“A life simulator that imparts life lessons to its players.”


Available on: Nintendo Switch

A Gaming Experience Unlike Any Other

If you’re an avid fan of the Animal Crossing series of video games, chances are you have tried to explain the game to someone who has never played it before. This is no small task, as it is a game that is difficult to define. I love starting my explanation of Animal Crossing with the simple truth that there is no overall purpose to the game. There is no main goal that you have to achieve, no quests to fulfill, no missions to go on, and no end game to reach. Your character does not fight or commit violent acts of any kind. The in-game world does not need to be saved, and will continue on regardless of how much or how little you play the game. You just simply exist in the game world, and can do what you want to do and avoid the things you find tedious.

After hearing this, most gamers will reply with something like “Then what is the point of the game?” And they have a fair point. The vast majority of games out there are nothing like Animal Crossing. We have been conditioned as gamers to expect certain things from the games we play. Some games have different levels to be conquered. Others have high scores that we try to beat. Still others see us saving the world from imminent danger. Sometimes we simply inherit our grandfather’s farm and seek to restore it to its former glory. On occasion we play a character who has been wronged, and we are out for vengeance or to clear our names. When a game like Animal Crossing subverts our expectations by proudly declaring that there is no purpose at all, many of us would be left scratching our heads and wondering why we would waste our time playing a game with no way to gauge our progress or give us a sense of accomplishment.

Despite the lack of a clear goal or purpose, Animal Crossing players find a multitude of ways to engage themselves. Some really get into decorating their houses and their island, trying to get that coveted 5 star island rating or a high score from the HHA. Others seek to make an in-game fortune playing the Stalk Market every week, checking turnip prices daily and fervently hoping to make upward of 600 bells per turnip. Still others use the game as more of a social experience, working to increase their friendships with their animal neighbors or playing the game with real-life friends as a substitute for getting together in person in a pandemic. Some players treat the game as one big collect-a-thon, attempting to collect all in-game items over the course of their playthrough. And truth be told, most of its players incorporate all of these different playstyles (and more!) into their personalized Animal Crossing experience.

A MObile Game Without a Phone

The first game in the Animal Crossing series was released for the Nintendo GameCube in 2002 in North America. There was no other game quite like it at the time. It was a social simulation video game providing players the opportunity to pick and choose what to do, ensuring a diversity of playstyles. It was an empowering experience for the player as well, as no previous title was as open-ended as Animal Crossing. Don’t like to fish or catch bugs? Then don’t. Hate talking to Blathers in the museum? You didn’t need to complete the museum collection if you didn’t want to. Have an annoying neighbor? You could choose to annoy them or ignore them, in the hopes of them deciding to pack up and move away.

But the biggest difference in my opinion between Animal Crossing and other games was how time passed in-game. Other games let the player dictate when they would come back to the game to continue their experience. In Animal Crossing, time passed regardless of whether or not the player was playing the game. If you didn’t get around to playing on Halloween or Toy Day (Christmas), then you did not get to participate in those holiday festivals. If you didn’t play the game for a prolonged period of time, cockroaches would take up residence inside your house and weeds would infest your village. Your neighbors also had the ability to move away from your town while you were gone, and your precious hybrid flowers would disappear if you weren’t there to ensure they were watered. Comparatively speaking, Animal Crossing: New Horizons cuts the player a lot more slack for not regularly playing than earlier titles in the series did.

Nowadays, there are plenty of games that tailor in-game experiences to the passage of time in the real world. But the vast majority of these are free-to-play titles on mobile devices. The closest that non-mobile games come to using this dynamic is limited time events, usually available around certain holidays, in which players can obtain special items or rewards for participating in them. These games, in my opinion, all owe Animal Crossing a debt of gratitude for being a pioneer in this area. After all, before the advent of mobile gaming in the 2010s, the whole concept of basing gameplay around the real-world calendar and the time of day must have seemed like a risky endeavor, if not downright bizarre. But it worked! And with its latest installment, the series has really perfected incorporating real-world events into the core gameplay in meaningful ways.

Whereas mobile gaming has largely gravitated toward the free-to-play model over the last decade, Animal Crossing thankfully has not. It is very telling that Animal Crossing New Horizons did not follow its immediate predecessor, Animal Crossing Pocket Camp, and adopt a free-to-play gaming experience. Having only played Pocket Camp for a few weeks when it was initially released, I will freely admit it lost my interest pretty early on. What turned me off to Pocket Camp, and why I don’t consider it a true Animal Crossing title, is simple: It purposely sets limits on your experience. This is the very antithesis of the core Animal Crossing experience: the freedom to do what you want for as long as you desire. You can’t wander aimlessly around town for hours, talking to neighbors, catching bugs, catching fish, digging up fossils, making your own patterns and designs, terraforming your island, and so on. These very mundane-sounding activities are at the heart of the series’ gameplay. To remove them outright or hide them behind a paywall or countdown timer ruins the experience. I am hopeful that the powers that be at Nintendo seem to realize that there is a certain freedom and charm to the series that cannot be fully realized in a free-to-play model.

Yet even though the gameplay of the Animal Crossing series might be easily adaptable to mobile gaming doesn’t mean it should be. Animal Crossing just wouldn’t be the same experience if your progress was gated behind timers or in-app purchases. Free-to-play mobile titles prey on our baser instincts by locking our in-game progress behind artificial constraints. It’s a shame that more mobile titles didn’t learn another lesson from Animal Crossing: It is possible for game developers to make an immersive and addicting gaming experience that players will keep coming back to on a daily basis without resorting to charging players money just to progress faster in the game or change their in-game appearance.

All this is to say that the Animal Crossing series inhabits a unique niche between mobile gaming and non-mobile gaming. On the surface, some of its gameplay and core mechanics can be easily mistaken for common mobile gaming fare. Buying items from in-game shops whose inventory changes each day. Designing a house’s interior. In-game events that are dependent upon real-world time. The longer one plays an Animal Crossing game, however, the more one starts to appreciate the fundamental ways in which it is similar to a non-mobile game. Unlimited play time. No in-game purchases. The ability to time travel backwards or forwards in time. No countdown timers barring your progress.

Turning the Mundane Into Fun

Of course, no discussion of Animal Crossing could be complete without discussing the repetitive and mundane nature of the core gameplay. Once I familiarized myself with the basic mechanics of each game, my play sessions turned into very predictable routines. I suspect the routine and repetitive way in which I tend to approach Animal Crossing entries is very common among other players as well. I would make sure to check what was for sale in the shops, dig up fossils to sell, and participate in any special events or occasions that were happening. And then, I would inevitably reach the point where my established in-game routine became the very thing that made me tire of playing it. As with any game, once the initial excitement wanes and playing the game starts to feel more like a chore, we reach for something else to occupy our free time.

But New Horizons has kept me regularly coming back to the game, almost two years since its release in March 2020. To be fair, the steady stream of updates, along with having friends who play the game on a regular basis, has kept my interest piqued far longer than was the case in previous entries. Speaking of earlier entries, there is just so much more to do in this title. The recipe and crafting system, while not perfect, provides not only something new to collect but also something new to do in the game. Just when I thought for sure I was going to walk away from the title, Nintendo dropped the last update which included over

But eventually, whether days or weeks later, I would find myself returning to the world of Animal Crossing. Perhaps it was a new season, and there were new items to collect or craft. Maybe I felt my house interior was badly in need of a makeover or my island should be redecorated to match the season. Or there were those times when I realized that, despite my logging over 400 hours into the game, there were entire recipe sets that I had yet to collect. Whatever my reason was for coming back, choosing to focus on different approaches to gameplay would make the game feel fresh and exciting once again. Learning to let go of the routine and do what was most fun for me in the moment made all the difference in the world. It allowed me to further appreciate the vast amount of customization and playstyle options that New Horizons offers compared to earlier entries.

And this is perhaps Animal Crossing’s greatest unintended strength: by simulating the monotony of daily life, the game allows us to reflect on the minutiae of our own lives. Just as in Animal Crossing, if we repeat the same routine day after day in our own lives, we will eventually get bored. As much as we sometimes dread change in our own lives, change ensures that our experience will vary enough to remain fresh. So too with how we play Animal Crossing. As much fun as playing the Stalk Market is, it eventually begins to wear on us. We might begin to wonder, isn’t there more to this game than selling turnips for profit? Once we’ve completed our museum’s collection, we might feel lost. But if we change our focus, amend our routine, we can discover a new challenge. What about actually crafting all those recipes we’ve been collecting? What about completely tearing down and terraforming entire sections of our island so that it feels brand new?

New Horizons came out at a pivotal moment in our lives: the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and the forced reality of lockdowns, closures, and shortages. Overnight, it seemed, our world changed dramatically and fell apart at the seams. Life as we knew it changed. Much has already been said about how the timing of the game’s release couldn’t have been better, allowing people to escape the harsh new reality of the world by creating their own digital paradise. But what has been overlooked, in my opinion, is how Animal Crossing also embodies the new-found freedom many of us are discovering during the pandemic. Because the pandemic forced a change in our daily routine, many of us found that we gained a new perspective on life and our eyes were opened to new possibilities for ourselves moving forward. Life truly is, as the old saying goes, what we choose to make of it. And this lesson is one that fervent Animal Crossing players know all too well.

So to those people out there who don’t understand Animal Crossing‘s enduring popularity or consider it to be a fun gaming experience, I say this: Sometimes you don’t need to be the hero. Sometimes you can’t save the world. Life is more than completing a series of objectives. It is normal for life to have its ups and downs. Change can be scary, but it can also be exciting and invigorating. All of these are lessons I learned from playing Animal Crossing. And I am a better man for it.

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