Day 6

How Animal Crossing helped boost Nintendo's profits while calming the world

Millions of players around the world, including science journalist Jane C. Hu, have found Nintendo's Animal Crossing: New Horizons to be a calming distraction, and even a way to manage their anxiety, during the pandemic.

Visiting a virtual island to escape from the news cycle 'is really nice as just a hard reset,' says Jane C. Hu

In Animal Crossing: New Horizons, players are tasked with making a bustling neighbourhood out of a deserted island — but can do so at their own pace, in just about any way they see fit. (Nintendo)

Like many other journalists, Jane C. Hu has found herself prone to reading the endless news stories, columns and online reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic — a phenomenon sometimes called "doom scrolling."

To avoid that, she found solace in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a new video game set on a tropical island populated by a charming cast of anthropomorphic animals.

"It's a nice distraction for sure," Hu, science journalist for Slate, told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

"I found that it's pretty easy for me to just stay up really late reading the news endlessly. And having something else to do, to be able to go to a different place for a little while, is really nice as just a hard reset."

New Horizons, the latest game in Nintendo's Animal Crossing series, launched in late March on the Switch gaming console — just as many people around the world were settling into quarantine.

Players create a cartoon version of themselves (or avatar) before arriving on a deserted island.

They're then tasked with naming, then developing the island into an attractive spot for animal characters to move in, slowly building a bustling community.

Players can visit their friends' towns and have a virtual party in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. (Nintendo)

Many players and writers have described it as a helpful antidote to the stress of living through a real-life pandemic.

"The time that you put into this game is really just what you get out of it. It's a very predictable kind of one-to-one exchange where you play the game for an hour, you'll make Bells — which are the [in-game] fake currency, and get to buy stuff," explained Hu.

"But right now in the real world, there's a lot of uncertainty. And the amount of effort or work we're putting into things certainly doesn't pan out in a predictable way."

Record sales

That low-stakes, serene atmosphere seems to have hit at just the right time. In an earnings call this week, Nintendo said Animal Crossing: New Horizons sold 13.4 million units in six weeks, contributing to a 41-per-cent profit surge over last year.

More than 11 million copies were sold in the first 11 days, according to gamesindustry.biz.

Some fans were so desperate to get hold of the game that they lined up outside of an EB Games on Yonge Street in Toronto, despite the risk of catching the coronavirus. "This is exactly what causes the spread. I just can't stress it enough," Ontario Premier Doug Ford said in response.

Hu, who does not describe herself as a "gamer," says she was able to ease into New Horizons because it's focused more on "world-building" than skill-based challenges or high-octane action, like in many other high-profile video games.

While the ultimate goal is to develop your island, players can do so at whatever pace they like, and spend lots of time decorating their home, collecting fruit or digging up fossils and donating them to the local museum.

The good feelings and slow pace don't preclude Nintendo's signature weirdness from making an appearance, though.

The main animal characters in Animal Crossing: New Horizons (left to right): Blathers, K.K. Slider, Tom Nook, Timmy and Tommy Nook, Isabelle and Mabel. (Nintendo)

As soon as the player arrives on the island, they're welcomed by series stalwart Tom Nook, who slaps you with a massive debt in Bells that you have to work off by developing the island.

"I actually was kind of taken aback by that. I was not aware that I was going to be in debt when I arrived," said Hu — who also noted that Nook's name is a play on the fact that he is a tanuki, or Asian raccoon dog, and not a raccoon, which he is often described as.

Thankfully, the loan is interest-free, allowing players to repay Nook at their own pace.

"There is really no consequence if you don't pay it. Like, you could just not pay him for as long as you want to," Hu explained.

The virtual village

New Horizons also allows players to visit the islands of their friends who also have a copy of the game, and hold virtual parties together. Host players can give friends a tour of their town, including showing off their interior decorating or landscaping skills.

Hu says it's provided people with a sense of community when they're otherwise staying apart.

"There's just something about seeing my friends' avatars move around with my avatar that makes me feel like I'm with them, more than just video chatting or talking on the phone. And that definitely, I think, helps with the isolation as well," she said.

The game's massive popularity and communal capabilities have led to some unusual situations.

Game designer and Star Wars: Rogue One writer Gary Whitta has started hosting guests in the entertainment industry with an in-game talk show he dubbed Animal Talking.

Whitta, his avatar dressed to the nines in a black suit, invites guests to a meticulously-created late night TV set complete with a host's desk, guest couch and spotlights. He broadcasts the show on the livestreaming site Twitch.

Guests so far have ranged from YouTube personality Naomi Kyle to Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow.

He's even reached out to U.S. Democratic representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who posted late this week that she'd started playing the game as well.


Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Laurie Allan.

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