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culture Essays media technology

Losing Dora: We Might Be a Little Too Invested in Animal Crossing

“Daddy, I have bad news.”

I awoke to find the boy in his pajamas, standing in the doorway of my bedroom. Though I hadn’t put my glasses on yet, I could still see he had gone pale and was shocked with grief.

“What is it?” I garbled.

“Dora is leaving.”

Confused, I squinted with my face still half submerged in pillow. “What?”

“I accidentally told her to leave and now she’s never coming back!”

And then, the tears flowed.

The boy was not referring to a real person, or even a human, but a video game mouse named Dora, a character in Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

Dora was a resident of the digital island on which Animal Crossing takes place, a member of the computer-generated community that the boy is responsible for maintaining as part of the game. The situation he was describing — the loss he was grieving — was the news that Dora had decided to move out, and that he had inadvertently convinced her to do so.

“She asked me whether she should follow her dreams, and I said yes, she should follow her dreams, and she said that meant she should leave, and I didn’t know she would do that and now she’s going away forever!” He declared that Dora, who is indeed a-Dora-ble, was his favorite island resident, and that he never wanted her to leave. The boy sobbed as I comforted him.

And as I comforted him, I also thought to myself, I can’t believe this shit.

For one thing, this feels a little like a trap. Someone with as big a heart as my son’s is always going to tell someone to follow their dreams, and having that be the trigger for a beloved digital companion to bugger off seems like something of a gotcha for the empathetic.

But the real problem was, of course, that the imminent departure of a fake mouse-person who existed only within the confines of a 7-inch LCD display was enough to make my son go the full Kübler-Ross.

I consoled him as best I could. I assured him that the character is not real and has no feelings to be assuaged or validated, and no means of bearing regrets or grudges. I reminded him that it means that the island now had room for a brand new villager who would put their own unique stamp on the island’s life. But nothing I said mattered. He was experiencing what was, for him, genuine loss.

Later in the day, he calmed down and felt embarrassed. I assured him he never needed to be ashamed of, or apologize for, having feelings, and that this was a good opportunity to remind himself that these are, in fact, fake characters on a fake island who do not actually know him or have any thoughts of any kind. He understood, of course, but I could tell he was still hurting.

But there was other fun to be had. My partner’s son was visiting, and he had set up his own little home on my son’s island, which is hosted on the same Nintendo Switch console. We were making preparations for my partner’s son, who is a little older than mine, to “friend” everyone in the house so that we could visit each other’s islands and send each other gifts. Fake gifts, of course.

But somewhere in the process of setting up a Nintendo online account, which would enable the older boy to interact with us, the older boy’s profile on the console was obliterated. All the work he had done to get his own game going was now lost.

The tension in the house increased to the point of near-suffocation.

My partner and I scrambled to see what we could salvage, retracing steps and retrying the account set-up process, promising the older boy that we’d do all we could to reestablish his standing on the island, where he would now have to start anew, back in a meager tent rather than a house, and sadly bereft of bells, the currency of the Animal Crossing society. We all promised to essentially execute a stimulus package, crafting expensive items and harvesting resources for him so that he could, at the very least, have the means to get back up and running as quickly as possible.

Not one to broadcast his emotions, the older boy did his best to remain stoic, but we could all see he was crushed inside, though also moved by our collective promise to put our own islands on a wartime footing, directing all manufactory capability toward the reconstruction of his place in society. Like an Animal Crossing Marshall Plan.

After successfully assigning him a new profile and legitimate online account to go with it, we fired up the Animal Crossinggame, and lo and behold, there was a Nooksmas miracle. His save data had not been deleted with his profile, and the game simply asked if we wanted to assign this new profile to the existing resident. Hell yes, we did. He was saved, and we all stopped being snippy with each other.

Look, I get it. Especially at this point in history, when kids can’t be around other kids and families are stuck within the same four walls most of the time, the love and toil one puts into a game like Animal Crossing becomes very meaningful. Animal Crossing’s world is the opposite of what we’re living through, where one can be outside, interact with anyone, and be totally free from worries about money, jobs, or disease. The characters we meet have delightful quirks, engage us in conversation and activities, and make each island its own special mini-society. Having discovered this wonderful escape, losing any of it feels like a real loss.

Later, the older boy encountered Dora the mouse on my son’s island. Dora mentioned that she was planning on leaving the island, and he urged her to rethink her position.

She was persuaded. We told my son the good news: Dora was staying.

The day was saved. Both boys, having faced what was to them unthinkable loss, were given a second chance. Everything was going to be okay.

Except for the fact that this game has utterly devoured my family, making us crazier than we already were, and that I will likely need many weeks of intensive therapy as soon as this quarantine is over.

Maybe I’ll have a chat with Dora.

Categories
creativity Essays media personal

Animal Crossing and the Joy of Bucolic Drudgery

Me, in jester’s hat, superhero mask, and business suit, with the quetzalcoatlus skeleton that looms over my property.

Why did I play Animal Crossing for four hours today?

About a month ago I became one of the bajillions of people of all ages enthralled with Nintendo’s bucolic-drudgery simulator, Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I never expected to be. When the game was announced, having no frame of reference for the previous iterations, I was utterly uninterested. Then I saw the deluge of fawning coverage and player testimonials about how this game, this experience, was keeping people sane during the COVID-19 lockdown, and I decided to give it a shot.

Now it’s the center of most family activity and interest at my house. My kids can’t stop talking and thinking about the game, and even my partner, who never plays any video games whatsoever, is utterly devoted to it. (She plays more than any of us!) The four of us are constantly dishing about the other island residents and trading gossip about their quirky behaviors (we all just love Zucker), and we cheer each other on for our successes. (“I finally caught an oarfish!”)

My partner Renée with her big catch. I have a heart attack every time I pull one of these monsters out of the water.

But, you know, why?

I do understand the general appeal of the game’s overall shtick. After all, I spent a great deal of time, circa 2000, enriching the lives of my Sims (or making them suffer unthinkably), and more recently I have easily logged around 1500 hours fashioning empires in Civilization VI. And while I’ve never really gotten the hang of Minecraft, I can at least appreciate how its limitless palette for creativity is so engrossing. I’ve even dabbled, rather tepidly, with Second Life. Animal Crossing boasts many of the elements that made Minecraft, Second Life, and the Sims and Civilization franchises appealing. And it’s way cuter.

But viewed from another angle, playing Animal Crossing can seem a lot like the equivalent of doing manual farm labor for a cult leader. Tom Nook is Joe Exotic and we are all his expendable underlings being paid in fake currency and expired meats.

For example, I can spend an hourlong game session just pulling weeds.

Let me slightly rephrase that. I choose to spend an hourlong game session pulling weeds.

And the crazy part is that I love it. With every clump of vegetation I yank from the ground and stuff into my “pockets,” I have made my little island home (which is called Duckbutt Island) just that much more beautiful, and made a larger canvas for me to do with as I like. The methodical, somewhat rhythmic pulling of the weeds is rather meditative, much like real gardening can be (but without the real dirt or real bugs). Even the sound that comes from each weed-pull, a sort of squirty “yoink,” is weirdly satisfying.

I’m not kidding here. When I go on a jaunt to a “mystery island” or visit my kids’ domain and I see a lot of weeds, I think, and perhaps shout out loud, “Oh boy! Weeds!

Later, I can store all those weed clumps away and wait for Leif to come back to Duckbutt town square and purchase them at a modest markup.

Planting flowers, shaking trees, whacking away at rocks, collecting seashells — all of it is tedious, and yet it’s the tediousness that’s often the most appealing part for me. I do also enjoy the creative customization, designing one’s avatar and dwelling, and I have fun checking the boxes that qualify Animal Crossing as a “game” by hitting certain milestones, fulfilling necessary tasks, and upgrading life on Duckbutt. Those things all help Animal Crossing feel like it has a “point.”

But even without those things, it’s remarkably soothing to simply wander one’s island and gently tend to it.

Me in my red outback hat, dress made of cherries, and recycled boots, livin’ life like it’s golden with the boys — my two giant snapping turtles.

In this way, Animal Crossing is less a game, and more of a place to go — which is especially valuable at this moment in history. Countless other games offer this kind of escape, of course, from Fortnite to World of Warcraft to, well, name your MMORPG of choice. None of them, however, have appealed to me the way Animal Crossinghas…with perhaps the exception of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which, while not a “sim” by any means, provides so rich and wide of an experience that one can simply wander and putter about delightedly for hours. And believe me, I have.

Zelda aside, perhaps it’s those other games’ sprawling complexity that suggests to me that the effort to master them wouldn’t be worth the time and energy.

Animal Crossing has many layers of complexity, but they all feel very optional. One can advance and upgrade at one’s own pace, and in the meantime there is always something to do, harvest, beautify, design, or craft. And, importantly, as you meander and dawdle, no one will be out to get you.

However, one aspect of Animal Crossing that has really solidified it as a breakout phenomenon at this moment is its social component. Players can visit the islands of friends or anyone on the internet who opens their island to visitors. I’ve played online with my kids while they’re at their mom’s house, but otherwise I have interacted very little with anyone else. What am I missing here?

I suspect it has more to do with me than the game. My reticence and anxieties over social encounters in meatspace seems to carry over to Animal Crossingin strikingly similar ways. Just like in the real world, I worry over what to say or how to behave around another player, and feel exhausted in advance by whatever expectations they might have of me. I feel pretty confident of my ability to cultivate lasting friendships with Zucker the octopus and Truffles the pig. And Blathers, well, he is my true soulmate. But actual humans are another story.

At least on a computer generated island, no one expects our avatars to make eye contact.