The day after her mom died, Steph Towler noticed a big yellow daffodil on her way to get breakfast — at a diner, because her mom loved diner food.
“It was a really dreary day, really overcast and raining a bit, and just seeing that big yellow flower ... it was just really significant,” Towler told Polygon. “There’s something about yellow flowers that just really makes me think of my mom.”
Towler and I — or, rather, our Animal Crossing: New Horizons avatars — were standing in a small field of yellow flowers when she told me this. She’d lined the western coastline of her island with yellow blooms: A wash of roses, cosmos, chrysanthemums, and tulips lined the cliffside, some even spilling into the sandy beach beside it. Towler had given me a tour of her meticulously designed island — she is an interior designer, after all — and this was our last stop. Through the field of flowers, which we were careful not to stomp and destroy, Towler showed me a private spot she’d designed for her mom after she passed away earlier in the year. She’d placed the memorial to her mother just below the cliffside where she put her home. Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, her family had to cancel her mom’s planned memorial service. Instead, Towler created the spot on the beach — a few flowers, a headstone, and a candle — to honor her mother. That night, she captured a screenshot of a shooting star in the sky, right above the headstone. It felt significant, she said, like the yellow flower.
“Grief is interesting because it manifests itself in really strange ways,” Towler said. “Stepping outside the day after she passed and seeing the big, bright yellow flower was really significant — not like it was my mom in the flower, but you find signs and things I think you wouldn’t normally, like the shooting star going above your Animal Crossing memorial. These little moments that become so meaningful in ways that you just don’t realize, and they just hit a different way.”
She continued: “I sit here every day. Every time I log off, I come sit on this little stone over here. I don’t sign off anywhere else.”
Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons has been called a reprieve from life — a break from the horrors of life in a pandemic. Released on March 20, as COVID-19 was surging in the United States, New Horizons was, indeed, a relief for many looking for a place to forget about the real world for a moment. But for others, New Horizons is more than an idyllic getaway; it’s a place for real-life reflection and confronting the realities of life right now. Like other games before it, Animal Crossing has also become a part of the grieving process for some players.
Technology has always been used as a means for mourning, whether that’s a Facebook page turned memorial or people sharing stories about a celebrity on Twitter, according to Tamara Kneese, author of the upcoming book Digital Remains: What Social Networks Leave Behind and media studies professor at the University of San Francisco.
“Online memorials have had a tremendous impact on the way people grieve, both individually and collectively,” Kneese told Polygon. “Online memorials are now fully integrated into mass mourning for celebrities or after traumatic events. The geographic and temporal limits of a funeral service, headstone, or obituary don’t apply to digital mourning rituals.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has only increased that practice. Restrictions on gatherings have limited the sorts of memorials or funerals that can be held. Hospital visits, too, are restricted. “At a time when people are in isolation, online forms of mourning and memorialization allow for some feeling of collectivity and connection,” Kneese said.
Dozens of New Horizons players have posted memorials on their islands on social media and Reddit — some, for the New Horizons villagers that have moved out, and lots more for family, friends, and animals that have died.
“It felt as natural [to create the memorial] as having his memorial bench made,” Gemma, a 33-year-old New Horizons player, said of the memorial she made for her husband, who died suddenly. “It makes me smile every time I pass by it and I always go there to make wishes when there’s shooting stars. It just feels nice to share that with him in a way.”
The game’s timing, during the loss and uncertainty in the pandemic, certainly could explain the amount of memorials we’ve seen over the past few months, but in-game remembrances aren’t new. The Animal Crossing franchise has provided ways to customize these sorts of memorials for years, filled with flowers and different decorations. People have held funerals and memorials in Second Life and World of Warcraft, too, Kneese said.
New Horizons goes further than other Animal Crossing games before it: Nintendo has added graves. When fans first noticed the headstone item tucked away in a promotional video in February, they were initially worried: Had a beloved character died? But as it turns out, the headstone was not a hint or teaser, but rather just one of the many items added to the game. It may have felt morbid at first, to see a reminder of death in the cheery video game. But many players realized it could be an important item in creating their perfect island. New Horizons actually has multiple headstones available: the Western-style stone and Zen-style stone. Players have used the Stone Tablet, too, in memorials.
“As with memorials attached to corporate platforms, however, memorials in games are also dependent on the commercial entities that provide their scaffolding,” Kneese said. “Nintendo influences what memorials in Animal Crossing look like and if and how they will be preserved for the long-term.”
Players can personalize these memorials further by choosing other items to honor their loved ones, like Towler’s yellow flowers, or the Lindsay Booth Memorial Park, which 34-year-old New Horizons player Joshua Booth created for his father.
Booth, whose father died unexpectedly in May, said he saw another person’s memorial for their father on Reddit while his dad was in the hospital. Booth told Polygon he connected with his father over video games — “at maybe four or five years old, my father and I sat in the basement playing a game called Armor Battle for the Intellivision II,” he said. “I remember sitting on the floor with the glow of the TV bathing us in blue light. Over the years, our relationship evolved and video games were always there for us to connect over.”
With so many memories of his father intertwined with technology, the Animal Crossing memorial felt natural to Booth. “That virtual connection that we had was so important to me, and even though it’s just a small park in a video game, it’s a space that I can go to and visit whenever I need to,” he said.
Booth’s memorial is two levels, decorated with red and white windflowers — the colors chosen to represent the school where his father worked as a teacher. It’s got three of his father’s favorite items, too: a barbecue, a piano keyboard, and a bike. “I also made a replica of his Newtonbrook Coach jacket that he wore nearly every day from autumn to spring.”
He continued: “I’ve had countless former students of his reaching out to me by phone and through text messages and emails. He had a massive impact on the lives of so many people, and he helped shape their careers in so many fields.”
New Horizons player Shea Dion-Fell, 22, used the game’s Pattern Tool to add a photo of his stepfather, who died four years ago. His stepdad’s birthday fell shortly after New Horizons’ release date, and the anniversary of his death closely after that. “It was the perfect time for it to come out and for me to do a little memorial for him,” Dion-Fell told Polygon.
Dion-Fell added a large photo of his stepdad, an arborist, to the game, flanked with cedar trees and orange flowers that match the orange hard hat his stepdad is wearing in the photo.
“He loved his job,” Dion-Fell said. “He got injured [once] and he couldn’t go up in the trees, so his job was to just drop off ladybugs to the local trees and plants, because the ladybugs would eat all the bad things that grow on the plants. He would have coolers, like three massive coolers of frozen ladybugs in hibernation [...] and I’d help him release all the ladybugs.”
And so the forest memorial, with trees and flowers, felt right, he said. “And it’s kind of nice to see a little lady bug on the flowers from time to time.”
Dion-Fell said the space in his New Horizons island isn’t necessarily a healing place for him. He said the worst parts of grief are over, but it’s still a happy, nice place on his island — a place he can visit and think about his stepdad. It’s just a single piece of his memory, which Kneese said is important to remember when thinking about memorials and mourning online. There’s a tendency, sometimes, to see a person’s social media presence as a whole version of a self, but in reality, it’s only a small part of the picture.
Nick Kitsch, a 30-year-old New Horizons player, celebrated his 30th birthday on the day New Horizons was released — his first birthday since his mother died in August. On that day, he got a card from his in-game mom. He created a small memorial for his real-life mother immediately — something to constantly remind him that she’s with him. After unlocking terraforming, he moved the memorial onto the highest level of his island, an elaborate garden park with purple flowers, photos, fruit trees, and a mix of items his mom would have loved. She was a “gardener and a scrapper,” Kitsch said — she liked to find things that others threw away and make them into all kinds of “awesome stuff.” That’s the sort of thing you’ll find in her memorial garden in New Horizons, now.
“I boot up the game and I’ll just sit and have a conversation with my mom,” Kitsch said. “I know it sounds weird, but it’s something that comforts me. It’s kind of like she’s living on in the game, and it makes me happy and makes me not want to give this game up.”
Kneese likened this sort of memorial to the ways in which college kids used online games, like Minecraft, to recreate their campuses after they had to leave the dorms during the pandemic.
“What do people miss?” Kneese asked. “When you think about people you have loved and lost, you might remember the smells, textures, the feeling of a certain room, the sound of a laugh. At a time when people can’t congregate and hold a funeral, games are one way of reimagining death care rituals.”
Kitsch also created a funeral spot where he’d like to host a memorial with his brothers for his mom. “I wanted to have an actual burial, because my mom was cremated,” Kitsch said. In that spot, he’s set up three chairs, for him and his brothers, and some stone pylons behind a field of black flowers.
Kitsch, like others, posted his memorial to Reddit, something he said felt good, too — the act of sharing this intimate piece of his life with others who might be able to understand.
“I know how much loss this year’s been, and how crazy there is in the world right now,” Kitsch said. “But if you have something you can embrace, whether that’s Animal Crossing or something else — if you have something that makes you happy, don’t be afraid to share it with the world.”