Animal Crossing: New Horizons came at precisely the right time — right at the beginning of global quarantine lockdowns. The Nintendo game would have been huge without the pandemic. But more people at home with less to do meant diving into a world that was everything the one we were living in wasn’t, an island getaway where the only problem is a mortgage payment — interest-free! — paid off in Bells. For a while, it felt harder to find someone who wasn’t playing New Horizons.
The game has a wide appeal. New Horizons and the pandemic essentially caused a Nintendo Switch shortage worldwide as “nongamers” rushed to join the festivities. You could describe it as a low-stakes, casual game, but for people who love it, it’s anything but. In March and April, millions of people played it feverishly, for hours on end, perfecting the idyllic fantasy where anything was possible. Players created perfect homes, honored loved ones, and used New Horizons as a protest spot in hopes of sparking real-world change. Celebrities, politicians, and influencers used it to get closer to their fans — everyone from President-elect Joe Biden and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Danny Trejo and Elijah Wood.
ANIMAL CROSSING: NEW HORIZONS
For our 2020 guide to the best entertainment of the year, Polygon is counting down our top 10 with a collection of essays along with our full Top 50 list. Throughout the month, we’ll be looking back on the year with special videos, essays, and surprises!
New Horizons saturation reached such high levels that some people were overwhelmed with the impulse to compete and “complete” the so-called relaxing game. Then there were the people who used the game to scam others, the brands looking to capitalize on New Horizons’ popularity to sell things, and a small subset of toxic players. Animal Crossing: New Horizons became more than just another entry in the popular franchise. It became a well of cultural relevance from which others siphoned. For better and also for worse, it became a thing.
Many people initially came to the game because you could chill with your friends on an island in ways that, due to the pandemic, we no longer could. But those who stayed did so because of all the little things to do.
It felt like there was New Horizons overlap in most aspects of my life, which was surprising. I found people in the stationery community making stuff inside and outside of New Horizons; I found fountain pen people analyzing the in-game writing set. For a while, these sorts of interactions felt as if they happened naturally. They made sense, felt authentic. People saw ways to play the game differently, and they did — New Horizons was a massive success particularly because of all the “alternative” ways to play.
Not only could I hang out with my real-life friends and colleagues to collect shooting stars or trade DIY recipes, but I could attend a birthday party for a friend in Singapore, something I otherwise would never have been able to do, pandemic or not.
That huge success also meant that more people than ever were taking notice. Brands saw the authentic interaction New Horizons created between players and thought, Hey, we can reach that audience, too. Some, of course, still felt natural in New Horizons. In particular, luxury fashion brands like Maison Valentino, Marc Jacobs, and MCM created free campaigns — featuring designs by New Horizons community members — to make their collections available in the game.
New Horizons reached peak saturation when totally unrelated brands, like Ally Bank, Hellmann’s mayonnaise, Gillette Venus, and even a luxury resort, found ways to integrate the game into their marketing. Ally, in particular, was offering an equitable deal, allowing players to sell off their turnips for 1,000 bells each — a rate much higher than normal. The idea was to make your bells work “harder” and “smarter,” as Will Partin wrote in Vice, analogous to Ally’s motto, but for your actual money. What Ally’s New Horizons island leaves out, of course, is that Ally Bank is the same Ally Financial that was forced to pay $80 million in damages in 2013 for selling higher-interest-rate loans to people of color — a fact that’s lost in the bank’s new millennial-friendly brand.
I will eventually forget all the brand activations, but I will hang on to the smaller events from earnest creators trying to bring attention to their otherwise overlooked interests. I attended an art show, hung famous art in my otherwise poorly decorated home, and learned about fish, dinosaurs, and pastoral English life from real museum employees.
These sorts of brand investments into New Horizons, bad and good, are not necessarily condoned by Nintendo, either. In November, Nintendo issued a statement on businesses and organizations using New Horizons to solicit business — specifically, that they shouldn’t solicit business. (“Do not leverage the Game as a marketing platform that directs people to activities or campaigns outside the game,” the company said.) In the same vein, Nintendo banned “politics” from New Horizons, seemingly making Biden Island against the rules.
In the past few months, New Horizons has fallen out of the mainstream consciousness; it’s now more of a thing people look back on as an activity from the first few months of quarantine. Many of us fear going back to our island and having to see it in disarray. But the truth is, New Horizons is still incredibly popular by the standards of any other video game. While a lot of people fell off the game, tons of players are still working on perfecting their islands, eager to collect seasonal items and entertain their villagers.
New Horizons’ current community is a little bit smaller than it was before. It isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, that players have moved on. The community does feel different now, but for those players, Animal Crossing does still feel like everything.