Animal Crossing: New Horizons and the Rise of Games as Social Media

June 1, 2020

Animal Crossing has been a popular franchise for many years and across many platforms. But Animal Crossing: New Horizons has enjoyed the kind of global popularity that Nintendo could hardly dream of.

Part of this comes from the “right time, right place” nature of its release. This game came out right as COVID-19 forced many people in quarantine and social isolation. In short, there’s no better time to hunker down with an addictive and low-stakes game with adorable graphics.

Dig deeper, though, and something else is going on. Nintendo is redefining what “social media” means in the 21st century. And it’s entirely possible they are changing how we will interact online for years to come. Here’s the inside scoop on why Animal Crossing: New Horizons is thriving.

Animal Crossing thrives during quarantine

Of course, Animal Crossing isn’t the only game that came out during the COVID-19 crisis. So why has it enjoyed meteoric popularity when other titles have not?

On the most basic level, this has to do with our need to feel in control of our lives. As newbie gamer Areeba Imam told MIT Technology Review, “I can’t control what’s going on right now, but I can control the tasks I do on my island, and it’s calming.”

The COVID-19 global pandemic has caused a lot of uncertainty around the world. People don’t feel in control of things like their health and their jobs. But feeling in control of a virtual island can restore a sense of normalcy and balance to a chaotic life.

Our collective need for that sense of control has lured millions of people to check out Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Is it any wonder that the game became its own kind of social media?

RELATED: Nookazon: How One Animal Crossing Fan Created the Ultimate Fan Trading Site

What makes Animal Crossing: New Horizons so special?

If you’re not an Animal Crossing fan, you may wonder what makes this game so special. After all, other games give you a sense of control. So why does Animal Crossing: New Horizons resonate in a way that games like Overwatch or Doom Eternal do not?

Most games have some kind of competitive element built in. You may be battling other players online or fighting enemies in campaign mode, but the goal of coming out on top is very clear. That can be rewarding, but it can also be stressful.

By contrast, there is no real competition in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. You simply create something beautiful and then share it with the world whenever (if ever) you are comfortable doing so. And the need to trade for items helps encourage players to interact in a wholesome manner with visitors to their island.

Nintendo has long been criticized for making it difficult to chat with other players. Ironically, that is part of Animal Crossing’s transition into social media. Players are finding new ways to visually express themselves, and they don’t have to worry about a random visitor screaming at them over the Nooklink voice chat (which you can only use with friends).

More than a call, less than a game

Thanks to COVID-19, many people are discovering the limits of social technology. Zoom has thrived in helping workers and friends alike interact via video chat. But Star Trek-style video chats aren’t always as fun as we imagine, and they often highlight the fact that we’d rather be out doing something together instead of just chatting.

This is another area where Nintendo has, quite possibly by accident, created the perfect balance. By letting you build, trade, and explore together, they have created an environment that is more interactive and rewarding than a simple Zoom call.

At the same time, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is not a traditional game. You mostly create your own goals and do as much (or as little) as you want. This has made the game more attractive to those who wouldn’t normally consider themselves a gamer.

RELATED: Tips and Tricks for Animal Crossing: New Horizons

The joys of a digital sandbox

In the best possible way, Animal Crossing is bringing many players back to the vibe of their early childhood. It’s like being a kid in a playground again: you can do whatever you want while interacting with like-minded people. Think of it as a digital and adult-friendly version of “parallel play” that helps us all interact with one another.

Nintendo isn’t the only company that has figured out how much people want to just hang out in a stress-free digital environment. Epic Games recently added a mode to Fortnite called Party Royale. Instead of battling for survival, you simply hang out with others while throwing hamburgers and other harmless “weapons” around.

Fortnite embracing the “more than a call, less than a game” mentality is further proof that Animal Crossing has redefined how we interact online.

Celebrities love playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons

For better or for worse, the biggest indication of emerging social media is celebrity involvement. And it seems that even the rich and the famous can’t resist the lure of Animal Crossing!

Captain Marvel star Brie Larson loves showing off her Animal Crossing fashions and has even become a paid Nintendo partner.

Chrissy Teigen, a self-professed “Tom Nook loyalist,” has often tweeted about the game.

Danny Trejo, famous for playing tough characters, was very enthusiastic about offering players his dodo code.

Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams has lamented that she can’t pay off her virtual home because she’s too busy decorating.

Best of all, Elijah Wood virtually hung out with a fan who sold him some turnips!

Old brands meet new media

Part of the charm of Animal Crossing: New Horizons is creating your own items. Want to recreate your real wardrobe on the island or dress your characters like members of Starfleet? A little creativity can make it happen.

Now, more and more brands are creating virtual clothes so fans can show their support. This ranges from clothing designers showing off their hot new looks to rivals like Xbox offering virtual shirts and hoodies. 

As you can see, Animal Crossing is shaping up to be a robust form of social media. It now has millions of players, celebrity involvement, and branded advertising. New Horizons is living up to its name and expanding the horizons of online social engagement.

Animal Crossing after COVID-19

As we said earlier, part of why Animal Crossing has enjoyed so much success is the isolation and quarantine imposed by COVID-19. However, researchers are frantically trying to develop a vaccine even as numerous states haltingly attempt to get things back to normal.

That means we don’t know how long Animal Crossing will continue to serve as the new social media. Will millions of players continue to engage online as businesses around them re-open? Or will they stop visiting virtual islands as soon as they can go back to visiting their friends?

Even if everyone stopped playing Animal Crossing en masse, Nintendo has shown that the world is ready for a new way to interact online. And we’re willing to bet that both gaming and social media will never be the same.

RELATED: Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review

Will gaming and social media come full circle?

Speaking of social media, we have one final question: will gaming and social media come full circle?

It wasn’t that long ago that social media games such as Farmville were a part of the collective Facebook consciousness. But these games eventually faded in favor of dedicated apps. Additionally, these games never felt all that social despite being distributed via social media.

Now that we know that people want a blend of social media and gaming, it’s an open question whether social media giants such as Facebook will be able to perfect this blend. Considering Facebook’s investment in virtual reality, the future of social gaming may be right around the corner.

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