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Molly the duck in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

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Animal Crossing’s escapist fantasy is getting a reality check

Black Lives Matter

Even before it was released, Animal Crossing: New Horizons was widely positioned as a welcome reprieve from the stressors of real life, especially given alienating social distancing measures in 2020. But midway through the year, as police violently disrupt protests across the nation in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murders, it’s becoming harder for moderators to justify keeping their communities in a total bubble.

Over the weekend, the leading Animal Crossing marketplace, Nookazon, came under fire for disallowing mention of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement on its Discord, which currently has over 430,000 members. Members reported having posts with keywords such as ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards) deleted from the server, causing more conscientious members to leave the site. As damage control, Nookazon proprietors released an official statement clarifying that the organization does indeed support Black Lives Matter, adding that “our intention was not to remain complicit or silence views during this political climate — our team was unprepared for a response to current events of this magnitude, which led to excessive moderation.”

As an apology, Nookazon created a dedicated Discord channel to discuss current events. The Nookazon staff also pledged to donate $500 to Black Lives Matter organizations.

But for some, the damage is done — many are urging fans to move onto different websites, such as Nook.Market, which have been more explicit in their support of BLM from the get-go. When you load the website, the top Nook.Market banner encourages people supporting various BLM organizations, in addition to being vocal about their stance on Discord.

The question of what people can discuss in this moment, and whether or not politics belongs in an idyllic game, seems to be weighing on Animal Crossing communities online right now. Groups now must decide what political content to allow, if not reconsider previous stances about banning political content altogether. Comments within these groups often devolve into bickering.

While some fans argue that politics have no place in video games period, much less one like Animal Crossing, folks in charge of these communities sometimes see platforms as a responsibility.

“We are always happy to use the platform we have to amplify causes and voices we care about, no matter how uncomfortable the people who want to ignore them become,” a Nook.Market representative told Polygon over Twitter messages. Other Animal Crossing communities have been following suit, despite controversy.

One Animal Crossing meme group on Facebook with over 500,000 members recently made an announcement post, for example, where it clarified that the group supports the BLM movement.

“All lives do not matter until [Black] ones do too,” the announcement post — which has comments turned off — reads.

“Animal Crossing is a lovely, kind, inclusive game,” it continues. “Our group is also inclusive. If you don’t want to be part of an inclusive group, or you object to the ‘politics’ (aka basic human rights) being discussed here, then this isn’t the group for you.”

At the moment, many brands are voicing similar sentiments about supporting Black voices, and there’s increasing pressure for influencers to speak to their communities about what’s going on. As the nation mobilizes its military and curfews are erected, we have arguably reached a tipping point in the struggle. Where before it was easier to compartmentalize our lives online through things like by private Instagrams or dedicated topic accounts, some people consider the current moment important enough that it’s all hands on deck, regardless of your lane. K-pop accounts are reportedly using their homemade “fancam” videos powers to bring down police apps. Silly social media timelines are “breaking character” to speak up about what’s going on right now. Anything is fair game, because lives are at stake.

One swerving account is the Animal Crossing Struggles Twitter account, which catalogues amusing Animal Crossing woes — like accidentally time traveling and spoiling all your turnips — to its audience of over 80,000 fans. At the moment, the account seems entirely dedicated to speaking about Black Lives Matter, rather than its usual lighthearted fare. “Good gimmick accounts use their platform in order to spread important information regarding systemic racism and police brutality,” the account said on Twitter.

While some people see these progressive shifts as a threat to their escapism, the Animal Crossing community had long ago established the game as a political vehicle. Hong Kong protests have unfolded across international islands, causing New Horizons to be pulled from Chinese retailers. U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has used the game to make house calls for constituents. And now, the tropical paradise is home to Black Lives Matter rallies. It’s a natural progression that doesn’t betray the spirit of the game, because this is what it’s been all along.

“We 100% support the fight for Black lives, protests against the police, donations to these causes and bail funds, and demands for systemic change,” a Nook.Market representative said.