On 16 March, three things happened: the lockdown began, my cat was diagnosed with a chronic illness, and my boyfriend broke up with me.
Normally when life gets rough I spend time with friends, but thanks to the pandemic, that wasn’t an option. Living alone, I felt the full weight of this compounded grief, as hours spread before me like years. There was only one logical solution: escape into the enchanted world of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.
You play an intrepid traveller who is given the task of customising a deserted island. It’s up to you whether you want to develop it into a sprawling urban cityscape, or expand its natural beauty by adding cliffs and waterfalls. Slowly, your island transforms into a bustling community, populated by animal villagers. It is an exercise in patience – the game syncs with real time, so players are rewarded by seeing trees and flowers grow day by day.
Using Nintendo’s online service, you can visit friends’ islands. This function has filled the void of socialisation in this strange time: magazine launches have happened on the game and sex workers have used it as a way to work. The possibilities are limitless – all you need is an internet connection and someone to play with.
Heartbreak still fresh, I wasn’t exactly ready to start dating again – not that I could, really – but listening to sad songs on repeat while sobbing was getting boring, so I reluctantly reinstalled the app on which I’d met my ex.
Heartbreak still fresh, I wasn’t exactly ready to start dating again – not that I could, really – but listening to sad songs on repeat while sobbing was getting boring, so I reluctantly reinstalled the app on which I’d met my ex. Uncomfortable with writing an earnest profile, I filled out the app’s prompts with Animal Crossing’s lucrative turnip stock exchange in mind:
All I ask is that: you give me turnips in Animal Crossing.
The best way to ask me out is by: giving me turnips in Animal Crossing.
I’m looking for: turnips in Animal Crossing.
I got a match with a response: “Only if you water my flowers.”
After an enthusiastic discussion about the game, my match invited me to visit his island. That night I changed into my best Animal Crossing outfit – a hot dog costume – and flew over.
His island was wild and beautiful. As promised, I watered his flowers, helping him grow rare hybrids, and he showed me the sights.
His island was wild and beautiful. As promised, I watered his flowers, helping him grow rare hybrids, and he showed me the sights. We climbed a mountain he had built filled with waterfalls – seeing the digital fruits of his creativity gave me a glimpse into who he was. He led me to a romantic setting on the beach, using the slow in-game chat to ask a question: “Do you have the matching table for these chairs?” I laughed out loud – it felt like the first time I’d smiled in weeks. At the end of the date, there were none of the usual nerves about whether or not there’d be a goodnight kiss, or any of the post-date anxiety the morning after: just more items in my inventory, a new name on my friends list.
We became regular visitors to each other’s towns, chatting while we played – the game gave us something to talk about, but we discovered other things in common, too. One night, he invited me over to wish on shooting stars. Another night, he called me while we played; our characters sat idly together in the museum, feet touching, as our consoles lay abandoned while we talked nonstop. One morning, he texted me that his shop was buying turnips for over 600 bells (the game’s currency) – I flew over before work and made my first million.
I can’t fathom going on an actual date – choosing an outfit, putting on makeup, making awkward small talk with a stranger – but on Animal Crossing, I can do or be whatever I want. I can change my appearance with the wave of a wand. I can take dates to the art gallery, and flirt using my character’s wide array of facial expressions. I can sit by the sea, alone or with company, and watch the colours of the horizon change. All this from the safety of my apartment – it doesn't matter if I’ve washed my hair, or if I suddenly get teary or anxious.
I can’t fathom going on an actual date – choosing an outfit, putting on makeup, making awkward small talk with a stranger – but on Animal Crossing, I can do or be whatever I want.
Animal Crossing has unlocked a universe of possibilities during exceptionally suffocating times. For me, it is a low-stakes way to experiment with dating while doing the slow work of healing, and a reminder of the value of patience as we all move back towards some kind of stability. The path there is lit by this boundless, hyperreal wonder: a taste of the magic that is waiting when all of this passes.
Giselle A. Nguyen is a freelance writer.
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