Rows of colorful flowers greet visitors at CRC. Lined up at the entrance sit neat rows of tulips, hyacinths, lilies, roses, pansies, windflowers and cosmos. Visitors can explore an amusement park featuring spinning teacups, spring horse rides and a cotton candy machine, relax at picnic areas or next to a fountain, or even peruse a library full of novels.

No, this isn’t the Communications Residential College on Northwestern University’s campus. It’s the virtual creation of Communications senior Kendra Gujral, who named her “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” island after the dorm, where she works as an RA.

Gujral brings me to her amusement park. In the bottom right corner, there's a map of her island.

While stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines were in place, gaming became a popular way for students to stay connected with each other, even away from campus. Like many other gamers, one of Gujral’s go-to games right now is “Animal Crossing: New Horizons.”

“Animal Crossing is a game that is just wholesome and fun,” Gujral said. “And there’s no wrong way to play it because you can’t win Animal Crossing.”

After Nintendo first announced plans for “New Horizons”’ in 2018, avid fans of the Animal Crossing franchise eagerly awaited its release. The company put the game on the market in mid-March, and its popularity exploded during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. In six weeks, Nintendo sold over 13 million copies of “New Horizons,” making it the Switch’s fastest-selling title.

Made specifically for the Nintendo Switch gaming console, “New Horizons” is the latest version of the Animal Crossing video game franchise. Animal Crossing games are very open-ended, and players build their own character, take charge of a village and interact with their animal villagers.

Though there are many similarities to previous Animal Crossing games, in “New Horizons,” players start off by moving to a deserted island. Here, they can catch fish and bugs, plant flowers and shrubs, and interact with their animal villagers.

Nostalgic and new

While plenty of students are just now joining the fanbase, Medill freshman Harrison Larner remembers playing Animal Crossing on the Nintendo DS with his sister over 10 years ago. Now, she helps him design clothing for his avatar in “New Horizons.”

Larner stands in his orchard and flower field wearing a t-shirt his sister designed for him. He planted some of his trees with fruit he received from visiting Gujral on her island. / Courtesy of Harrison Larner

But “New Horizons” has expanded beyond the usual Animal Crossing community. McCormick sophomore Barbara Garcia has been “playing video games since forever.” Although she prefers role-playing games, she decided to try out “New Horizons” because of its wide popularity and additional free time during quarantine.

“Animal Crossing is a very slow game. I think it perfectly matched the situation,” Garcia said. “We’re going to be in this quarantine for a long time, and I feel like it’s a game that needs to be played for a long time.”

Like other Animal Crossing games, “New Horizons” has a clock that follows real time. Each month, players can catch new bugs and fish or participate in seasonal or themed events, like Bunny Day. However, players can skip ahead by changing the time through the Switch’s settings, known as time traveling. Although some players are strictly against time traveling, everyone can play at their own pace.

The appeals of “New Horizons” during COVID-19

Chaz Evans, an RTVF lecturer who specializes in media arts and game design, said that Nintendo is pitching a “perfectly relaxing time” for consumers, which is especially relevant during the health and economic crises of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If there’s an aesthetic virtual space that is full of bright and pleasing colors with simple and accomplishable tasks, it’s very clear as to why that hits a real chord in a moment of chaos,” he said.

Once quarantine began, Weinberg junior Adia Fielder immediately bought a Switch and “New Horizons.” For her, the world of “New Horizons” is a relaxing experience filled with friendly villagers and the opportunity to design her island and wardrobe however she likes.

Fielder showcases album covers all over the wall of her virtual home: Beyoncé in her bedroom, Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance in her band room and even Animal Crossing’s own dog musician, K.K. Slider, in the attic. On the edge of her island, Fielder proudly displays a towering monster statue that she’s named Bruce.

Fielder gives me a tour of her house. One of her rooms includes a wide array of instruments and album covers.
Fielder shows off her monster statue, named Bruce, which she set up on the edge of her island.

Evans pointed out, though, that video games can do far more than provide a temporary break. In fact, he said experimental video games can actually help players solve problems as well as develop new viewpoints and understandings. Although there aren’t any video games that address the COVID-19 crisis yet, Evans said he wouldn’t be surprised to see one by the end of the year.

“You could probably find something like ‘N95 mask production and distribution simulator,’ which sounds like a boring idea from the beginning but honestly could end up being a pretty engaging piece of media and also unlock what is a very black box topic,” Evans said. “People don’t necessarily understand the dynamics of why there aren’t masks and who is responsible for that.”

Gaming as a “social lubricant”

While video games can provide solutions and give players a chance to engage with political ideas, “New Horizons” also creates a space for players to meet and connect with each other.

“People are struggling for social intimacy right now, and they’re looking for ways to connect with their friends and their family,” Jordan Orelli, the infrastructure team's engineering lead at Jackbox Games, said. “People are using video games to fill that void, and so the role of game as social lubricant has taken on a renewed focus.”

Besides chatting with villagers, players can visit each other’s islands if they have the Nintendo Switch Online feature. Gujral has been going on dates with her boyfriend, Matt, through “New Horizons.” Dates in Animal Crossing look pretty similar to what’s expected in the real world. Gujral and her boyfriend go on picnics, visit the parts of the island Gujral has been building, exchange gifts and ask about each others’ days.

Gujral also often plays with “New Horizons” with her cousin Natalie, who has been helping her breed fields of hybrid flowers. One of her goals is to breed the elusive blue rose.

Gujral waters tulips at the entrance of her island.

Traveling to her friends' islands is another draw of the game for Fielder. Her co-workers at Northwestern Phonathon started a group text through Discord, a chat and communication platform made for gamers, as a way to exchange information about turnip prices. In the game, a “stalk market” functions like the real-life stock market, and you can sell turnips for different prices on each island. The group originally had around 10 users but has now expanded beyond her co-workers to 32 people, including Fielder’s cousin.

“That’s been really fun to get to know people,” she said. “There’s a bunch of people in there that I don’t know what they actually look like, expect for their Animal Crossing avatars, which I think is hilarious.”

Although Orelli doesn’t particularly enjoy “New Horizons,” he still plays the game to interact with others and meet people in a digital space, rather than a physical one. He’s enrolled in DePaul University’s Game Design MFA program, and instead of going to Shake Shack with other students after class, he visits their islands. When he has friends coming over to visit him, Orelli said he feels like he should tidy up by putting furniture in empty rooms or picking up weeds.

But “New Horizons” isn’t the only game that provides a sense of structure. Gujral also plays a variety of other video games as well as sessions of Dungeons and Dragons over Zoom.

“I haven’t put on real pants in like two weeks. When you’re in that mindset, you don’t want to randomly FaceTime somebody or really call them even because it’s so much effort,” Gujral said. “When you have pre-set times that you like to do things, like D&D sessions, it’s very much like you have a bit of normal scheduling to fall back on. It makes me feel like we’re pre-quarantine for a few hours.”

The future of “New Horizons”

Though some gamers continue to put a few hours of time each day into Animal Crossing, others play the game at a much slower pace or have even nearly stopped playing all together.

When Weinberg senior Brandon Cho initially started the game, he played for two to three hours a day. He enjoyed the “grind” of collecting resources from his island, harvesting fruit and planting money trees. (Yes, money really does grow on trees in the game!) But once Cho started to invest in the stalk market, he found “New Horizons” less engaging.

“I’ve lost the need to grind,” he said. “I don’t need to make more money because I have so much money in my bank account. I’ve upgraded everything so many times. The only thing I need to do is literally sit there and make my island look pretty, but that drive’s kind of lost.”

Larner has been playing at a much slower pace, spending around 15 to 30 minutes a day on the game. Larner expects to continue playing “New Horizons” for a while, and he hopes to build his island up over time. Like Larner, Gujral is still striving to improve and decorate her island.

Evans predicts that “New Horizons” will remain popular for months and it seems unlikely that its significance will fade away any time soon. He said there will be a fanbase who remains dedicated to the game, but ultimately, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” will be linked to current events.

“The title Animal Crossing will be sutured to this moment in time and history,” said Evans. “It will sort of symbolically stand in for stay-at-home orders and social distancing and general anxiety.”

Although “New Horizons” may be tied to social distancing, this doesn’t mean the game is an isolating experience. From interacting with villagers to spending time with friends and family, players have positive experiences with Animal Crossing.

“I think the last thing that the Animal Crossing developers want you to feel while you’re playing the game is lonely,” Orelli said. “Everyone that you encounter on the game is on your side.”