“This is much easier to deal with than life.”
Danii is explaining the appeal of what has become the unofficial game of the COVID-19 pandemic — Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The 27-year-old New Orleans native is a mother to a six-year-old girl and is expecting a baby boy later this year. She’s also the creator of the Facebook group “Animal Crossing New Horizons For Black Folk!,” which boasts over 3,500 members.
“[It] is hard being pregnant and having a child that runs in their draws and acts the fool,” she said. “So, I [am] able to really escape from that…pressure of somebody screaming, ‘Mommy, Mommy,’ at me…I’m able to just sit in one place. I’m able to just chill, relax and just get my mind off the day-to-day stuff.”
Since its rise in the ’80s, video games have become an important and profitable part of the entertainment industry. The interactive aspect of gaming is what makes it different from other forms of media-based escapism like film and TV, with casual and veteran gamers alike finding solace in everything from first-person shooters like the Call of Duty franchise to social simulations like the Animal Crossing franchise.
New Horizons, the latest entry in the latter series, has become a critical and commercial success since its release on March 20, 2020 for the Nintendo Switch. The game has sold more digital units — five million — in a single month than any console game in history, breaking the console record for monthly digital game sales previously held by Call of Duty: Black Ops 4.
The game’s success has been partially attributed to it being released during the coronavirus pandemic, which is understandable. There’s a collective anxiety about being around people during this time. Face mask mandates and social distancing measures have made the United States — and the rest of the world — feel unnervingly dystopian. And, as parts of the country are beginning to reopen, one can’t help but wonder if this pandemic will only get worse before it gets better. New Horizons is a distraction from that reality. It creates a space for real-time connection and interaction from the comfort of one’s home, allowing players to craft their own virtual lives and share them with others across the world.
“It’s really fun to hang out on my friends’ islands and see the world that they’ve built,” artist Kari Faux said in a direct message sent to Okayplayer. “I honestly don’t think I would’ve started playing if we weren’t stuck in the house, but all of my friends have been talking about this game.”
The Animal Crossing series started in 2001 on the Nintendo 64. In the open-ended game, you control a human character that moves into a village populated with anthropomorphic animals. An integral part of the game is interacting with these villagers, which includes everything from buying medicine for them when they’re sick to trading items. You can also participate in fishing tournaments and morning fitness classes. However, one of the main goals of the game is to increase the size of your house. Players will acquire furniture and other items for their house, which they can customize in several different ways that include everything from floor and wallpaper planning to music.
The original Animal Crossing has since been followed up by four other releases: Wild World (2005), City Folk (2008), New Leaf (2012), and New Horizons. These five are categorized as main series releases, separating them from spin-off entries like Happy Home Designer and Amiibo Festival (both released in 2015), as well as Pocket Camp (2017). With each installment there has been new features: the ability to customize your own character with a vast selection of accessories and clothes (players can also create their own designs), as well as customize the environment the game is set in; online play; voice chat; snapshots; and local and online co-op gameplay.
As the latest in the series, New Horizons utilizes features from its predecessors while also including new additions like an in-game weather system based on a player’s real-world location. Your role this time around isn’t as a villager settling into a new town or being mayor, but building your own deserted island. Upon purchasing the island from Tom Nook (the beloved Japanese raccoon dog that’s been a part of the series since its inception), you’re in charge of transforming it into a community where you live alongside — you guessed it — anthropomorphic animals. As a non-linear game, New Horizons encourages players to go at their own pace. Although your first primary goal is to pay back the almost 50,000 bells (the game’s form of currency) Nook loaned you to buy the island, he won’t be badgering you for it. He gives you ample time to make money in a number of ways — completing activities, selling items and growing literal money trees — and interact with Animal Crossing mainstays and newcomers alike, as well as your friends and other players across the world.
The freedom Animal Crossing offers isn’t wholly unique to the series. Other social simulation series like The Sims — the franchise preceding Animal Crossing by almost a decade — offers a similar experience.
“There’s a crossover between simulations — there’s a lot of Sims fans out there, and the Black Sims community is huge,” Dennis White, the creator of The Cookout — a space dedicated to Black and non-Black people of color video game streamers — said. “The idea of building your own island, building your own home, customizing your own clothes, having your friends come to your island — that all factors into why people are into [Animal Crossing].”
What initially pulls in potential Animal Crossing players though is, simply, how cute it is. From memes, snapshots and videos circulating on social media to livestreams of the game on YouTube or other platforms like Discord and Twitch, it’s the charming and delightful faces of the Shih Tzu Isabelle or the Jack Russell Terrier K.K. Slider that serves as people’s introduction to the game. This was the case for Danii. A friend introduced her to the series when she was in college, but it wasn’t until she binge-watched video game streamer Chuggaaconroy play New Leaf on YouTube that she bought a Switch to play New Horizons.
“This game is amazing,” Danii said. “The things that it’s able to do for people, and how they’re able to share their art and just be how they would be on the outside. It’s making corona not so awful.”
After purchasing the game, Danii created the Facebook group in hopes of finding other Black players. She became discouraged shortly after because no one was joining the group, so she instead took to another group that was predominantly white.
“So, one day I’m in there, and I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to say something.’…I just was like, ‘Hey, is there anybody that’s Black in here that plays the game? Say what’s up,'” Danii said. “It was like — boom — all these comments. ‘Hey girl, I’m in here.'”
According to Danii, other Black members of the group wanted to ask the question but were too afraid to. Questions like that are too commonly dismissed by those that aren’t the recipient. As a result, they often take offense, as was the case with some of the white members of the group, who shot back with a very predictable response: “What if I would have made a post like this asking where all the white people are at?”
“I was like, ‘But did you have to? Did you have to though?'” Danii said. “Because every single post you all have in here is from somebody white and you all are talking to each other. So why would you even have to do that?”
The exchange soured Danii’s — and other Black members’ — experience with the group. But it also helped catapult her own group, which she had forgotten about up until that point. She told them about the group and suggested they join; in a matter of seconds the group had hundreds of requests. Those that were approved told their friends, who then told their friends. Now, the group is the biggest on Facebook catering to Black Animal Crossing players.
The rules are rather straightforward, with the first two — “THIS IS A DRAMA FREE ZONE!” and “No Disrespect” — being the primary ones. Once accepted, members will be welcomed to daily posts where people share everything from snapshots and videos of their progress to Dragon Ball and Salt-N-Pepa-inspired customized outfits that others can wear. As an 18+ group, a majority of the members range from early 20s to late 40s, with a handful of older players (at least one member is in their 70s, according to Danii) also included in the group. They’re all scattered throughout the world: from Arizona to Florida to New York to London, where one of the administrators is from. Some are Animal Crossing vets, including parents that first played older entries in the series with their children. But for most, New Horizons is their introduction into the series, and the escape it provides is something that each member — whether they’re a student or a healthcare worker — is finding comfort in.
“It has been helping with my anxiety from working in healthcare (I work at an urgent care and hospital) during this time & dealing with terrible [twos],” a member named Chrystal wrote in the group. “My fiance has his Xbox & I had nothing. I have been overwhelmed ready to knock his head in between the washer & dryer when he surprised me.”
In the short amount of time the group has existed, Danii has seen so much: all-white parties, game nights — some have even recreated the weddings they were supposed to have in real life this year in the game, while others have put on their own Met Gala.
“If it goes down where I don’t end up having another person added to this group, I’m cool with that,” Danii said. “I just want every single person that is in there to be safe, and feel like this game is never going to stop being what it is for them.”
The uncertainty of what normal will look like following the pandemic and social unrest is looming over everyone’s head. For now, New Horizons serves as a much-needed distraction from that: a fantasy getaway that never takes itself too seriously — even when you’re in desperate need of turnips.
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