Ah, Animal Crossing and COVID-19: the peanut butter and jelly of our dystopian times. If ever there was a combination to bring gaming into mainstream acceptance, this is it — a captivating, charming game of make-believe against a backdrop of viral terror.
Life as we know it came to a halt this spring as the coronavirus disrupted and claimed lives around the globe. A few weeks into this living hell (which began in early March for many Americans and continues to kill ), Nintendo released Animal Crossing: New Horizons on March 20.
Did the quarantine mania of ACNH actually change anything about how the world relates to gaming?
The social-simulation game — thematically centered on the ease of island life and the appeal of talking animals — sold over 13 million physical and digital copies in its first six weeks. According to Nintendo’s fiscal reporting, that makes ACNH the highest grossing Animal Crossing title in the franchise (by a big, big margin) as well as the most successful launch for a Nintendo Switch release in the console’s history.
Yes, the game is good, but the timing was spectacular. For many, ACNH provided an escape from the relentless anxiety and tedium of life in a pandemic. Its easy-to-learn controls and welcoming aesthetic invited players of all experience levels to enjoy long-distance socializing, wholesome fantasy, and a return to the safety of play. Mashable’s Kellen Beck boiled down the to two components: reliable familiarity and ascertainable progress. It was the emotional shelter from the global storm many of us needed.
Nintendo Switch and ACNH purchases continued as gamers and non-gamers flocked to this pleasing combo throughout spring. In-game screenshots flooded and , as ACNH-focused streams gained popularity . Even my mother, a victim of motion sickness and hater of new technology, joined in on the fun. (She calls Tom “Mr. Nook” out of respect.)
Simply put, the game’s success has once again raised the perennial clarion call: “At last, gaming is going mainstream!” But as the and our save slots grow cold — when is the last time you checked your turnip prices? — I’ve begun to wonder…did the quarantine mania of ACNH actually change anything about how the world relates to gaming? And if so, will it last?
Eh, this probably didn’t change anything.
Video games have a PR problem. It’s not serious enough to keep the games industry from scoring an estimated , and racking up a projected value of . But it is enough of a problem that gaming inspires a sense of disgust, dismissal, and/or marked disinterest. (Google “media bias against video games” and you’ll get on the subject.)
The quarantine-fueled rise of ACNH and other social-simulation games presented a unique opportunity for new perspectives on gaming to come to the forefront.
From YouTuber PewDiePie spouting off anti-Semitic and racist remarks to the 2017 “swatting” of a Call of Duty player in Wichita, many of gaming’s biggest news stories center on its worst representatives. Young players have to be shielded from verbal abuse online. Female gamers regularly face sexual harassment, death and rape threats, and real-world stalking. Bigotry of all kinds manifests itself in in-game chatting, online forums, and player usernames with alarming frequency. (When this reporter fired up Destiny 2 on Stadia for the first time, it took less than a minute of Tower time to see multiple “creatively” spelled racial slurs fly across the screen.)
The quarantine-fueled rise of ACNH and other social-simulation games, however, presented a unique opportunity for new perspectives on gaming. The Washington Post editorial aide Anying Guo wrote about how mandatory lockdowns reignited her . Freelance writer Tallie Gabriel shared on Medium about her return to The Sims. Others praised ACNH as an escapist’s dream, while Annamarie Fertoli at The Wall Street Journal dubbed it “.” Even Oscar winner and Marvel star Brie Larson has been avidly sharing developments about her ACNH island .
With personal testimonials piling up and consoles selling out , March and April 2020 seemed to herald the beginning of a golden age in modern gaming. We didn’t — and largely, still don’t— know when to expect TV shows, movies, sporting events, and concerts to resume business as usual, but we’ve been able to count on video games to maintain expected release dates () and to digitally connect us in ways other media cannot.
So, is all the ACNH hype enough to make people change their opinions about gaming in general? Depends on who you ask.
When I present ACNH’s promising track record to game designer and academic Ian Bogost, who teaches at the Georgia Institute of Technology and recently delivered a fascinating political , he’s not optimistic. Bogost is an avid lover of games and, while he might like to see them more widely appreciated, his experience tells him that’s unlikely.
“Every time I’ve had this question posed to me before in the past, it turned out not to pan out,” he said in an interview. “Every five or ten years there’s another hammer that falls and all of the effort that’s been invested in building up the public perception of gaming gets dismantled.”
That dismantling is driven by several chronic trends.
First, plenty of dedicated gamers cherish their sense of “otherness.” These folks see their endless hours of mastering controls, developing complex strategies, and forming online play alliances as badges of honor — and a license to dismiss anyone who does not so wholly give herself to the gaming world. Candy Crush, Bejeweled, or Angry Birds can be immensely popular, but they remain, for this group, the realm of amateurs.
Second, the people who embrace a game fad, like ACNH, don’t necessarily want to join that group of dedicated gamers. They treat their gaming much more casually. It’s just something they do, like watching TV, owning a dog, or eating a salad for lunch. Bogost says, “Even if they have a relationship with the media form that we call ‘games,’ they don’t see it as central to their identity in the way that people who self-describe as ‘gamers’ do.”
Thirdly, gamers can be real dicks. If you need a refresher, just look up and slog through that fetid swamp for a moment or two. Bogost readily admits there is a grain of truth in the anti-social stereotypes that swirl around some gamers, and there are a few particularly vocal players who just love stirring the toxic pot.
Other entertainment forms do not suffer from this trifecta of problems. Film and TV fans don’t struggle with this sort of identity crisis, in large part because movies and TV have been so normalized and their barrier for entry is low. While the barrier to entry for games has never been lower — just grab your phone and you too can game — the social obstacle course remains difficult to navigate.
Even if you’re not getting bullied off a platform, games tend to be an expensive, time-consuming, skill-based activity just made for burning the welcome mat. Potential recruits who venture into a multiplayer setting for the first time run the risk of being stiff-armed or even ridiculed if they’re not well-versed in their selected game’s controls, parameters, and etiquette. In a 2017 poll conducted by anti-bullying advocacy group Ditch the Label, 57% of 2,500 participants, ages 15 to 25, reported having been bullied in-game. Sixteen-year-old Bailey Mitchell told the BBC in a follow-up story: “If you’re going to school every day and you’re being bullied in school, you want to go home to your computer to escape … so if you’re getting more abuse thrown at you, it’s going to put you off doing anything social. It has for a lot of people I know, me included.”
Of course, nice people game too. However, that critical mass of dumbassery creates a social environment that discourages new players from identifying as “gamers” and further exploring the medium’s possibilities. By making them feel like a title will be too difficult or complex, toxic gamers effectively funnel novices into the popularized titles they look down on — like ACNH.
If people don’t feel like they’re capable of joining the gaming community or welcome to do so, then the one-and-done approach to games makes sense. It’s “I played ACNH, now time to move on” — not “ACNH opened me up to a whole new world of adventure, time to keep going.”
No wait, ACNH definitely did change gaming perception?
Still, the pandemic has dramatically changed the way people connect through virtual spaces. And that is assuredly driving hope that quarantine could be a big enough disruptor to change negative opinions on gaming. The folks at Linden Lab, the developer behind the 2003 sensation Second Life (which, yes, is still around), say it’s already done that in their community.
In a phone call with Mashable, senior director of marketing Brett Atwood reports the virtual world is picking up a lot of new citizens. Second Life has seen a 60% year-over-year increase in new user registrations and 20% increase in concurrent users across April and May 2020. CEO Ebbe Altberg is confident there’s a connection between quarantine and the platform’s popularity.
“We see this tremendous demand for social connections where people are now isolated in their apartments and homes around the world,” Altberg says.
Unlike ACNH or other social-simulators, Second Life is not strictly speaking “a game.” The multiplayer role-playing world does not have set objectives or conflicts. But it does allow users to build their own creations via a 3D modeler — clothing, furniture, buildings, you name it — and then sell those items to other users in transactions using real money. Linden Lab reports $65 million worth of exchanges occurred in 2019 alone, as Second Life “residents” spent 336 million hours in-game and sent approximately 50 million chat messages each day. Atwood says these figures are similar to those of years prior, but that they expect their 2020 statistics to be considerably higher. “We are seeing growth across the board on new user sign-ups, monetization, Marketplace transactions, in-world chat activity, and monthly active users of Second Life,” Atwood says.
It’s also an acknowledgement that the utility of Second Life actually holds an important function for people.
As the pandemic worsened and Second Life‘s population continued to grow, Altberg and Atwood say they became even more confident in the game’s dual role as both entertainment and utility. Second Life‘s continued to gain members. The NFL Alumni Association hosted a in Second Life to raise money for the organization’s COVID-19 relief fund. As the American Cancer Society all real-world Relay For Life events until the fall, Second Life‘s went on as a planned. Parties were held, business was conducted, classes were taught, and was had, all as the coronavirus pandemic continued to ravage the globe.
“What we’ve realized in this whole thing is the utility that Second Life plays, serving a real purpose for people because they are locked indoors and they can’t have the same social connections physically that they could normally experience,” Atwood notes. “So for us, yes, our business is booming, but it’s also an acknowledgement that the utility of Second Life actually holds an important function for people.”
Of course, Second Life wasn’t the only platform to boom at the start of the pandemic. In its first quarter earnings summary, Blizzard Games reported in players and player engagement time across World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, and Overwatch. Madden NFL 20 and FIFA saw similar triumphs as professional athletes tested their video games skills on live streams and . Mobile games too saw a boost with global app downloads in February as China’s countrywide lockdown went into effect.
All told, market research firm Statista puts the total earnings for games worldwide in March 2020 at $1.6 billion, the the industry has seen since 2008. “To us, it just feels like the beginning,” Altberg says of Second Life’s renewed popularity amidst the pandemic. “But you know, it’s coming 17 years in.”
Oh, drumsticks. Guess we’ll know this time next year.
Weighing Bogost’s well-informed skepticism against these auspicious numbers, it’s difficult to make a reasonable forecast on the future of gaming.
Yes, it’s possible that quarantine and games like ACNH converted new fans for the long haul, inspiring them to try more and game well into the future. But it’s just as possible that the extra time at home merely inspired existing hobbyists to double-down on their interests, and gave newcomers a reason to partake in a fun, if temporary, distraction. There’s even an argument to be made that some ACNH players hopped aboard the hype train not out of appreciation for the game, but because of celebrity-fueled trends that left non-gamers with a sense of FOMO. (Mashable reached out to Nintendo to ask about ACNH daily players and whether those statistics have changed considerably since the game’s launch month, but the company’s representatives declined to comment.)
Even if newcomers are still playing up a storm in ACNH and elsewhere, there are other factors that could bring games’ current success to a halt. Whether production lines will be able to maintain supply-and-demand for the soon-to-launch PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X amid global production limitations , not to mention the fact that TV and movies could sweep in at any time to reclaim rookie gamers.
They made our dreams seem possible, made our lonely world seem closer, made many of us feel — if only for a moment — like we were once again whole.
“Once that pressure gets released and once we have all those alternatives back, then many people will realize — or maybe even retroactively try to claim — ‘This was just a stop-gap. Animal Crossing was cute for a while, but I didn’t have any other options and that’s not really what I want to do with my time,'” Bogost grimly predicts.
As the world begins to reopen, it can be disheartening to think of the consoles, games, and islands left with no players at all. That a Nintendo Switch might sit in a cabinet with just one game installed, zero battery, collecting dust, makes me genuinely sad. Still, if this was a flash in the pan, there’s something to be said for it coming at exactly the right time.
From and to and , the titles that kept us company this spring did something good. They made our dreams seem possible, made our lonely world seem closer, made many of us feel — if only for a moment — like we were once again whole. It may be a long time until some newly arrived players “need” games again. But perhaps in this instance that’s the outcome us all-the-time gamers should be hoping for. After all, you only want to escape into video games when you need to escape from the real world worth escaping from. When we come out the other side of this pandemic, if some new players return to their real-world pursuits and leave games behind, that wouldn’t be the worst thing.