The release of Nintendo’s social simulation video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons could not have come at a better time.
In the early weeks of government-mandated stay-at-home and physical distancing orders relating to COVID-19, people around the world started to collectively mourn — not only for those directly affected by the virus, but also for what felt like the loss of normalcy. Our daily routines and commutes, social events with our friends and families, and general productivity all ground to a halt as the virus rapidly spreads across the globe, affecting millions in its wake.
For anyone who has lost a loved one to COVID-19, this grief has come tenfold. Not being able to come into direct contact with our deceased, coupled with funerals being prohibited, or restricted to only a few attendees, COVID-19 is denying mourners the opportunity to properly grieve their dead and be comforted by loved ones during this deeply troubling and socially isolating time.
To those who are already familiar with the Animal Crossing franchise, it’s no surprise that on March 20, 2020 — in the early weeks of COVID-19 lockdown — millions flocked to download this newest installment for comfort.
For those who are unfamiliar, Animal Crossing is a slow-paced game with tend-and-befriend mechanics —meaning, there’s no combat, violence, or even death in the game, and instead the main mechanics are centered around crafting spaces, watering flowers, and making friends.
At a time when our society is collectively grieving, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has been integral for millions of players when it comes to maintaining routines, socializing with friends, and having a digital space to create freely.
One of the many craftable decorations in Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a tombstone (or “Western-style stone” as it’s referred to in the game). While some players have found the existence of such an item to be a little unsettling, several others using these tombstones to lovingly craft digital memorials for their deceased loved ones.
Twitter user @emiface who lost their grandmother at the beginning of April 2020 and was unable to attend her funeral crafted a beautiful seaside memorial where they can visit and honour their grandmother. “She and my grandpa loved going to the beach… I feel so upset not being able to say goodbye but now I can remember her more everyday.” Many other Twitter users also responded with similar memorials they created for their relatives, parents, and even their pets.
“I did the same for my grandmother,” replied one user. “She passed back in 2014. I made her a nice memorial overlooking the ocean, and since Eagles were her favorite, I made sure Apollo [an Eagle villager in the game] lived nearby. He waters the lilies around her grave every day.”
Many Animal Crossing players have been crafting gardens for their loved ones, including Twitter user @shakuricosplay, “I lost my mom to breast cancer in 2015… Her favorite flowers were red tulips. I’m glad I’m not the only one who did something like this.”
Tombstones aside, many Animal Crossing players are using the open-ended design of the game to create spaces for mourning their deceased loved ones. Another Twitter user @p_uddles posted a lovingly-crafted recreation of their grandparents’ home in memory of them.
Because Animal Crossing: New Horizons works on an actual clock, it’s designed to be played slowly — content is doled out a little bit over time with only a few new things to experience every day, and because there is no ending to the game you aren’t able to “binge” it like you would with most other video games. With this in mind, the joy in playing Animal Crossing comes in playing for a small amount of time every day. Checking your mail, greeting your villagers, seeing what few new items are in stock at the local shop, watering your flowers, etc…
One of the most important parts of mourning — whether it’s a deceased loved one, a recently-ended relationship, a job loss, etc — is finding a routine or ritual and allowing ourselves to fully grieve. This could be visiting a place that reminds you of the person or thing you are mourning, or listening to a song that reminds you of them, making a specific food dish they baked, whatever. Unfortunately, many who are mourning during this current pandemic are unable to create or practice their mourning rituals in order to do so at this time.
Although mourners may not be able to maintain their rituals in real life, Animal Crossing: New Horizons gives players the opportunity to find a daily routine filled with small but positive actions, and encourages the player to return to the game every day — even just for a little bit — to maintain this routine. Unable to visit their father’s memorial, Twitter user @aduenas99 created one for him instead, commenting “Because of the quarantine we can’t go visit him, but at least I can do it on my island… I’m glad we all can find a little comfort in doing this.”
Some of these rituals may even be continued from previous Animal Crossing games. “I’ve decided that, in each of my save files from herein, I’m going to dedicate a space to my father” said a Reddit user on the Animal Crossing Subreddit. “A whole room full of ‘hey, Dad.’ Animal Crossing helped me as a lost nine-year-old, and I figure it can be a tool now, fourteen years later.”
One of the most difficult aspects we are collectively having with COVID-19 is the inability to directly interact with our friends, families, or… anyone really. During a global crisis, it’s a huge discomfort to not be able to visit loved ones, or eat at a favourite restaurant with friends, or even shop for groceries like we normally would.
Many of us have been spending more time on our devices in an effort to stay in contact with our loved ones and see friendly faces through screens —Zoom business meetings, FaceTime calls with grandparents, and Instagram dance parties included. Although these interactions may not be as comforting as they would be in real life, it’s a relief to be able to connect with our loved ones at all.
Many people are turning to video games while isolating at home as a way to entertain themselves, socialize with friends, and distract themselves from everything that’s going on in the world. Animal Crossing: New Horizons allows up to 8 players to visit each other at the same time, and gives opportunities for people to socialize with each other and have fun during a time where playfulness is needed now more than ever.
When Branden Perez died from complications related to coronavirus and his family and friends were unable to hold a traditional funeral because of lockdown restrictions, they instead decided to celebrate his life in Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
“Branden absolutely loved video games, so this type of service was perfect for him,” said his cousin Pricilla Perez. “It was the most beautiful thing that I’ve ever seen, we were able to go into the town that [he] had built in Animal Crossing and leave flowers… We have a really big family and it made us so happy to have that for Branden, it’s a place we can always go back to, to be with him.”
“This gave us a great deal of closure, all his friends got to go and leave flowers and leave comments and memories, it was so beautiful.”
COVID-19 has been a frustrating, stressful, tragic experience for the many who are directly impacted and the many whose lives have been uprooted by the pandemic.
Video games have always been a source of entertainment, socialization, and comfort for many, but I cannot think of a single more important game to exist than Animal Crossing right now. During a time when we are unable to attend funerals or memorials for our loved ones and when we are unable to console each other in person, it’s comforting to have the means to do so through the soft and slow gameplay of Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
Gabby DaRienzo is a Toronto-based video game developer and artist whose work often focuses on death and grief in games. She is the creative director of the critically-acclaimed funeral home simulation video game A Mortician’s Tale and the host and producer of the Play Dead Podcast, where she interviews other video game developers on how they’re exploring death in their own games. She currently works as an artist at DrinkBox Studios, the creators of death positive games Guacamelee! and Severed. You can follow her on twitter @gabbydarienzo and find more of her work at gabbydarienzo.com.