Just ten days into the newest Animal Crossing, I was already embroiled in a fight about coconuts and trying to teach a first-grader about the tragedy of the commons.
That venture, like everything else in this cursed spring of 2020, did not go well.
This level of disquiet in my peaceful Animal Crossing universe is a first for me in well over a decade of play, going all the way back to Wild World for the Nintendo DS. Back in 2005, the portable town of Villains became my constant companion on my long subway rides from Brooklyn to Astor Place and back every day. Several years and several lifetimes later, my husband—at my request—found me a refurbished 3DS (shiny purple) for Christmas 2013. In 2014, I snapped up a copy of Animal Crossing: New Leaf for it that then accompanied me on my commute through Washington, DC every day for more than 14 months.
I was doomed from the start to become hooked into the play loop Animal Crossing provides. For one thing, I’m a known sucker for the “just one more turn” style of progression and reward, and there’s always one more thing to do in these games. (The cumulative number of hours I have logged across Civilization titles on Steam is frankly embarrassing.) I also am a completionist who loves full, neatly matched sets of pretty things, and checklists and collections I can complete. Beyond all that, though, I didn’t realize at the time what I actually most deeply needed from the game: a sense of control.
In 2005 and 2006, I was in my twenties and broke as dirt. My student loans and I had relocated to New York City to move in with my boyfriend, which seemed like a good idea at the time. But the relationship, two years in, was starting to fall apart, and the minimum wage I was pulling down at GameStop wasn’t enough to cover the bills. In retrospect, it seems obvious that I would become lost in a simple fantasy of relationship-building, homeownership, and success.
New Horizons, for the Switch, is the latest incarnation of the series. I’ve been anxiously awaiting its release since before the project was actually announced. This, too, was a gift from my husband—he pre-ordered it for me as a birthday present in late February.
The Animal Crossing franchise has changed in the details along the way, but the gist remains largely the same. The world around it, though, has reinvented itself time and time again. For me, the most earth-shaking of all the many changes to happen in the current century was this: my daughter was born in August, 2013. (Her younger brother followed in August 2018.)
She is now a bright and vibrant first grader, reading and writing and doing math and playing video games and asking probing, ridiculous, wonderful questions in the way of young children who are just figuring out that the world is theirs and trying to grasp every facet of it. She loves Stardew Valley, and I—foolish mortal that I am—thought she would enjoy playing Animal Crossing with her mom when it came to the Switch.
She does, as it turns out. Or rather, she enjoys playing it on her terms.
I always seek organization in my Animal Crossing existence. My homes are fastidious, tidy, and matched. I plant neat orchards, organized in predictable sections and constructed neatly in maximally beneficial, easy-to-harvest rows. I design my gardens carefully, arranging for flower aesthetics and cross-breeding. I carefully lay down paths where otherwise the grass might be trodden down. And I am not used to sharing my town.
She, on the other hand, is six (“almost six and two-thirds, mom“), and therefore by definition a force of chaos—a natural entropy accelerator in both her physical and digital life. She plants trees, flowers, and furniture wherever she happens to be. Why is there an elephant slide between the plaza and the museum? Because that’s where she was standing when she discovered it in her inventory. Where did this microwave on the beach come from? She swapped it out for a fish, naturally. Why can’t I find any damned oranges? Because she picked them all. And ate them, instead of selling them or leaving even one tree’s worth for me.
All of which leads us back to the Great Coconut War.
Power Girl (she named her avatar after her not-so-secret superhero identity) is tired of her small house and wants to upgrade immediately, you see. The Nook real estate syndicate and I have explained to her that you get money to pay off your mortgage (and thus be eligible for an upgrade) by gathering items, especially foreign fruits. Therefore, naturally, she is of a mind to collect and sell every foreign fruit she sees.
“Look,” I said. “We only have a couple of coconut trees. If you leave the coconuts alone, I can plant more coconuts, and then we will have plenty for both of us.”
“But I want a bigger house, Mommy!”
“Yes. I do too. If we plant more coconuts, and share them, we can each get more money in the long run and make bigger houses faster.”
“No! Give me those coconuts! You’re the meanest mommy in the world!”
And thus, our play time devolved into a fight that ended up with her being grounded from the Switch for 24 hours after she bludgeoned me mightily about the head with a small stuffed tiger.
Hitting me was her fault, and she deserved to lose a privilege for it. But as she stomped up the stairs to her room in a ferocious sulk, it became glaringly clear to me how much of the fault is mine.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons was always going to be a popular game, but landing at the specific moment in history it did made it a titanic blockbuster, causing consoles to sell out. Almost any review on any given site—including Ars—can’t help but mention how the game slots perfectly into a world where everything else is cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
As a nation and a species, we are scared. We are alone. We are trying, desperately, to cope with unending weeks either of isolation or of being cooped up with our families. And along comes a simulation of a social life that not only rewards our every step with Nook Miles but that also, most importantly, gives us a sense of total control. This is a world we can bend to our whims, one where the worst thing that can happen is respawning at your own front door after a tarantula bite in the butt. It is soothing, in every way.
My daughter’s last day of school was March 13, and she won’t be going back until September. First grade ended abruptly and unceremoniously, and now she is stuck here with two working parents trying to prevent her from going fully feral instead of romping through the playground with her squad. She’s had to learn big new words, like “coronavirus,” and big new ideas, like “the collective good.” And finally I had the overdue lightbulb moment: maybe, just maybe, I’m not the only one desperately latching onto fish, bugs, and island life to find a sense of control.
We have a compromise, now. I get to plant the orchard, and we’ve set aside a section of the island for me to be in charge of that. I will manage fruit production, and share both some of the fruit and (quite a lot of) the bells I earn with her. But we built a bridge to the other side of the island, too, and that’s her space to control. Maybe next time I log into the Switch, I’ll find it full of flowers. Or maybe I’ll find it full of holes and unwanted socks. There’s no knowing.
Because after 15 years of turning to Animal Crossing for control, I am finally learning it’s time to let go.