An Escape to New Horizons

Imagine this: you wake up in your own house, in a room decorated exactly how you want it, fully furnished, and filled with scattered trinkets that you picked out. You hop out of bed and head outside to your mailbox where you find some clothes you ordered, a letter from your mom, and a gift from your neighbor. The sun is shining in a clear blue sky overhead. A babbling river and buzzing insects can be heard nearby. You take a deep breath and smell spring flowers, apple trees, and fresh grass. Beyond your yard, you see a few of your neighbors; they all know your name and cannot wait to wish you a good morning. You have no obligations today, but you would love to say hello to the nearby shopkeepers and go fishing on the beach. Whatever you do with your day is up to you; there are no deadlines and nowhere to rush to. 

For many young people, this world of the Animal Crossing series is an enticing fantasy. Owning your own home that you don’t have to share, living nearby all of your friends, and having the money and autonomy to decorate your home, your surroundings, and yourself as you please all seem like fantastical ideas for a generation raised alongside housing crises, staggered wages, and crushing student debt. As millions have been quarantined within their homes, just being able to go outside and see one’s friends can seem like a separate reality. This is particularly true for queer and trans people who have been separated from their support networks or even forced to quarantine with unaccepting family. For those looking for a comforting escape that would allow them to enjoy the outdoors, accomplish easy tasks, and express themselves freely, they should look no further than “Animal Crossing: New Horizons.”

The newest installment in the Animal Crossing series, Animal Crossing: New Horizons

could not have come at a more opportune time.  Released on March 20th, New Horizons came out just as millions of Americans began to shelter in place. Since its release, New Horizons has smashed records, becoming the fastest selling Nintendo Switch game ever, selling 1.8 million units in Japan alone within three days of release. The game has also increased Nintendo Switch sales, increasing 150% in the latter half of March and leading to worldwide Switch shortages.

It is also no coincidence that the game has been especially well-received by college students, many of whom began New Horizons just as they had been uprooted from their college campuses and forced to indefinitely return to their childhood homes. For Animal Crossing veterans and newbies alike, the game’s design is an ideal escape from what many see as a bleak reality amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like other Animal Crossing games, New Horizons has no set path for players to take with their character. There is no linear story, no lives, no dying, and no “Game Over.” Players begin on a deserted island covered in weeds. It is the player’s task to clean up the island and turn it into a bustling place by setting up shops, homes, a museum, and a town hall. Islands can be customized by decorating the outdoors with furniture, planting flowers and trees, and even by shaping the land and rivers. Players have the chance to develop relationships with their adorable animal neighbors, as well as characters such as Able and Sable, the porcupine tailors, Tom Nook, the raccoon island manager, and Isabelle, a fan-favorite Golden Lab that works in the town hall. 

How players decide to develop their island is completely up to them. The game occurs in real time, so New Horizons is designed such that players can upkeep their island a little every day, with daily goals to complete that give the game a sense of daily structure. The process of building up one’s island to completion is designed to take weeks, if not months. This gradual process of developing an island translates into completing simple tasks for hours on end as players transform their island from a deserted wasteland into a utopia of their design. An anonymous student shared that New Horizons has “given me set goals to work on, which can be hard to come by when everything is shut down.” Amidst a collective trauma such as the COVID-19 pandemic, New Horizons is an ideal escape for those looking for a way to spend their newly-found free time. 

New Horizons offers a daily respite from morbid news reports and days that seem to blend together. As coronavirus has spread across the globe at breakneck speed, toppling economies and claiming lives, it is easy to feel hopeless as we watch the world around us fundamentally change with nothing we can do but sit tight in our homes. In comparison, New Horizons players have the autonomy to shape their world entirely as they see fit. Players can spend hours in the virtual outdoors, catching bugs and running in the grass, while still remaining in their own homes. Freshman Max Chow-Gillette shared that New Horizons has “been such a huge escape for me, away from the crushing pressure of capitalist wage labor into a place where you can just chill with your animal buddies.” Players have their own home, building it up from an unassuming tent to a grand mansion, even if in their actual home they do not have their own bedroom. New Horizons’ multiplayer mode can allow friends thousands of miles apart to spend time together, and some have even used the game to celebrate key anniversaries or to hold a virtual graduation ceremony.  

New Horizons also offers a unique opportunity for LGBTQ+ people looking for an escape from unaccepting homes. According to Forbes, the coronavirus is predicted to have a disproportionate impact on the mental health of LGBTQ+ community members, especially those that identify as transgender or gender-nonconforming. For trans people, this may mean being forced to quarantine in a household where they are called the wrong name and pronouns, unsupported by their family, or simply not out of the closet. While New Horizons can never make up for a lack of safety or community, the game can provide players with an affirming escape. An anonymous student shared that New Horizons “gives me the opportunity to express my gender outwardly with a flexibility I don’t have in real life […] it allows me to explore aspects of myself that might be influenced by an expectation of gender in real life. Villagers don’t care, and it’s nice.” In New Horizons, players can pick whatever name they please and are referred to exclusively with gender-neutral pronouns. There is a choice between playing as a “boy” or “girl,” which nonbinary or gender-questioning players may find limiting. However, unlike previous games, this setting can be changed at any time, and the full array of facial features, hairstyles, and clothes are available to all players, regardless of their gender setting. 

In a time when just getting up and putting on a fresh pair of clothes can be a serious challenge, New Horizons gives people in quarantine the opportunity to go outside their homes and appreciate a clear blue sky, blossoming flowers, and regular trips to go shopping or walk on the beach. Players can switch their gender and their self-expression whenever they want, without ever having to doubt the support of their adorable neighbors. Amidst a time of incredible uncertainty and fear, New Horizons offers a much needed escape to those who need it most.