Fighting loneliness in Animal Crossing
Author: Grace Hester
Animal Crossing has been a staple for handheld gaming for generations, and it has an avid following. The most common reason, is that it’s a fun, relaxing series of games that encourage players to play at their own pace, focus on what interests them (be it fishing, home design or just chatting with the townsfolk) and engage in a world of incredibly cute critters that want nothing more than to be your new best friend. And also give you their crappy old furniture that you have no place for in your perfectly designed house, but you accept it anyway to be a good neighbour.
My personal journey with Animal Crossing begins as a youngster back in 2001, with the release of Animal Crossing for Gamecube. This was a port of the Nintendo 64 Dōbutsu no Mori, or, Animal Forest. Not that I knew that. Not that it really mattered at the time. What did matter is I had a new game in my hot little hands. And an entire memory card with it, and it blew my mind that one game could require an entire memory card’s worth of data like that.
My childhood story is probably similar to a lot of other nerdy kids. I was shy, quiet, and really bad at making friends. The difficult part of this, however, came from living in a very small town (population of roughly 2,000), with the next large town an hour away. It meant that if, as a kid, you didn’t make friends in school, you didn’t really have a lot of options. If you didn’t play sport, which was the only real recreational out of school activity, you were out of luck.
Video games, however, were always there for me. But I was still lonely. Friends are hard, at the best of times!
So, with my new game, not having any idea what it was about, I put the teeny-tiny disc into the Gamecube’s disc tray, pressed the on button, and was immediately treated to a sort of game I’d never seen before. There was no violence involved. There was no clear level structure. It was just you, a small town you had just moved to, and a strange raccoon man who wanted to put you in debt for as long as possible.
A little confused but also very intrigued, I set out to meet the animals in the village. They all felt so unique, they were all adorable, and younger me didn’t see the limitations of the hardware, or that there were only a handful of personality types. Younger me only saw a bunch of cute animals that thought I was really cool and wanted to be my friend. And also kept giving me crappy furniture I did not want in my house. Not that I cared, they were still gifts.
As I continued to play, I discovered there were even events. The entire town would celebrate my birthday. Halloween was marked by a cute event too. Every major holiday, even though it used an American style calendar, was marked by some kind of fun event, and suddenly I no longer felt like I was missing out on these things in my real life.
My most vivid memory is New Years Eve. I never got to go out and celebrate in a traditional sense, but in-game, there were fireworks, everyone was there, and it really felt like a special moment. Through this game, I could live through events with friends that I otherwise missed out in my day to day life.
It started a sort of fascination with these games, and with the release of Wild World on Nintendo DS in 2005, I was suddenly able to take this entire world with me wherever I was. Which, in most cases, meant that now I could play it curled up on the couch rather than glued to my bedroom. It was larger, but it was still familiar. It still contained a lot of the same elements, improving things and keeping it fresh enough that I really did feel as though I was in a new place, making new friends all over again.
In short, it made me feel loved, it made me feel special, and it made me feel things I hadn’t felt from games before. It made me feel included in a world where I otherwise had no connections.
As I became older and had more of an interest in game design, I continued to follow the series and I began to pay more attention to how it was put together. What was once comfortable and friendly was still that, but was now also an important design philosophy: You don’t need a traditional game, or a violent game, to be fun, successful and to leave an impact on people.
Even the series has evolved, where once players were only allowed to make connections with animals and other people who had access to the same game, players can now connect with other people around the world. New Leaf, the 2012 3DS game, was an amazing example of this.
Through Streetpass, I was able to have a brief glimpse into other people’s lives. Their sense of design, and even in part a sense of who they were, to know I wasn’t alone in my love of this game, and to know people around the world loved it just as much, and even played it in different ways.
Where my focus was on making friends with the animals, participating in events, and making things look good, another person might have a fascination with fish or fossils, another might be a completionist looking to do everything possible.
But everyone had one thing in common.
They loved this game, it offered them a non-violent, relaxing way to connect with cute animals, and even with themselves, in possibly one of the best examples of how games can combat loneliness.
And debt, because when you’re a homeowner in a small town – there’s always debt.