As the COVID-19 pandemic largely confined the world to their homes, video games have seen a surge in popularity. In particular, Animal Crossing, a game about building and decorating an island community, has become one of the best selling games during the quarantine.
At first it might be hard to understand its appeal — fishing, pulling weeds, and building furniture aren’t exactly the type of video game features you’d expect to pay $60 for. But, for UNM students who have had their normal routines ripped out from under them, Animal Crossing provides an escape from their anxiety and confinement.
Christopher Holden, a UNM professor who teaches classes about linking game design with the community, said that most of the appeal of “life-simulation” games is that they offer players a world where they have total control.
“In the same way that kids play house and create these little microcosms on their own, I think having this little space of something that's a little bit like life...that you can kind of craft and cultivate is just a deeply satisfying thing for people,” Holden said. “Especially in times where you don’t have a lot of control over the actual external events in your life.”
Holden said that Animal Crossing’s lack of set goals may also provide some relief from the rigidity of adult life. So for students that still have to take tests and turn in assignments during the quarantine, the game is a good way to unwind.
“Once you spend enough time in school and work...you kind of forget how to operate in an environment where there’s not a deadline and not one specific thing that has to be done,” Holden said. “Because everything in life is structured to be so goal-oriented, it’s probably a really good thing for people to have games like that, where they can let go a little bit.”
Dakoda Emberlin, a UNM student who is part of the Esports club on campus said he found satisfaction through the freedom within the game to set your own goals and create your own world.
“There’s an emotional sense of gratification...It’s like that first sip of hot chocolate on a cold morning in the winter. That’s how I feel every time I finish four hours of destroying my island to make waterfalls.” Emberlin said.
Emberlin also emphasized how much he enjoys the social aspect of the game, especially during quarantine when interacting with other people is so limited.
“It’s not always easy to drag myself out of bed every day and get on Zoom to have my classes, and I can’t go to work so I’m stuck inside like a crazy person. (Animal Crossing) is great because I can get online and play with my friends,” Emberlin said. “I spend time walking around burying things on their island, and we’ve played hide and seek and tag.”
Joey Benavides, a Communications major at UNM, wasn’t sure if he’d like the game but started to warm up to it the more he played.
“Once I got through the introduction of flying into your island and picking a name, then I started to have fun with it. (For instance,) my name is a drag queen name, and my island is called Etiquette because that’s how you’re supposed to behave when you’re on it,” Benavides said. “And after that, I thought, ‘Ok, I’m going to compete with my friends to make the best island available.’”
Benavides spends most of his time in Animal Crossing designing outfits in the game’s new Custom Design feature, creating different looks to suit each mood.
“I love the customization of my outfits. I have (a few) different outfits — one of them is a Princess Peach dress. I have a Zelda dress. I have Rosalina from Super Mario Galaxy...and I have my gothic witch outfit for when I have my sacrificial evenings when I have friends over.”
For Benavides, Animal Crossing is more than an individual experience. After he started playing, his friends quickly immersed him in online groups dedicated to the game, where people post screenshots and trade items.
“It’s a community for sure. I got added into a Facebook group of over 3,000 people, and all they post are memes, outfit ideas, organization inspiration...it’s a cult!” Benavides said. “I’m on Facebook at least once or twice a day, and when I see (the posts) I can’t help but get drawn in.”
Alex McCausland is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @alexkmccausland