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Two Animal Crossing characters sitting together on a bench Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

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Animal Crossing: New Horizons is testing people’s relationships

Don’t bring chaos to my perfect island

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Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

The future of Beth’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons island is uncertain. “My sister and I are not managing,” she told me over Twitter DM.

Everything breaks down without some rules. Animal Crossing: New Horizons can be a deeply intimate game for its players, who often have years of history and expectations for the space. Sharing an island is like sharing a home, bringing folks together in close quarters.

In Animal Crossing: New Horizons, players are on a deserted island that they’re to fill out with animals and shops and decorations, but if they’re playing with another player, that means sharing it all — except the in-game home. Players will each get one of those for themselves. Keeping the peace on the island means respecting boundaries, even ones that are unspoken.

Say, for instance, you’re sharing an island with your partner and they’ve grabbed the Nintendo Switch before you can. They’ve visited Timmy and Tommy at Nook’s Cranny, and bought up all the good stuff — the one-time purchases — at the shop. Next thing you know, someone’s been voted off the island. For Beth and her sister Natalie, the trouble started with a misunderstanding: that they’d both have their own separate islands.

“Crying and angry, she threatened to delete my island,” Beth said. And she did. Beth’s island got voted off the Nintendo Switch. They’re not alone: There are a bunch of people on Twitter who’ve posted about similar situations — family feuds over who’s starting the island.

One player said another deleted their character because they put their tent too close to another. A few parents told me their kids were torturing each other in game by placing their tents as close as possible to their siblings — the in-game equivalent of I’m not touching her!

The challenge in Animal Crossing: New Horizons is that there’s no other option for households with a single Nintendo Switch system and multiple Animal Crossing players; if you don’t want to share an island, you’ve got to buy a second console.

The one-island-per-Switch rule has caused some controversy with players. The first person to join the island controls everything, and the second (and others) follows along — meaning their progress is gated behind that of the main player. If the primary player never donates the first five creatures to Tom Nook, Blathers will never show up and the ax won’t be unlocked for other players. And what fun is Animal Crossing without an ax?

Two Animal Crossing characters sitting on a bench Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

Couples and families that want to get around these restrictions have to buy a second device — and many of the players I spoke to have. But some have chosen to stick with a single island for a bunch of reasons; some can’t justify the cost of another Nintendo Switch and another copy of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Plenty of others, too, simply want to share an island, an extension of their real lives with their partners. There are limitations, of course — but the game lets players choose how they play.

Antonio Di Benedetto told Polygon that he and his girlfriend, Pam Ren, are sharing an island, and they’ll share their island duties as they do in the house they own together. “We’ll work together and coordinate, with her awesome design sense and taste taking the lead and dictating the creative direction of our layouts [and] furniture selections [...] while I follow her advice and offer my support through my input, shared love for minimal, modern aesthetics, and supplement with what strengths I have,” Di Benedetto said.

People like playing games together — even single-player games that don’t encourage multiplayer, games researcher Dr. Mia Consalvo told Polygon. She’s researched the act of “tandem play,” in which her team observed people playing together.

Antonio and Pam in their shared Animal Crossing bedroom Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Antonio Di Benedetto

“Different game elements drive different reactions and play responses, but they all would try to accommodate their partner in various ways to make the experience more enjoyable for each other,” she said. “Sometimes they also ended up playing in a game that they normally would not — doing an ‘evil’ playthrough, reading less text, taking less time making an avatar — because they valued the joint experience more than the details of what they were doing. If they were couples, they would also bring in their histories and play styles.”

Ren is decorating her own house — even if players are sharing an island, they get two separate houses — as if it’s both of theirs, Di Benedetto said. “[It’s] just like how we collaborate on our own real house design decisions,” he said. She’s consulting with Di Benedetto on her own house, making her bedroom their bedroom.

There are cat beds “symbolically” placed for their real-life cats. The only real problem — a minor one, Di Benedetto said — is that the co-op is limited. To play together means always sharing the same screen, with one player controlling most of the experience.

“Lots of online games have allowed us to share our spaces with friends and partners,” Consalvo said, “both to hand out together and to show off for one another. [Animal Crossing: New Horizons] is another example of that kind of game. Because the variations are so broad in terms of what one can collect and create this makes sharing [and] showing off particularly interesting.”

It’s because of the limitations that people are willing to purchase separate Nintendo Switches to have their own spaces. Animal Crossing fan Spenser Powell told me he went out and got his partner, a non-gamer, a Switch Lite when she expressed interest in it.

“I didn’t want anyone touching my island,” Powell said. “I feel like Animal Crossing is a place for someone to escape everything, almost like a safe space. And while I certainly love having visitors, I wouldn’t want a permanent one who will play when I’m not on the island.”

A group of Polygon Animal Crossing players standing in front of a hoise Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

Powell said his partner is now hooked on the game. The other day, she told him she wished she could get paid for her real job in Nook Miles, he said. With two Switches, they don’t have to worry about physically sharing the same system.

The thing that makes Animal Crossing versatile for even these players, though, is that they can play separately and together; having separate islands might even bring couples together in new ways. Spending time apart makes the time together different, in-game: There’s a certain kind of joy in showing off this intimate, personal space to another person.

The fear of having to trust another person, even a partner, with the intimate space of an island is very real for some players, though. Especially if the other player is playing differently than you. “I split the island in half with a river,” New Horizons player Amber Corum told me about sharing with her boyfriend Lukas. “My boyfriend is chaotic and I can’t have that on my half of our island.

“We both have very different approaches to Animal Crossing,” she said. “I have more of a traditional style and he likes to push the limits.”

They shared a town in Animal Crossing: City Folk, and he had an entire floor of a house “as a holodeck.” The rest of the house was filled with gyroids. (Gyroids are limited in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, but were weird furniture items in other games. Weirdly enough, they are also characters in the game — in New Horizons, I’ve met Lloid, who guards my bridge-in-progress while he collects donations.)

“His favorite items are pitfalls, and he loves to block his villagers that are his ‘enemies’ with booby traps and trees,” Corum said. “All to say, he thrives in seeing how chaotic and quirky his town could be.” Oh, and he’s deemed the town’s song “All Star” by Smash Mouth.

Sing to the tune of Smash Mouth’s “All-Star”
Sing to the tune of Smash Mouth’s “All-Star”
Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Amber Corum

On his side of the island, Lukas has begun decorating already: He’s built room full of gnomes, including a custom-made gnome wallpaper. It’s … jarring. Corum said she’s considering a “neutral zone” where they can share access to shops and the like.

This separation is important. “Real feelings can get hurt through virtual avatars or actions and when couples don’t agree on the seriousness — or not — of virtual actions, there is a lot of room for misunderstanding, hurtfulness, and arguments,” Dr. Sarah Evans, assistant professor of digital humanities and new media at Molloy College, told Polygon. “I think people commonly assume there is a huge gap between ‘real life’ and gameplay or stuff we do in games but there really isn’t.”

Dozens of Animal Crossing: New Horizons players reached out to me with their own stories about sharing an island or playing with friends, family, or partners. Most were excited about having a space to share — whether they were playing separately or apart. But the thing that was common across any of these stories was boundaries: Each of these groups of players had them, some strict and others very laid back. But boundaries they were, still.

After all, no one wants to be the one voted off the island. With a system in place, things have settled down on Beth and Natalie’s new island, Ö... hungie.

“I have noticed that a lot of crafting recipes are either much harder or impossible to get,” Beth said. “We’ve worked out a system where I log onto her account to craft those things and log back into mine, but it is still pretty inefficient. Ah, well.”

She continued: “Peace has come to Ö... hungie. At last.”

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