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Animal Crossing: An Example In and Out of Game

"Animal Crossing’s freedom comes with constructive goals that demonstrate how you can be both productive and content with yourself."

By Eleanor Mather
December 16, 2019

Last Tuesday, fans of the popular Animal Crossing series had their thirst for news of a new game quenched with the announcement of Animal Crossing: New Horizons at E3. While many were disappointed with the fact that the game would be delayed to March 2020, reactions made a shift to the positive once it was announced that this decision was made for the sake of the game developers and the lives they had outside of work.

It was extremely heartening to see fans reacting positively to the announcement, but looking back it makes perfect sense given how Animal Crossing portrays work in its gameplay. For those who are unfamiliar with the game, the Animal Crossing series is a real-time town simulator in which you take part in a small community. The more the player participates, the more your town grows. More recent installments have put the development of the town farther in the hands of the player, going as far as making them the mayor (and allowing them to directly choose where and when their town develops certain amenities through Public Works Projects) but the message has remained fundamentally the same: taking things your own way. 

While this message may come across as letting the player slack off, Animal Crossing's freedom comes with constructive goals that demonstrate how you can be both productive and content with yourself. Whether it's through collecting fruit, catching bugs or fish, or interacting with fellow villagers, the player can make progress to become better at their preferred activity in the game which in turn can help the quality of life in the town. Players can contribute at their own pace towards what they want to accomplish without fear of being punished for not meeting arbitrary deadlines or completing certain tasks 'out of order'. 

Speaking from personal experience, this approach to work in a game, fortunately, came to me during critical periods of my life. I briefly played Wild World, the second game in the series when I was 7, but I began to appreciate the series' structure when New Leaf came out the summer before 8th grade. My friends and I started our games around the same time, so we were able to recount our experiences opening new shops and placing new Public Works Projects - we even set up weekly Saturday visits to each other's towns to see the fruits of each other's efforts. We all had different approaches, some of us tried to pay off our home loans quickly while others carefully planned out their next landmark so their village could come closer to their personal aesthetic. We worked hard, but it was for our own progress and fun as opposed to the expectations of those around us.

When school began that year my friends and I stopped playing consistently - work and school activities (and applying to a new school in my case) taking up much of our time. Revisiting the game in high school felt completely out of the question, as adjusting to a new community and maintaining my grades became a top priority. However, this September I had the chance to settle back into the Animal Crossing routine when a group of friends who had also long abandoned the game wanted to recapture the feeling of freedom in their work. On a late evening, we all began new lives in new towns, and I don't think I ever appreciated the game more than during the following school year. 

While I took great pride in all of my schoolwork during this period, Junior year meant that everyone felt the pressure of college riding on every activity. Things that were once done for personal improvement were often talked about in the hallways in terms of how they could be leveraged for applications, and I saw how those around me spoke less and less about how they enjoyed the material and more and more about how stressed they were about their next test grade. Animal Crossing was such a wonderful reminder of just how fun working towards something can be if the core motivation comes from within. Being the mayor for even 20-minute periods during times I would designate myself a break would show me what I almost missed amidst school routine. This mindset eventually leaked into my attitude about my homework and extracurriculars, and I found myself enjoying my activities more authentically than before. 

Seeing the lessons I was taught by Animal Crossing being practiced by those in charge renews my faith that I can continue to find work that I take personal fulfillment from after my high school career. Progress doesn't stop at me, however, and I hope to use Animal Crossing's example and become a positive influence on my peers as well.

Check out our Curated Games Catalog for other games that feature mechanics, narratives, and other elements identified by players, professional game developers, game scholars, educators, and scientists that are supportive of teen thriving and development.

Eleanor Mather is a 17-year-old rising senior currently attending Horace Mann High School in the Bronx. She has enjoyed playing games since playing Pokémon Platinum with her brother and friends and has grown to love discussing and developing them in the past years. She is very excited to contribute her thoughts to the conversation on games as a medium and hopes to encourage others to join in.