COVID left LGBT+ people more isolated than ever. But Animal Crossing changed all that for these gamers
Tom Nook might have a lot to answer for, but in Animal Crossing: New Horizons the pesky raccoon has certainly kept us all busy during the pandemic.
For many the game represents the lockdown experience of 2020, arriving just as many of us were forced to stay at home. It quickly became ubiquitous on social media, with both series fans and newcomers sharing their idyllic islands and creative designs online. To date, the game is the second top-selling game on Nintendo’s Switch in under a year.
One year on and there remain plenty of gamers still hooked. And on Twitch, the gentle relaxing pace of Animal Crossing remains strong in a sea of hectic shooters and action games.
What got us hooked on Animal Crossing?
“It’s my favourite video game franchise of all time!” says Twitch streamer Toph, well known for his love of the series. “I just enjoy how peaceful it is and how it allows you to play at your own pace. It’s my go-to comfy game and has been for nearly two decades now.”
A seasoned player of the series (which began way back in 2001 in Japan for the N64 and GameCube), it was perhaps inevitable that Toph would jump into this latest release. Yet there was still plenty of novelty.
“There was the familiar charm of the past games, of course, but the new features like terraforming, placing items outside, crafting/customising on your own, were things I had dreamed about for years,” he says. “To see it actually happen made me so happy.”
For other players, though, Animal Crossing: New Horizons was their first experience of the series.
“I love simulation games, I love collection games,” says streamer FrankThePegasus. “It really relaxes me and I’ve always really enjoyed that. So I knew when New Horizons was coming out it was going to be something that I had the potential to fall in love with.”
LittleLegs, another streamer, was also new to the series. “It’s kept me grounded where I can always fall back on it just to chill and have a relaxed time,” he says.
The game’s emphasis on creativity with almost infinite possibilities is what attracted many players.
“The creative part of it is huge,” says LittleLegs. “You’ll gain inspiration from absolutely anything and then you’ll just start building and then the next week you’ll see something else and think I could do that. Things like that are what keep me invested.”
For FrankThePegasus, the game is endless. “I don’t feel like I’ll ever be done creating something beautiful and wonderful,” she says. “For me it was very much forcing myself to take it really slow and making sure that I savoured every moment of it.”
Says Toph: “I’m glad that so many new people gave it a chance and that many of them did stick around! My motivation is simply my pure love for the franchise.”
Coming back each day to check in on villagers is addictive, with these three streamers racking up thousands of hours.
“I never really anticipated the chibi cute art style would be something I’d be interested in,” says LittleLegs. “And here we are 1,700 hours later, stream after stream, and it’s introduced me to so many more people than I ever could have imagined.”
As he alludes to, Animal Crossing’s social aspect is a major contributor to its success. And that’s been exacerbated by lockdown, with many using the game to connect with friends, family and other players.
Streamers in particular have been able to interact with their viewers far more than before, through sending each other items, visiting other islands, and sharing dream codes. And that extends to off stream just as much as on stream.
“Because of the community we have in Discord we all ask each other for things and we can send them, it’s so convenient,” says LittleLegs. “It’s like being able to hang out with your friends but not be together.”
“[Viewers] want to watch what you might deem as a mundane activity, they’re excited for it because they also do that on their own island and they get excited to see the progress being made on stream anyway,” says FrankThePegasus. “I think that’s such a silly thing.”
Adorably, FrankThePegasus even used Animal Crossing to go on a date with her partner. “We couldn’t go out into the world so we did something special… we went to the museum together at night and we had a shooting star night and we got to wish on stars together and that is so special.”
What’s more, it was a way for her streaming audience to take part too. “I banned my partner from watching stream that day and we worked on setting it up on stream and I created a special custom dress and put a spot on our secret beach that looked like a little picnic and I made a custom design and put in the sand to make it look like our initials were drawn in the sand. It was very cute! They wanted it to be special for us just as much as it was.”
Dreamie hunting in Animal Crossing
One part of the game that’s particularly prolonged interest is villager hunting. With an empty lot on their island, players can spend Nook Miles Tickets to visit a randomised island and invite the animal inhabitant there to move in. Nintendo have created hundreds of pre-set villagers and fans have their favourites (or “dreamies”), leading to villager hunts of sometimes hundreds of islands to find a specific villager.
It’s somewhat akin to gambling, with NMTs becoming a hot currency and hunts potentially extending for hours. Toph, for instance, visited 1,456 islands to find his latest dreamie, Weber the duck, which was done over 16 days.
— TOPH 🌱 (@TophGames) February 16, 2021
“It can be frustrating for sure but I think there’s a fun in that frustration where you know that the payoff is going to be that much sweeter when you do finally find them,” explains FrankThePegasus.
Villager hunting on stream only increases enjoyment. “There’s a whole bunch of people having this celebration that you have finally achieved this goal that you’ve been working towards for weeks!” she says.
So why is the game so popular with the LGBT+ community in particular? It’s a game full of creative expression no matter how you identify, its openness allowing gamers to be whoever they want to be.
What’s more, the community aspects of the game are integral to LGBT+ players seeking acceptance and a safe space to play.
“The Animal Crossing community in general is very kind and accepting so it’s easy to fit in no matter who you are,” says Toph. “Sometimes it’s hard to find a place as a queer person in certain video game communities but I’ve never experienced that with Animal Crossing.”
LittleLegs agrees. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re lesbian, gay, trans, people just want to know what’s going on on your island and you get to know people gradually and form some amazing friendships.”
What’s more, as a seasoned MMORPG player (like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV), he compares the communities. “A lot of the time being queer in an MMORPG community can be toxic,” he says. “Anything that is extremely competitive you’re typecast or stereotyped as being a poor player because you happen to be gay or trans. But in Animal Crossing that does not matter, nobody gives a s**t.”
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FrankThePegasus notes the game’s allowance for self expression through the lack of gender confinement. “The idea that you can represent yourself in whatever way you want to represent yourself really lends itself to being very popular within the queer community.”
Nintendo has been resistant to specify any LGBT+ content, but if anything that’s only fuelled desires. Says FrankThePegasus: “I think that lends itself into us seeing representation in the game that maybe was not exactly intended but it feels very real to us anyway. I have characters that I have fully decided are gender fluid, I have villagers I’ve fully decided are dating each other. There’s no indication, there’s no romance in the game but they’re dating, they’re best friends and they’re together all the time. You can’t tell me they’re not dating!”
So what’s next for Animal Crossing? Nintendo will continue to show support with future updates, events and unlockable items. Toph is hopeful we’ll see the return of Tortimer Island from previous game New Leaf, while FrankThePegasus would love to see the ability to customise villager homes.
What’s certain, however, is that players will continue to play the game for years to come. As LittleLegs says: “It’s impossible not to play. You start to feel this guilt when you don’t talk to a squirrel for a day. It’s true!”