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A real aquarium is giving tours of Animal Crossing’s in-game museum

A collaboration between Chicago’s Field Museum and the Monterey Bay Aquarium

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An Animal Crossing human wearing all yellow standing in front of a aquarium tank Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon
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 island of Sears has a sprawling museum. An owl named Blathers greets players at the front door, and the museum branches into three immersive sections: fossils, bugs, and fish. The aquarium, to the right, houses gallons of waters in its enormous tanks, each recreated to mimic the island’s different ecosystems. In a man-made pond, koi fish dodge lilypads and sea grass while a snapping turtle lounges on a log. Deep ocean creatures — like oarfish and coelacanth — creep slowly along a darker tank, one reminiscent of the ocean floor.

The Sears Museum is not real, of course. It’s the virtual establishment on my Animal Crossing: New Horizons island — and it’s one of the very few places of the sort open in the world right now. Museums and aquariums alike have closed indefinitely as the coronavirus pandemic keeps visitors confined to their homes.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium, in Monterey, California, is one of those aquariums affected. It’s been closed to visitors (but open, still, to staff crucial in caring for the creatures) since March 12. Like the Museum of English Rural Life in the U.K., the Monterey Bay Aquarium is moving its activities online — including to Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

Aquarium staff has been streaming the game on social media for a few days now, and on Monday, it’ll offer a special showing: It’s hosting fossil expert Emily Graslie from Chicago’s Field Museum to help out on a special tour of Animal Crossing’s in-game museum.

“One of Animal Crossing’s core game mechanics is cataloging the animals and fossils on your island for your island’s museum curator, Blathers — making the game, as we play it, a Natural History Museum Simulator,” aquarium social media specialist Emily Simpson and content creator Patrick Webster told Polygon in an email. “With these institutions closed because of COVID-19, the game can become a virtual escape to do what is, at its core, what the Aquarium and other museums do every day. We show you the amazing life you share your planet with, and tell you fun things about it! When we’re playing Animal Crossing, it feels a little bit like we’re back in our exhibit hall, rejoicing in discovering new things and sharing that with the world.”

An Animal Crossing human near some fossils wearing a very good all yellow outfit Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

All of the animals, bugs, and fossils found in Animal Crossing: New Horizons are based on real-world species, they said. In particular, Simpson and Webster said one of the fossils — the T. Rex — was based off a specimen from the Field Museum: the famous fossil named SUE, which was dug up in South Dakota in 1990.

Fossil expert Graslie said she was particularly excited to see Dimetrodon, a proto-mammal more closely related to humans than dinosaurs, in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. “The fact that you can find a Dimetrodon in the game has been awesome, and that the developers use this as an opportunity to also educate players about Dimetrodon’s evolutionary history is even better,” Graslie told Polygon over email. “Now my social media feed is filled with players sharing their screengrabs of Dimetrodon. It’s a nice reminder that they learned something (and had fun doing it.)”

Of course, not everything can be that accurate. The one unrealistic piece is that they’re all found on the same island. “It’s much easier to go fossil hunting and collecting in-game,” Simpson and Webster said.

The Animal Crossing museum tour will begin 2 p.m. PDT/5 p.m. EDT on Twitch, when Simpson, Webster, and Graslie will give players a look at the different creatures found in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. And there’s a lot to show.

“You’ll learn about everything from dinosaurs and ancient fishes, to marine reptiles and extinct cephalopods, and the museum displays them thematically based on their evolution,” Simpson and Webster said. “It also organizes the fishes and insects of the game based on their ecology, both in the exhibit hall and in your island’s habitats. Blathers is an excellent source of information as well, busting myths about the difference between true dinosaurs and reptiles, and spreading joy with his infectious enthusiasm for our natural world.”

But the Monterey Aquarium staff is most eager to teach players about the barreleye fish, a species discovered by a researcher at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in the Monterey Submarine Canyon. The weird, deep-sea fish has a translucent head and “eyes pointed straight up through this clear dome to spot food hovering above,” Simpson and Webster said. It’s one of those creatures that seems too absurd to be real, and yet, here it is — in both real-life and Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

Graslie said that Animal Crossing’s museum is special because it’s “a microcosm of so many things we love about our world, and that extends to the celebration of the game’s biodiversity.”

“There’s an inherent curiosity we all have at some point in our lives about the critters we share our planet with, and Animal Crossing encourages that sense of exploration and discovery with little barrier to entry once you’re in the game,” Graslie said. “Everyone gets to be the discoverer (and donor!) of new organisms found on their island. They get to participate in laying the foundation for documenting and cataloguing diversity. I hope there’s even a tiny bit of that sense of stewardship and curiosity that people can take with them outside of the game, too — and I also hope it helps players appreciate the hundreds- to thousands of museum employees and scientists who are doing this work every day for our world.”

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