I’ve always theorized that Animal Crossing’s popularity stems from our generation’s insecurity about never being homeowners. That, combined with the new reality of life under COVID-19, was part of what drew me into the game during the early stages of the pandemic. Animal Crossing is escapism at its finest: Adorable interior design, cuddly critter friends and complete freedom to design your environment. This isn’t just my opinion; New Horizons’ producer, Hisashi Nogami, expressed upon release that he hoped Animal Crossing players around the world would use the game as an escape from COVID-19, saying, “I am very disheartened and saddened by the events happening across the world. Considering the timing, we hope that a lot of the Animal Crossing fans will use this as an escape, so they can enjoy themselves during this difficult time.”
As I adjusted to life at home, surrendering my independence and giving in to the purgatory of Zoom University, Animal Crossing was one of the few elements in my life that I felt I could control. Beyond offering a sense of security, I found that part of what drew me into the game was that Animal Crossing felt completely divorced from reality. Whenever I was in game, I turned my brain off — no COVID-19, no politics, no nothing. I even went against my nature and developed a soft spot for the notorious tycoon Tom Nook, despite his capitalist inclinations. That was all part of the magic, and in my mind the whole point of the game. To me, Animal Crossing was a guilty pleasure. So, when I heard that the Biden campaign was offering virtual yard signs to Animal Crossing players, I was a bit confused.
According to Christian Tom, the director of digital partnerships for the Biden campaign, this effort is “an exciting new opportunity for our campaign to engage and connect Biden-Harris supporters as they build and decorate their islands” — which is especially important given the shift in campaign strategies under COVID-19. Though this felt random, I realized upon further research that the Biden campaign’s appeal to Animal Crossing isn’t coming out of nowhere.
Recently, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) began to use Animal Crossing to engage with Twitter followers, and after opening her DMs for the first time since the Zuckerberg hearing, immediately tweeted “Honestly never in my life did I think opening my DMs would grant me faith in humanity but the brief window actually resulted in a lot of these messages being very wholesome” accompanied by a crying emoji. Additionally, protesters in Hong Kong, PETA activists and Black Lives Matter organizers have all used the game to host digital direct action, whether that be designing in game protest signs or, in PETA’s case, storming Blather’s fish museum and asking everybody’s favorite owl to free the fish in what the organization’s Twitter described as a “cultural reset.”
It’s possible that Animal Crossing — as well as other video games — is the future of organizing under COVID-19. But, I have to wonder whether direct action loses its legitimacy when performed in a digital landscape like Animal Crossing. I can understand the importance of finding ways to connect with one another in spite of physical separation, as well as the appeal of a format as widely popular as Animal Crossing. I can also see how, as people try to build their perfect islands, the politics of a “perfect” world could enter their minds. But I have to wonder whether demonstrations, or even yard signs, are important in a wholly digital world.
All of this feels incredibly performative. To be fair, this sentiment may stem from the fact that I’m incredibly bitter about not being able to organize more action in person, though there are of course weekly BLM protests every Sunday. It’s also possible that I’m being misanthropic for no reason, and maybe I should embrace the warmhearted spirit of Animal Crossing and be grateful that people are connecting, even if it is via digital settings.
Still, I can’t shake a pervasive sense of discomfort. I don’t love how Animal Crossing, a game focused around building an aesthetically pleasing home and interacting with snappily dressed animals, is now being considered some sort of political frontier. Especially as people all over the world gather in person and risk their health and lives in defense of justice, should we really care about Animal Crossing demonstrations?
Yet, as I’m realizing while writing this article, perhaps the reason that people are using Animal Crossing for direct action is the same reason that I took to using the game in the first place: A desire for tenderness, and to create a better world for themself — even if it is digital.
I can recognize that desire, and I feel it as well. During the past few months, there’s been many moments where I’ve felt crushed by the sheer weight of the world, and I know I’m not alone in that. Right now, nothing feels consequential. Every time that I feel any sense of joy, it feels like a betrayal, some sort of guilty secret that I have to hide from others. Because of the state of the world, I feel as though I don’t have the right to be happy.
I can recognize that this way of thinking isn’t a good way to live. And, as we all try to find the new normal, I’m of the belief that empathy comes first. So, rather than ending on a negative note, I’ll extend some kindness towards the many people organizing through Animal Crossing, because, like everybody else, they’re simply trying to navigate the new normal.
An early version of this article misspelled the name of a politician. The change has been reflected above.
Mira Kudva Driskell is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Portrait of a Gen Z on Fire runs alternate Mondays this semester.