Why I Love Animal Crossing

May 4, 2020

If you're not one of the 13+ million people playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons, surely you know someone who is. The game is so popular that Nintendo Switches are nearly in as much demand as COVID-19 test kits.

At first glance, Animal Crossing looks pretty childish. I'll admit I was initially reluctant to even read about it, much less buy it. But peer pressure finally got to me and I quickly realized what I was missing out on. Animal Crossing: New Horizons isn't just a game. It's the manifestation of the "we're all in this together" spirit that this global pandemic has stirred in at least some of us.

The residents of Quarantine
A photo mode allows you to pose for pics with all of your island's residents.

WTF is Animal Crossing?

Animal Crossing: New Horizons, is the fifth entry in the Animal Crossing series (and the first one I've played). The game drops you off on an island where Tom Nook, a tanuki loan-shark, invites you to set up camp, and eventually, permanent residence on the island. The game takes place in real-time, with certain creatures and events only available during certain times.

Tom Nook gives the daily announcements
I named my island "Quarantine," which leads to some fun dialog.

Nook offers to front you the money to upgrade your tent to a house, and your house into a bigger house, leaving you almost constantly in his debt. As your actions raise the profile of the island, new animal villagers will take up residence on the island.

Besides building and decorating your house, you can acquire items, clothing and furniture through various means, including crafting. You can fish for dozens of types of sea creatures, catch bugs, and dig up fossils, which can all be donated to the curator of the local museum or sold to help pay back your loan. You can plant trees and breed flowers. There are constant visitors to the island that require your help or offer goods and services. You can build relationships with your island neighbors and find new neighbors while visiting other islands. There's also a stock market-like turnip economy that, when played correctly, can make money a trivial concern and get Tom Nook off your back forever.

Aside from eventually paying off your loans and raising your island's rating enough to attract K.K. Slider, a singing dog, to perform a show on your island, there's really no goal other than to build your dream home and its surroundings. So why does everyone love this game?


An Animal Crossing date gone sour
Animal Crossing lets me relive awkward dating experiences from before I was married.

There's no shortage of multiplayer gaming experiences out there — some competitive and some cooperative — that allow us to interact with friends and strangers alike from the comfort of our own homes. Games like Fortnite pit you and your friends against dozens of strangers in an anxiety-driven competition. Not only are you competing with other teams, but also bickering with your friends about which way to go and who should take what gear. It's exhausting.

On the other hand, Animal Crossing is incredibly cooperative. Since players have their own islands, people are generally helpful in sharing tips, items and allowing people to visit their islands to sell turnips at ridiculously high prices. I made my first million when my shop was offering an absurd amount in exchange for turnips and I opened my island up to strangers on the subreddit r/TurnipStonkMarket, who tipped generously for the opportunity.

An occult gathering of friends
Wishing upon stars in an ancient pagan ritual, as one does.

Shortly after buying Animal Crossing, I was invited to a group of designers and developers who play, several of whom I have followed for many years and look up to as experts in my field. It is such a collaborative and supportive group. We constantly visit each other's islands when shops and villagers offer interesting items or to wish on shooting stars together on a clear night. (Yes, this is an actual mechanic in the game that generates crafting materials.) It's incredibly surreal to share a virtual moment with people I've seen speak at conferences and whose books and blogs I've read.

So Many Items

The sheer amount of items in this game is pretty astounding. There's so much variety in clothing, accessories, wallpaper, flooring, furniture, and plants. Each character, each house, and each island becomes an expression of its owner's personality. It feels weirdly intimate when you visit someone's island and enter their virtual house.

There's a kind of emergent gameplay in Animal Crossing known as a catalog party. A number of people visit an island and bring about a dozen items with them. Everyone gathers in one location and drops their items on the ground. There's often marked areas for each person to use so that items don't get mixed up. Everyone then takes turns picking up and then immediately dropping each group of items until they arrive back at their own pile. Each item you pick up is then added to the items you can purchase from an in-game catalog (hence the name).

Emergent gameplay in Animal Crossing
A highly successful catalog party!

After attending one of these and getting a ton of new items to decorate my island with, I created an elaborate catalog party space on my island and asked people in my group to list 12 items they wanted in a Google Sheet. Each person crossed items off other people's lists that they were able to bring. This greatly reduced the amount of duplicate items people brought and resulted in people getting a lot of what they were looking for as well as a bunch of other cool items they didn't even know were available.

This kind of "everyone wins" gameplay only further fuels people's love for the game and enhances their connection to other players.

Third-party Apps

With any game there's always going to be apps developed that help make the game a bit easier. Animal Crossing has inspired a slew of great apps.

Nookazon A comprehensive database of Animal Crossing items. It allows you to keep an inventory of your own items, trade items with other players, and keep a wish list of items you're looking for. My wife laughs anytime she catches me on this website, meticulously maintaining my catalog of items.

Turnip Profit and Stalks.io Both of these sites use crowdsourced data to predict turnip prices on your island. Both seem to use the same prediction data. I find Turnip Prophet to be more detailed but Stalks has a social component that allows you to track the prices of your friends.

Turnip Exchange Turnip Exchange allows people to post their turnip prices and let other people queue up to sell turnips on their island. What started out as a nice thing to do for people in exchange for optional tips has led to increasingly high demands of things like Nook Miles Tickets (an item that lets you visit random islands with various resources) and other rare in-game items. There have also been increasing reports of scammers requiring steep entry fees and then booting visitors before they could sell their turnips. So be careful!

AC Patterns One of the cool features of Animal Crossing is that it allows you to make custom textures that can be applied to clothes, walls, floors, or signs in the game, allowing for incredible customization. AC Patterns has a ton of patterns submitted by people as well as an editor that allows you to import images into the game via QR code. Finally a good use for QR codes!

Nook's Island Another repository of custom designs, Nook's Island also includes detailed data on fish and insects, which can only be found during certain hours and/or months of the year.

Happy Island Designer Happy Island Designer is a handy app for planning out your island before committing to all of the tedious work that goes into doing it in-game.

Barcade themed basement
Just hanging out in my basement, like real life.

The Mike Seal of Approval

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a wonderful, calming experience. It is incredibly deep, offering a seemingly endless number of customization options that help each player create a unique environment. The game continues to grow, with seasonal activities and new items and vendors appearing at a steady pace. The best part of ACNH is how it brings friends and strangers together, virtually at least, to hang out and help each other make the best island they can.

When we finally emerge from our homes, hairy, squinting at the sun, I will look back fondly at Animal Crossing: New Horizons as one of the few bright spots that helped get us through.

Further Reading

I'm Mike Aparicio, Principal Design Systems Engineer at Turquoise Health. I'm interested in helping companies large and small improve collaboration between design and engineering through the use of design systems. I specialize in creating custom CSS frameworks that empower engineering teams to get from concept to production quickly, while writing little to no CSS themselves. I write about web design and development, video games, pop culture, and other things I find interesting. I live in the Chicago area with my wife, three sons, and two dogs.

You can find me on most places on the Internet as @peruvianidol.

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