At its best, Animal Crossing is a contemplative series about small moments. The Nintendo franchise emphasizes simple pleasures, like sitting on a tree stump and admiring the rosy caress of a sunset, or listening to the comforting patter of rain under the protective embrace of an umbrella. But social media and its rapid-fire updates have changed the nature of the idyllic games for some fans playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
“I feel shabby and inadequate,” says player Devon Gozjolko, who spoke with Polygon over email — alongside dozens of other players — about what it’s like to see other Animal Crossing fans share elaborate designs on social media.
“Every time I get on Twitter I see posts from both friends and internet people I follow who have these either incredibly ornate or certifiably insane setups on their island, and it honestly feels terrible, like, who did I think I was buying this game?” says New Horizons player Patrick LaBelle.
The more people see each others’ games — the gorgeous rooms they are building, the fancy furniture and knickknacks they’re acquiring, the monumental towns they’re decorating, and the cool characters they are unlocking — the more it becomes impossible not to compare yourself to others. It’s like the Instagram effect that comes with seeing what rad time other people are having and then feeling bad about your comparatively boring life, but applied to a video game.
Prior to 2020, Animal Crossing was definitely a successful franchise, but it was also somewhat of a sleeper hit relative to mainstream franchises like Call of Duty or FIFA. In the last couple of weeks, that’s changed. Celebrities are playing New Horizons. Animal Crossing has taken over TikTok, and, bread baking aside, it is possibly the most pervasive non-COVID-19 thing lighting up social media feeds.
The big change comes down to a single button. Where before Animal Crossing was relegated to handheld consoles with limited and cumbersome online functionality, the Nintendo Switch has a dedicated “share” function that allows people to upload screenshots and video clips. This feature has catapulted Animal Crossing into the public view in a way the series has never seen before, much like Pokémon Sword and Shield before it. Beyond colonizing feeds, for the first time ever, Animal Crossing has a pronounced presence on Twitch and YouTube. The newfound Animal Crossing phenomenon will undoubtedly be great for Nintendo’s bottom line, but it also means the fandom is expanding and changing in an unexpected way.
Animal Crossing’s viewers on Twitch on a random Tuesday morning are nearly comparable to Fortnite. Image: Twitch
Beto Uribe, another player, summarizes the prevalent sense of FOMO and insecurities on social media when he remarks, “I love Animal Crossing but it can be a really stressful game at times.”
Some readers tell Polygon that with the pandemic requiring social isolation, they find themselves having more time than usual to devote to New Horizons. Others, like Ronnie Palmieri, find themselves trying to balance childcare, keeping a business afloat in uncertain waters, and playing New Horizons.
“I’ve not managed to get as much playing in as I like,” Palmieri tells Polygon. It’s a cross-generational problem. Nina Hucke, who is in college, says that while she has to worry about exams and homework, siblings, and friends who have either lost work or are under quarantine — and thus have more time to devote to the game right now.
And in Animal Crossing, where the clock progresses in real time and most of the features are gated behind specific days, missing a day or not being able to log in during certain hours can totally change or halt your experience.
Many players are also jumping in for the first time, or making the transition from the mobile Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp only to find that Animal Crossing is a series with a bevy of hidden mechanics that it never even hints at, like flower hybrids or money trees. Veterans know all kinds of minutia that allows them to acquire Bells faster, or to make more beautiful landscapes. These returnees will share their progress on social media, only to surprise newbies with things they never knew were an option.
“It feels like I tripped out of the starting gate of a race, and now I’m trying to keep running on a twisted ankle,” says Emily Vignapiano, who is relatively new to the franchise and therefore only now learning about its many secrets.
Animal Crossing New Horizons guide: first week walkthrough
Perhaps the most cited source of frustration in my chats with players is the issue of “time traveling,” where some players will fast-forward their Nintendo Switch clock to trick the game into believing days have passed. Most fans tell Polygon that they have zero issue with others playing the game how they want, as it is their prerogative, but that seeing people share their subsequent creations on social media can be deflating when they gaze upon their own comparatively shabby islands.
“When I look on Twitter and see people with seemingly full neighborhoods, big houses with tons of cool furniture and knickknacks, and largely furnished museums, it makes me feel like I’m playing the game incorrectly,” says player Samuel Martinelli, who does not time travel.
Even worse, sometimes the game itself will be stingy in its rewards thanks to its random nature. During my first few days of playtime, my shops only sold things I found ugly or unnecessary, so it took me a little while to start building up an island with an aesthetic that I liked. Apparently, I’m not alone in this experience with poor randomization, with some players spawning islands with few resource-providing rocks, lackluster villagers, or terrible shop options.
“I wanted to play this game to escape not have it be a real world simulator filled with have and have nots,” says player Adam Lambert.
Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon
Some of this can be remedied via multiplayer, where players can trade items with one another. But not all players have this luxury. Some fans tell Polygon that they feel bad for not having many Nintendo Switch friends to play with, or for choosing to enjoy the game as a solitary experience.
Chris Estrada, a public affairs officer who is currently deployed in the National Guard, says that his Wi-Fi in the barracks isn’t very good — which can impact his ability to do things like collect more native fruit, or gain a wider store inventory via friends.
“One of the shining qualities of this game is that it allows you to go at your own pace, but I definitely get that FOMO whenever I’m browsing Discord,” Estrada tells Polygon. He knows there’s technically no wrong way to play the game, but all the same, other player’s progression and built-in knowledge has left him feeling like he’s in the “Stone Age.”
It’s a situation that has pushed many players to change their habits around social media. Some, like Elice Leung, have muted Discord channels or entire keywords on social media, if not outright using platforms like Twitter less. The thing is, fans often “don’t tag their screenshots,” Leung says, which can make avoiding spoilers difficult.
While Animal Crossing doesn’t have a story, it is full of tiny moments and details that liven up its world — and then go on to be social media catnip. For players wanting to preserve the full experience, that’s a problem.
Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo
“I can’t help but feel just a tiny bit disappointed every time I see something cool on Twitter that I didn’t find myself,” says Alexis De Girolami, a developer enjoying the game.
While some wrestle with their feelings about progression, spoilers, and their in-game self-worth, others are using social media posts as inspiration for what they’ll eventually be able to accomplish.
“I see people with all these cool features that I get to unlock myself, [and] I get to know what’s ahead and earn them myself,” says Twitter user @gracerem_. “Seeing other folks having features just makes me want it more.”
Player John Axon, meanwhile, is using that pervasive feeling of missing out as an opportunity to be a “mentor” to others in-game. Axon was gifted a shovel by a friend earlier than he was supposed to have one — and now he’s passing it forward with other friends who are a bit behind, something he’s excited about.
Even so, there’s this nagging feeling for some fans that perhaps the mainstream attention and subsequent rat race it’s inspired to get everything as fast as possible has taken away some of what made Animal Crossing special in the first place.
“It reminds me exactly of the time I heard some asshole CEO bragging about taking special vitamins that allowed him to ‘meditate faster,’” says player Anthony Ransom. “It’s just missing the point.”
Nintendo Switch consoles are often sold out, but you can still pick up the handheld-only Switch Lite, which is perfect for portable gaming.
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