Coronavirus and New Horizons: the virtual gateway
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
an exploration into how the Nintendo Switch game Animal Crossing: New Horizons helped people stay creative and connected through lockdown
At the start of 2020, it was hard to predict that an adorable life-simulation game would dominate the gaming industry and break records. After all, Animal Crossing had not released a new edition to its main series since 2012, and instead relied on its legacy for spin-offs since then. Animal Crossing: New Horizons was highly anticipated due to the series’ debut on the Nintendo Switch, but nobody foresaw the importance that it went on to have in many people’s lives.
Many in the community, and I, came to rely on the game for enjoyment and stimulation in a time when we were all restricted to our beds and sofas.
How did New Horizons come to be one of the most convenient and successful game releases on the Nintendo Switch, and how has it been reclaimed in such an unpredictable climate?
A New Horizon in Unforeseen Circumstances
After a delay to the original 2019 release date, Animal Crossing: New Horizons debuted on March 20th 2020. Whilst fans had to sadly wait longer for New Horizons to release after its original 2019 window, its new date directly coincided with worldwide lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic. These restrictions disrupted people’s employment, trips abroad and the ability to see your family and friends.
Basically, everyone started getting really bored… really quickly. And New Horizons was there to stifle their boredom and anxieties. In the first 12 days of the game’s release, 11.77 million copies were sold worldwide. This outsold all the series’ predecessors and became the fastest-selling Nintendo game on the Switch.
A massive draw for the game was the appeal to the quarantined masses. What better way to fill your newfound time than a game that lets you decorate an island paradise, meet up with your friends, do your chores and pay off loans?
The mundanity of everyday life was missed by many when we did not have access to the luxuries we take for granted. A colourful, carefree, and creative playing experience came to be a desired pastime for many people. Including me.
I didn’t expect to purchase this game, or even a Nintendo Switch, at the start of the year. I had no clue a new Animal Crossing game was even coming out. As somebody who had downloaded Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, Nintendo’s mobile game, once (and had never played any other games in the series), I had no idea what came over me.
But what surprised me was how difficult lockdown was going to be.
I was a university student stressing over my dissertation and had been struggling with mental health issues. It was becoming difficult to find any distractions from the anxiety surrounding the pandemic.
However, three days after the release of New Horizons the U.K. went into lockdown, and I was obsessed with the buzz around the game on Twitter. I did not know why, but I needed to get a Nintendo Switch.
It is late March and with the help of my student loan, I frantically search for any Nintendo Switches. But they are out of stock. Everywhere. I checked supermarkets, game shops, the official website. All gone.
It gets to the point where I am looking every morning for a notification they are back in stock. I had signed up to mailing lists and was constantly checking Twitter for any stock refills.
Nothing. What felt like my final glimmer of hope was when the Asda website said they had some in. So, at 8am the next day, I drag my boyfriend on a 1 hour 30 minute walking round trip to the supermarket, for them to tell us it’s not in stock. I was devastated.
I shouldn’t have been so dramatic because a week later I managed to get a Nintendo Switch. At the time, I was worried it was an impulse buy, I would be bored after a month and was going to regret ever getting it. Thankfully, that was not the case and I still play my Switch and New Horizons every day. Whether it be collecting all the creatures available in that month, creating furniture, checking the monthly updates and redoing my whole island twice over, it’s rare I find myself at a loose end.
A Creative Community in Covid-19
The game has clearly been a creative outlet for people in the pandemic. It has provided an escapism from the changes to people’s daily lives. It has offered some stability and a sense of routine. It has given people something to do. It has helped people cope with mental health issues. It has allowed people to connect with their friends virtually. It has reignited a community both in-game and online.
Reddit is a goldmine for finding the amazing creations that other New Horizons players have made and shared. Players freely offer up their designs as inspiration and help others to collect furniture, recipes and even the animal villagers living on their island. People can share their creativity and gain a positive response. This has been critical in the pandemic as whether it be artistically, politically, or personally, the community found they could go through the months in lockdown with less constraints to their lives. New Horizons has offered a platform for Reddit users like CallMeLara to open up about and discover their gender identity. In the case of CallMeLara, she made an amazing video coming out as transgender for her loved ones to see by creating the transgender flag out of roses.
Many also demonstrated their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, creating signs, T-Shirts and areas in their island that highlighted their allyship and supported black voices and players. Reddit user, TheGamer8904, used fireworks in the game to display Black Lives Matter symbols and statements in the sky for the whole island, and Reddit, to see.
Others unfortunately found their weddings to be postponed because of the pandemic limiting the number of people in gatherings. Luckily, New Horizons had an event in the month of June where you could earn wedding-themed furniture. This inspired creativity in Reddit users like sloop_jb, who celebrated his wedding anniversary with his wife virtually. He edited together a video to commemorate the occasion, which you must watch because it’s really cute.
Some users clearly took inspiration from other forms of media, and have recreated iconic scenes and moments from films and television shows. A standout for me was Melhunnibee’s recreation of the heart-breaking scene in UP. Stupidly, the recreation made me watch the Pixar original on YouTube and I sobbed for a good 15 minutes afterwards. If you want to do the same as me the recreation is linked here.
These heart-warming photos and videos are a small part of the online community sharing their personal experiences and creativity in a time where a large segment of our lives is currently spent at home and not in the real world. Animal Crossing: New Horizons has been a safe space for many in lockdown. But now the effects of the pandemic are easing, so gameplay may start to change.
How has the easing of lockdown changed players’ gameplay?
Many have returned to work, are seeing their family and friends and shops are opening. Therefore, the consensus may be that most adults are on New Horizons less. Some may have had their playtime shortened due to these factors, as well as having already completed their island and thereby not needing to play as much. Some find they log in more at the beginning of every month because of the monthly updates that changes the seasons and provides new goals to achieve.
Some may play less because they have lost their job so have more time in the day. It may still act as a stress relief for many. The mundanity of the game still relaxes those playing as the restrictions to our lives ease and people are anxious about the return to normal life.
In my case, I am still playing New Horizons every day. My time on the game has started to reduce, and this is because my island is nearly finished. After graduating university into the impacts of the pandemic (including a recession – great…) my time is still spent checking in on my island, but also frantically looking for jobs. Other things are starting to take a priority which I’m partly glad about. But I am missing the developing stages of creating my island. And as I’m writing this, I have already thought to demolish my island for a third time and start anew on another project. If it wasn’t clear already, I’m incredibly indecisive.
After I received the Nintendo Switch and started to play New Horizons, I realised what the game had done for me. It provided a distraction away from stresses triggered by lockdown and my university workload. As someone who tries something new and then gets bored of it after a week, playing New Horizons daily is a rarity for me, and I’m glad I have a consistent pattern to my day where I can unwind. I also believe I’m not alone in this feeling, as this seems to be the pattern of many other people in the community.
For many people, Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released at the perfect time. It has continued the success of the Nintendo Switch console, reignited a fandom and online community that values the social, calming and creative elements that make the game something that people can bond over. The game has brought people together when there were incredibly tough restrictions to daily life that impacted the mental health and wellbeing of many. For a PEGI-3 rated life simulation game, that is an impressive feat. Its popularity is continuing to rise, and the community’s creativity along with it.
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