or throw a party for them on your own.

"'Animal Crossing: New Horizons' is a feel-good experience," Bill Trinen, senior director of product marketing at Nintendo of America, said in an email to "Good Morning America." "It's a game about comfort, warmth and the simple joys that can be discovered through interacting with nature and meeting friends."

At our house, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” has replaced “Pokemon” as the game of choice. My husband and son started playing late last week. Though I don’t play, it has been surprisingly relaxing for me to watch them walk around their respective islands, fishing in the ocean, catching bugs and redesigning their tents (which get upgraded to houses as soon as they pay off the loan they received from a racoon named Tom).

The game begins with a player walking into a travel agency run by Nook Inc. Four island designs are presented, and the player gets to choose one that will serve as his or her getaway. Players also choose their real-life hemisphere because the seasons on their island will match the ones outside their window. The game syncs up with the time of day that person is playing and sometimes the weather as well.

Next comes the flight to the island. By the time you arrive, you are already in debt to Tom Nook. You pay off this debt by collecting Nook miles, which you earn from achievements within the game like catching 10 fish or taking a picture.

The first order of business upon arrival is setting up tents for oneself and two other animal villagers. Players can choose an ocean view or put down stakes in the island’s interior. Players are then free to proceed at their own pace racking up achievements that will help them pay off their debt.

As the game progresses, players shift from not only upgrading their houses to building bridges and adding venues to the island like a museum. The latter requires the player to put up a tent for a very talkative owl named Blathers and show him 15 bugs, fish or fossils. Once the museum is built, the player scours the island for creatures to put on display in the museum.

Gameplay requires tools like shovels, fishing poles, nets, axes and slingshots which are always breaking so that the player must return to the island plaza to buy more. In time, players acquire DIY recipes that allow them to make their own more durable tools.

This week marked the beginning of an in-game event called Bunny Day, which has players scouring the island for different kinds of eggs that unlock outfits, furniture and home décor.

While I’m sure my husband and son would rattle off their frustrations of the moment if asked, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” seems to be a pretty relaxing game. While they spent about two days paying off their debt to Tom Nook, I’m told that you can also just spend the whole day hanging out by the shore if that’s what you feel like doing. You can be a high achiever or a bum. Either way, nobody is going to take your tent from you.

While doing some research on the game, I learned that it is a classic example of grinding, defined as doing the same tasks over and over again in order to progress through the game.  The author of one article titled “Why Animal Crossing calms you down, explained,” suggested calling it “gentle progression” instead.

Jennifer Scheurle, the author, said that the game is designed to allow players to go at a leisurely pace.

“Because its clock is in sync with real-world time, and much of its progression is gated behind actions you can only do a certain amount of on a daily basis, you’re forced to slow down and smell the flowers,” she wrote. “You can’t chase after the next task, because the next task often won’t be available until tomorrow. Without the ability to progress more, you’re left with time to engage with collecting materials, decorating your island, and making friends with the villagers.”

Though Nintendo had no way of knowing that the latest version of an 18-year-old video game was going to be released in the midst of a stressful global shutdown, it seems that the moment has chosen the game rather than the game company choosing the moment.