Animal Crossing was not always the hit franchise that we know it to be, and there was no telling that it would become a global success. Since the first game’s release, Nintendo has sold about 59.83 million units across all its Animal Crossing games. But its origin can leave us with more to think about than any trailer may lead on.
The franchise’s latest release, New Horizons, was released worldwide on March 20, just before many initial COVID-19 lockdowns began. With the lockdowns restricting many people’s day-to-day routines, the game served as a form of escapism — a return to normalcy, albeit a simulated one. But rather than focusing on the escapism the game may provide, a look into the franchise’s origin and the game’s objectives can allow us to reflect on our culture and values.
What is Animal Crossing?
Animal Crossing was released initially as a Japanese-exclusive game, under the name Dōbutsu no Mori (which translates to “Animal Forest”), for the Nintendo 64 in 2001. Later in 2002, it would be remade for the Gamecube for its worldwide release under the name, Animal Crossing.
At the time, it was a game of its own kind. Though it could fall under the genre of “life simulation,” other life-simulation games released around that time (such as The Sims) weren’t quite like Animal Crossing. The original Animal Crossing had you playing as the only human in a town of anthropomorphic animal neighbors. The gameplay was, and remains, open-ended, and progresses in real-time. You can celebrate holidays with your animal neighbors or do favors for them, decorate your house, collect bugs or fish, or harvest fruit. You can also have multiple people living in the town, so you can collaborate with each other whether it be for furniture-collecting, or hearing about each other’s antics from your neighbors.
As the franchise progressed, the gameplay remained largely the same, with additions such as a museum, more shops, and refined in-game multiplayer functionality in the most recent installment.
The Franchise Was Driven by Values We Forget To Prioritize in the West
Animal Crossing was born from creator Katsuya Eguchi’s feelings of loneliness or homesickness that he felt when he moved to Nintendo’s H.Q. in Kyoto, Japan, several hours away from his hometown, Chiba. When faced with his loneliness, three themes that Eguchi wanted to explore in game development were “family, friendship, and community.”
He said, “in [moving away from my family and friends], I realised that being close to them – being able to spend time with them, talk to them, play with them – was such a great, important thing. I wondered for a long time if there would be a way to recreate that feeling, and that was the impetus behind the original Animal Crossing.”
Eguchi elaborates further in that same interview, on the game’s role in a family. “I'd always get home really late. And my family plays games, and would sometimes be playing when I got home. And I thought to myself – they're playing games, and I'm playing games, but we're not really doing it together…So this was something that the kids could play after school, and I could play when I got home at night, and I could be part of what they were doing while I wasn't around…It was kind of a desire to create a space where my family and I could interact more, even if we weren't playing together.”
In the latest installment, New Horizons, the player character is able to decorate their island (you’re upgraded from living in a town to having a whole island in this installment) and eventually able to manipulate the land and water. This leads to an incredible amount of customization options, but at the end of the day, your neighbors thank you for the work you do. If you put good work into a community, it’s not only rewarding for you, but it’s appreciated by others who live in it. This allows for even more collaboration among a family as well, or being able to see each member’s creative side in action.
Western culture, driven largely by individualism, values uniqueness, self-sufficiency, autonomy, and independence. For the most part it doesn’t hold family, friendship, and community as the highest of priorities, at least it’s not exhibited often in video games or in popular media.
Individualist Versus Collectivist Cultures
In a collectivist culture, the good of society as a whole is the focus. Family and communities hold a central role in these societies, and the goal of these cultures is selflessness and working as a group. Individualist cultures are the opposite in that they value identity of the self and autonomy over everything else.
Neither is better or worse than the other. Both Eastern and Western cultures (collectivist and individualist, respectively) have problems. But on a personal level, aspects of collectivist culture can be good for the individual. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, human beings need a sense of belonging and love. If we don’t have a sense of belonging or love, our mental health suffers.
On an individual level, it’s important to analyze what you’re doing in order to improve your situation in life, not just on a financial or material level, but also on an emotional level. This is where aspects of a collectivist culture are worth embracing. Take time to take care of your family, your friends, your neighbors. In a time where the government is isolating people — whether that be for the purposes of addressing the Coronavirus or otherwise — this is so important.
Instead of just focusing on things that make you happy such as money or success at work, also make time to focus on family, friends, and your community, like Animal Crossing shows us. You’re not just one person, you’re also a part of something greater — a community, a neighborhood, a country, a world.
Animal Crossing has more to offer than just escapism; if we apply the gameplay’s focuses of family, community, and friendship to our own lives, there’ll come a time when there isn’t a need for escapism anymore.