Sharmin Asha was disappointed. With the covid-19 outbreak sweeping across the globe, she and her fiance, Nazmul Ahmed, had to face a hard truth — it wasn’t safe to bring her family and friends together under one roof. They’d have to cancel their wedding.

The 28-year-old couple from New Jersey scrapped plans for their 150-person, April 12th reception in Brooklyn until next year, and pressed pause on a first dance set to Louis Armstrong’s “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.”

“We were basically 99-percent ready to get married, which unfortunately did not happen,” Asha said.

In the days that followed their decision, Asha and Ahmed tried to move past their disappointment, taking up the new Nintendo game, Animal Crossing: New Horizons on the recommendation of a friend. The couple enjoyed their time with the life simulator, harvesting resources and using them to upgrade their personalized islands with new buildings and items. Then Asha experienced a thrilling surprise.

“Nazmul invited me over to collect resources [on his island] since he had been playing longer than me,” Asha said. “As soon as I got there, he was at the airport and there were arrows on the ground. He told me there was some special in-game event, so we followed them.”

The arrows led Asha through the town, where she picked up flowers Ahmed had left along the path, and up to the beach where their friends were waiting with their own Animal Crossing characters. Ahmed had planned a surprise beach wedding within the game. He got everything ready on the same day and had their friends in a video chat on mute until the big reveal.

“It took me around four or five hours to set the whole thing up,” Ahmed said. “Our friends played [the game] already, so they were immediately on board.”

Asha and Ahmed’s story is not a rare one these days. There have been instances all over the world of players hosting a wedding within Animal Crossing in the midst of a pandemic that has closed borders, postponed planned events and forced people to stay home. Some have even designed traditional Vietnamese and Korean wedding clothing with the game’s customization options.

The in-game nuptials isn’t a full substitute for their wedding, Asha and Ahmed said, and their ceremony carries no legal bearing. But, for now, Asha, Ahmed and a host of other couples are saying “I do” through their characters in a game that has served as a popular proxy for real-world social interaction with much of the world forced into isolation.

New Horizons is the fifth game in a franchise whose popularity began with its first release in 2001. But this latest entry is something of a cultural phenomenon. While its previous version, New Leaf, has sold 12 million copies since its release in 2012, New Horizons has already sold nearly 2 million copies in Japan alone since releasing on March 20th. It’s gotten so popular that Animal Crossing jokes, videos, and memes have flooded Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms.

“With social distancing and the current world situation, New Horizons is the closest semblance to a normal life that some of us can have right now,” said University of Texas senior Dang Ton. Ton tweeted a video showing his Animal Crossing character accepting a diploma after the school shut down. Ton and his friends made the viral video as a joke, but a future graduation ceremony for him and other would-be graduates around the world remains an open question.

Many Animal Crossing-imitating-life posts are about people like Asha, Ton, or Evan Latt, who held his 31st birthday party inside the game in late March. Latt said he usually gets some of his friends together for a night out in Nashville, with drinks across several bars and restaurants. “It’s usually nothing horribly special,” Latt said, but his real-life plans wouldn’t work this year. “All my friends and I have been keeping to the safer-at-home ordinance, not visiting each other. All bars and other public spaces in Nashville are closed. It would’ve been a fun night out at a bar, but now, I’m playing Animal Crossing.”

Instead of a bar crawl, Latt traveled from one of his friend’s villages to the next in the game, culminating in one belonging to his friend Aaron Traylor. There his friends brought him gifts he can use in the game and hung out as they all conversed using Zoom video chat. “People brought me a plaid shirt, an amp, a record player and fruit,” he said. “Then we just checked out [Aaron’s] museum and his stash of outdoor toilets.”

Latt and his friends had been playing Animal Crossing for years, dropping dozens of hours into the previous franchise entries like Wild World on the Nintendo DS and New Leaf on the Nintendo 3DS. New Horizons came out at the perfect time to be a catalyst for the important things in life they couldn't do in person.

“Most of us were planning on getting it but not playing it as hard as we did,” said Traylor, who lives in Providence, Rhode Island. “Animal Crossing hit at the right time.”

Traylor, who is a graduate student and competitive Pokémon player, used Animal Crossing to recreate a tournament venue that was shuttered after its event was canceled because of the outbreak. He got other broadcasters and players together, designed his house in the game to look like the arena, and hung out with friends he only gets to see a couple of times a year. Now that most of the tournaments are postponed and future ones remain uncertain — the only times he can really bond with other competitors — Animal Crossing is the best way to fill the void.

“I’m honestly really sad,” said Traylor, who was excited for a week exploring Portugal with the other players before working at the tournament in Berlin.

Some of the people who spoke to The Post about their recent in-game gatherings had been longtime fans of Animal Crossing. Others, like Asha, had only just started playing video games regularly. They all agreed that New Horizons came at the perfect time to give them a deeper connection with their faraway loved ones, even more than video chat alone or another game could.

“Even though it wasn’t in real life, in times like this it’s important to be connected with those that are close to you,” said Asha, whose graduation ceremony from medical school was also impacted by the outbreak. “For us to have to go through the cancellation of our wedding, seeing all the people we care about come together meant a lot to me.”

Aron Garst is a writer covering the video game and esports industries. You can find his work regularly in ESPN, WIRED, The Verge and EGMNOW. Follow him on Twitter @GarstProducton.

correction

An earlier version of this story referred to Aaron Traylor as a Pokémon broadcaster. He is a player.

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