The Transformative Power of Animal Crossing

In the face of a Nintendo Switch shortage, I’ve started expanding my 3DS library in order to get a proper portable gaming fix. The first of my new acquisitions is 2013’s Animal Crossing: New Leaf, and while I’ve only played the game for a few days now, I’m starting to think Nintendo may have much more than a simple life sim on it hands.

On the surface, New Leaf is about building and running a town full of citizens with very different needs and desires. Nothing in the game happens terribly quickly (except house building, where a structure can go from bare ground to a finished product in a mere 24 hours), and as someone with a background full of more-traditional games, I can only catch so many fish and shake so many peaches off trees before I get bored and jump back to games with more immediate challenges and rewards, like Splatoon or Super Mario Maker.

As I continued playing, however, the game started to feel like it had a deeper purpose than just being a simple life sim game. More specifically, it felt like Nintendo was trying to shatter the old “loner playing in a dark basement” gamer stereotype by using Animal Crossing to teach players proper socialization skills.

A crazy thought, you say? Perhaps…but consider the following:

  • Example 1: One of the initial residents of my town was a rabbit named Dotty, and on day two of my adventure, she asked me to visit her house to talk about improving its decor. I quickly agreed to a time…and then promptly forgot it and went off on a quest to gather insects and seashells. An hour later (in the middle of a Splatoon Turf War, in fact), I  realized that I was an hour late for the meeting, and quickly jumped booted up my 3DS and rushed over to Dotty’s cottage.As you might expect, Dotty was not happy, and she expressed her irritation to me in no uncertain terms. Sure, I managed to re-befriend her by complimenting her outfit a few times, but I still felt really bad about it, so much so that I wondered, “If I play games to feel good, why the heck am I playing this game if it makes me feel bad?”

    Suddenly, it dawned on me: You know, if someone had done this to me in real life, I’d be pretty cheesed off about it too. I thought back to the times where my forgetfulness had put me in similar situations, and decided that I needed to come up with a better method for remembering appointments, like actually keeping a calendar or something.

    In short, I brainstormed a self-improvement strategy because I missed a meeting with a fictional character. How transformative could an incident like this be with Animal Crossing‘s target (read: younger, more impressionable) audience?

  • Example 2: My town clerk Isabelle kept pestering me to write letters to the other residents, as they would enjoy hearing from their new mayor. I’m not much of a letter writer (or an email writer, for that matter), but I finally decided there had to be some cool reward for writing, so I dashed off a few random letters and left them with the post office.The next day came, and…nothing. I didn’t hear a single thing about the letters, and none of the recipients mentioned them as they walked around. What the heck? I wondered. What was the point of those stupid letters? I spent a whole twenty seconds on each one—didn’t anyone appreciate them?

    Soon, the lightbulb went off: I haven’t written a thank-letter in at *least* six years…how many people are left wondering how I feel when they give me something? As luck would have it, I had a stack of thank-you letters sitting on my table that I’d meant to fill out and mail after last Christmas, and realized I needed to send those things out, late or otherwise.

    Once again, I drew a real-life lesson from a fake-life encounter. At this rate, I’ll be a better person in no time!

Maybe I’ve finally gone off the deep end, but after all the articles I’ve read about the introduction of the autistic muppet Julia on Sesame Street and the benefits of introducing children to such a character at a young age, I’m starting to think that Animal Crossing could have the same kind of impact on its players. At its core, Animal Crossing is a place where players of all ages can learn how to interact with a plethora of different characters by trial and error, and be rewarded for good behavior while minimizing the consequences of bad decisions. While I doubt Nintendo has put the kind of thought into the design of its NPCs that went into creating Julia, I feel like the baby steps they’ve made in that direction were made intentionally.

Despite the climbing age of the average gamer, a lot of children are introduced to video games at a fairly young age (and I would guess that Nintendo’s audience probably skews younger than Sony’s or Microsoft’s). The problem is that a lot of games are isolating experiences, and even encourage players to ignore the rest of the world and focus completely (which in turn can lead to the awkward loner stereotype I mentioned earlier). Animal Crossing, on the other hand, is the rare mostly-one-player game that encourages players to communicate with others and understand their feelings, and developing that sort of empathy feels more important now than ever before. (There are a lot of elected officials in the D.C. area that could use a refresher on this stuff…)

I don’t know what moved Nintendo to create the Animal Crossing series, but the more I play this game, the more I think the world is better off because they did.