Review: ‘Animal Crossing’ is an escape from the grim reality of a pandemic

In the face of adversity, we often turn to mediums of escape to create a false sense of belonging. The 1929 stock market crash brought about a golden age of cinema — films like “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone with the Wind” reassured American audiences, allowing them to find hope in a landscape of economic turmoil and political upheaval.

Escapist entertainment is almost always used as a palliative to the noise of modern life. Almost a century later, amidst an unending stream of COVID-19 headlines, Nintendo’s “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” has become a tender escape from reality.

Throughout the entire franchise, “Animal Crossing” has functioned as a utopian social simulation game. Players befriend irresistibly adorable anthropomorphic animals. Money literally comes from trees. The depressive episodes of adult life are nonexistent.

“New Horizons,” being the latest release of the franchise, has come at a time when millions are in self-quarantine. Facing a lack of human connection, I personally find solace in establishing a daily routine centered around my “Animal Crossing” island.

When I long for the warmth of my closest friends, I visit their island virtually, engaging in lighthearted dialogue for hours on end. The game has an enchanting way of creating intimacy and breaking physical barriers in the process.

This is a universal feeling, too. Despite being marketed to a younger age group, “Animal Crossing” resonates with everyone, forging unique bonds between people of all cultures, genders, and ages.

Though “Animal Crossing” life is distinctly separate from human life, what makes it so appealing is that it borrows from our collective realities. Alongside the adolescent fantasy of talking animals are aspects of the real world.

Time plays a large role, deciding what wildlife will spawn and which villagers are awake; Tom Nook, a greedy real estate raccoon, insists on the player taking out six-digit loans for a slightly more spacious house; storage space is a rarefied commodity.

In times of crisis, what humans crave more than anything is a romanticized distortion of reality — and “Animal Crossing” is just that.

On my first day in self-quarantine, I stumbled upon an old screenshot from “Animal Crossing: New Leaf.” Kitty, a snooty cat villager, tells me, “It’s 2016. Boys are wearing makeup. I say deal with it!”

It’s strange to imagine, even four years later, a world where makeup isn’t overtly genderized. Even though “Animal Crossing” characters talk from a recurrent script, Kitty spoke to me in a way that the real world couldn’t — 2016 me was an insecure high school freshman too afraid to flaunt his glittery gold cut creases to his classmates.

In “Animal Crossing: New Leaf” a villager character says there’s nothing wrong with boys wearing makeup. (Nintendo)

It is only now that I realize how “Animal Crossing” forces us — as humans in an ever-deteriorating world — to find meaning in the trivialities of life. That is exactly what we need in this stagnant period of quarantine: a profound appreciation for the smaller things in life. Perhaps it’s time we learn a thing or two from villagers like Kitty.

5 thoughts on “Review: ‘Animal Crossing’ is an escape from the grim reality of a pandemic

  1. Only peripherally related, but I downloaded Jewel Blast. I don’t play games usually, but I’ve found that focusing on the game gets my mind off things, and reduces my stress. It just mentally “feels good” to play the game and not think about all the rest of what is going on. On the one hand, I think it’s a useful tool to help with breaks from stress. On the other, I can see how I could get lost just spending hours playing the game. So it does require discipline to make sure I don’t lose too much time in it. But I think folks need to do whatever they can to keep up their emotional health and well being right now. Thanks for doing something productive and sharing your thoughts.

    1. Derek Deng – Derek Deng is a freshman at Duke University. He is particularly interested in the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality in a pop-cultural context.
      Derek Deng says:

      Thanks for your kind words! There are some elements of escapism that worry me: in playing games like “Jewel Blast” and “Animal Crossing”, are we isolating ourselves in a bubble of ignorance that distorts our realities? A balance between reality and virtual reality is certainly necessary in this time of crisis, and we should all err from fully immersing ourself in these digital worlds.

      1. Last night I hosted a “COVID happy hour” for some of my Facebook friends–most of us don’t know each other personally, and it’s the first time we have ever “met” outside of exchanging text on a page. It was wonderful. I think you are right that it’s about balance and making sure to maintain connections to reality as best we can. Most things are just tools that we can use to help or that can be abused and cause problems. I just read an article about someone who committed suicide from being shut in by COVID. He had mental health issues, and going out and being around other people was something that helped his condition. When he didn’t have that anymore, he got worse, and ultimately ended his own life. I think it’s a good policy for everyone to remember that people’s lives may be falling apart right now, and kindness needs to be a priority. Thank you for your blog.

  2. Rani Chor – Rani is the Editorial Editor of her school paper and a Student Advisory Board member at HS Insider. In her leisure, she enjoys playing volleyball, interviewing strangers and feeding her ongoing distaste for oxford commas. Her driving passion — advocating for children while continuing the momentum of social justice movements across the globe. Also, she'll understand if you pronounce her name wrong: just don't anglicize it.
    Rani Chor says:

    Amazing! I like how you incorporated your past experiences with the game to those of the present — love the fluidity!

    1. Derek Deng – Derek Deng is a freshman at Duke University. He is particularly interested in the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality in a pop-cultural context.
      Derek Deng says:

      Thanks Rani!

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