I had 20 March mentally bookmarked because a new version of my favourite childhood video game, Animal Crossing, was due for release. I remember being eight years old and begging my mum to let me visit my friend Ben’s house to play the original 2001 game on his prized GameCube; I remember snuggling up next to my sister in her single bed playing Animal Crossing: Wild World on Nintendo DS in tandem. Having rekindled my love of video games in adulthood, my anticipation for this new version was palpable. I even followed the official Animal Crossing account on Twitter for updates.
By the time the date actually rolled around, though, my excitement was clouded by the unfolding of the distressing events we’re still experiencing: Australian borders closing; friends and family self-isolating in droves; and I was eyeing my dwindling pile of toilet paper with concern (“That’ll last me a couple of weeks, right?”).
Amid the chaos, there was just one thing to do: panic-buy an SD card and download Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
Animal Crossing is a simulation game where your super-cute avatar furnishes a home, tends to the natural surrounds of the island you live on, and befriends a series of adorably sassy animal neighbours. Far from boring, Animal Crossing’s low-stakes domesticity is extremely soothing, and the latest version, New Horizons, offers the player a beautiful world to immerse themselves in. The graphics are lush (I never thought I would appreciate the texture of a digital raccoon’s fur) and the sound design would make the spine of an ASMR tragic tingle with delight. As my partner and I sit self-isolating on our couch, taking an in-game photo of our avatars fishing on the beach at sunset, I look across at him and whisper, only half-jokingly: “This is our reality now.”
We’re not alone. A surprising number of my millennial peers, many of whom have never previously identified as gamers, rushed to buy Nintendo Switches in anticipation of a lockdown. Over the past week, my friends and I have spent our evenings together visiting each other’s virtual islands, picking fruit and rearranging furniture, all while chatting with our phones on speaker. We’re desperate for an escape from our rented apartments, from a time riddled with overwhelming uncertainty, from the pressure-cooker of anxiety that is now the everyday reality of the pandemic. We’re reacting to a global emergency by clinging to the familiar, the nostalgic, the simple pleasures.
So we play Animal Crossing. We change up our virtual hairstyles with the push of a button (highly satisfying given the current confusion around whether or not you can visit a hairdresser in Australia); we collect stacks of lumber to craft bespoke coffee tables and bookshelves; we grow flowers and run barefoot along the riverside.
But for all the game’s enjoyable qualities, I can’t shake a simmering sense of unease.
It feels unnatural to spend so much time in the simulated environment of Animal Crossing when there’s a big, beautiful, real one that sits at my doorstep. Ever since the recent bushfire crisis calmed, I’ve been telling myself not to take the Australian landscape for granted – to get out there, take a road trip, feel the wind in my hair, witness the majestic regrowth of native flora, and support bushfire-affected economies with my own dollar.
Sadly, the universe had other plans. Instead of “getting out there”, I’ve been doing YouTube workouts in my living room. The only road trips I’ve been taking are in my dreams. I’ve only felt the wind in my hair when I can be bothered to crack out the hair dryer before staff meetings on Zoom. And if by witnessing nature’s majestic regrowth you mean waiting for new digital fruit to spawn on the trees I’ve planted in a soothing domestic video game, then I’ve got things covered. At least I’m supporting small businesses near me when I can afford to.
Maybe a pause for reflection isn’t such a bad thing. From my couch, I promise myself I’ll volunteer at my closest national park when this is over. I promise myself I’ll spend less time on my phone, grow my own vegetables, learn the names of all our native birds and buy a pair of binoculars. I hope I will.
For now, I’ll keep playing Animal Crossing.