My new morning routine looks something like this: I wake up in my childhood home, pour myself a cup of coffee, and start watering my plants, digging up fossils, and selling my extra fish. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I find a new piece of furniture for my ever-growing house or a new pair of shoes to show off to my neighbours. Next, I run home, change the colour of my hair, get dressed, and hang around until my alarm goes off, signalling that I need to enter my real life, which is decidedly bland in comparison to the virtual life I lead on Animal Crossing.
I never thought of myself as a gamer before the coronavirus pandemic, but my intense draw to this game over the last couple of months has changed how I think about myself and how I spend my time. Now, instead of the sweet lull of ocean sounds, I fall asleep listening to Animal Crossing ASMR; I wake up dreaming up new ways to terraform my island. I’m both astounded and appalled by the new person I have become in quarantine — but I think I love her. My real-life roots have grown out, but my character’s hair has been four colours in four days. I haven’t worn jeans in almost two months, but my character just got three new pairs and can’t stop showing them off. My virtual plants never die, I live in a log cabin, my toast is always perfectly crisp. It almost feels like the before times.
Animal Crossing isn’t my first foray into the world of video games. I initially got into Nintendo for Mario Kart, then I played the new Link’s Awakening, but I quit when I couldn’t beat the final boss. Something about the ephemerality of the game didn’t sit well with me — I didn’t care about beating that final boss because nobody was watching, and I didn’t feel a deep connection to Link. But in Animal Crossing, I can play on my deserted island for hours all by myself and still get that oh-so-sought-after external validation when friends come to visit my island. I can express myself in ways social isolation doesn’t allow — throwing my energy into decorating my house and finding the perfect leather jacket/beanie combination.
What brings me back to Animal Crossing every day isn’t the pleasure of crossbreeding roses or the hunt for an elusive ironwood kitchenette, it’s the connections. I’ve been social-distancing and staying almost exclusively indoors for 10 weeks now, but in the game, I can frolic through flower fields and deepen friendships from miles away. This morning I spent half an hour visiting with my fiancé’s best friend, and I’ve reconnected with my high school chemistry partner who recently gave me a barbecue.
The other day, I had my first FaceTime with my coworker, Olivia, so I could give her a tour of my island. As we ran around my island, I squealed with glee and exclaimed, “Look at my cacao tree and my blue windflowers! Oh, I just got this punching bag, you can punch it.” She told me that my house was “very me,” and it somehow felt like the best compliment I’ve received since I stopped going outside in March.
I’m not just receiving good things from Animal Crossing — the game allows me to be generous in ways I can’t otherwise be right now. As Olivia roamed my island, gawking at my bridges and inclines (she still lives in a tent and only just got her first mirror), I dropped presents for her. (Because yes, Tom Nook might be a crook and there's no ethical consumption under Animal Crossing capitalism, but this is a game and I like to give my friends things they love.)
First, a ladder, so she could climb up to my orchard and get some peaches. Next, I told her to catch a stink bug flying near her. “That’ll get you some bells,” I instructed. As she headed out, I dropped another present for her — this time, a lucky cat, something I knew my feline-loving friend would enjoy. Later, she texted me to thank me for the present and I told her to come back soon. I felt strangely emotional reading her note — I’ve given Olivia actual presents before, but something about this felt new, intimate in the way I’d feel sharing a secret hideaway with a new friend. It was euphoric.
In this time of social isolation and endless alone time, Animal Crossing has given me more than just something to do. It’s given new meaning to old friendships and created deep bonds I didn’t know existed. I’ve made important connections with people that were mere acquaintances and I’ve seen the kindness of strangers. A few weeks ago I got bitten by a tarantula and my villager neighbor gave me some medicine. Next week, I’m visiting the island of somebody I’ve only met in person once and I’m already preparing a gift basket. I’m really hoping I get invited to an Animal Crossing wedding soon — especially since I probably won’t be going to one in real life any time soon.