Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the escapist fantasy of community kindness we need now

More than just a relaxing life sim, Nintendo's latest game invites us to a world where everyone cares
Town Hall

Animal Crossing // Screengrab by Reb Valentine

Last week, while on an ill-timed annual leave from my job, I invited seven of my friends to fly out with me to the quaint island town of Lettercozy to have a party on the beach.

Together, we went shopping for clothing and furniture at local haunts, shared tastes of the island’s native fruit (pears), took some DIY classes from the locals, and went fishing. While taking a commemorative photo, someone (which one of you was it) accidentally released a tarantula he’d had in his pocket the whole time. Several of us screamed. The tarantula quickly vanished, and we never found it.

We ended the night under swaying coconut trees, blasting out-of-tune notes at one another on matching ocarinas, laughing.

No, of course I didn’t leave my dang house. None of us did. We were, like seemingly everyone in the world who owns a Nintendo Switch, all playing the heck out of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Nintendo’s latest video game release has somehow landed at the exact perfect moment in time for anxious human beings sheltering at home, a natural alternative to watching the news of death and government incompetence and more death stack up and up on our social media feeds each day.

If you have never had the pleasure, Animal Crossing is a “life simulation” series of games, all of which follow the same premise: you, a goofy large-headed human being, travel to a new place to live among a lot of anthropomorphic animals who wear clothes and participate in hobbies and have normal human conversations with you. Your primary activities in this new town include fishing, gardening, hunting bugs, digging up fossils, having quaint conversations with your new neighbors, and trying to pay off your home loan to a raccoon in a sweater vest.

The latest entry, New Horizons, drops you on a deserted island which at the start has zero infrastructure. You live in a tent; so do your neighbors. But through a mix of ingenuity, patience, and a lot of DIY crafting of flimsy tools and wooden furniture bits, you can gradually turn that island into a bustling town full of cute, friendly animal pals and proper shops and a town hall and a deeply fancy museum. You know, the kind of town a pretentious but lovable dog guitarist might show up at on Saturday nights and play a concert for. That sort of town.

New Horizons launched March 20, and has been lauded as the Exact Game We Need Right This Second. It is a kind, gentle, relaxing simulation of the kind of life we wish we all had right now. One where we can see projects through to completion, pay off debts (with no interest! and no time limits!), own a home, relax on a beach, and, you know, go outside whenever we feel like it.

But island relaxation aside, there’s an element of Animal Crossing: New Horizons that strikes as a very particular kind of escapist fantasy I am craving in these weird-ass times.

In New Horizons, you are appointed the resident representative — it’s your job to talk to your neighbors and make sure the needs of the community are being met. One of my neighbors — a bossy Kangaroo named Sylvia — needed help deciding where to pitch her tent. I picked her a cozy spot by the river. Another — an athletic orange bear named Teddy — handed me a lamp post on my fourth day on the island and asked me to put it somewhere useful. An eccentric scholarly owl, Blathers, wanted a space to do his research and share his cultural findings with the community. A washed-up seagull, Gulliver, needed help finding his friends. Eunice, a sheep, got sick one day, so I brought her medicine.

What New Horizons allows me to live out is the fantasy of a community where everyone gives a crud about everyone else, and tries to make sure they are all taken care of. The residents aren’t perfect — Sylvia can be rude! Teddy can be overbearing! Tom Nook has questionable corporate values! — but our ends are all the same. We work together to build a place where everyone has what they need and then some, and can feel at peace with who they are. My neighbors go out of their way to compliment one another on each other’s fashion choices, do yoga and dance classes together in the town square, share furniture and tools that others might need, and send the kindest, most encouraging letters, always with gifts attached.

Furthermore, I can invite other, real, human being friends to visit me as I did last week, and live out the currently impossible fantasy of throwing a goofy party with games and music and food and drink and good conversation. But beyond that, the social circles of these real human beings playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons have acted in the spirit of the game and become impossibly, relentlessly kind. Every morning I open my mailbox and find gifts from friends who saw something in their in-game shops they thought I’d like. Visitors to my town often bring gifts of fruit or furniture, or leave a positive message on my town announcements board. They compliment my flowers and my decor. They run circles around my character, trying with limited video game controls to express excitement at “seeing” me, limited as it is.

I write letters back. I visit my friends, and tell them their towns are beautiful (they always are). I send music albums and toys and flowers and fruit and goofy hats to friends daily and eagerly await their reactions. In Animal Crossing, I have enough money and time and resources to give, give, give in ways I cannot in the real world. We fill our virtual islands with joy and jokes and aggressive positivity, filling up on it before we accidentally open our phones again and see what new, unkind thing has transpired.

I am aware of the deep privilege I enjoy to be able to escape in this way, to own a Switch and Animal Crossing at all. To have so many friends who also have these things to play with. To have the time and space to do so. To be secure in my little apartment with a $60 cartridge containing slow-paced island days and mailboxes stuffed with good wishes and ridiculously kind talking animals. There are far too many for whom this kind of escapism is not currently possible, because we unfortunately continue to live in a world that is relentlessly unkind to most, and especially to those who especially need kindness.

If it is possible for you, and you have not yet accepted Tom Nook’s invitation for a Deserted Island Getaway Package, I cannot recommend enough that you do. Fly away for a few hours. Fill up on colors and sounds and friends and kindness, and know that those things exist because human beings dreamed them up and wanted them for others, and that this desire means we have to keep trying to nudge our real communities, even if by fractions, in the direction of that wished-for kindness.

Then, remembering the joy of that fictional community, let’s face the real one again together. We have work to do.

Categories: Culture, Games