Skip to main content
Video game news and analysis. Tips to help you win.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inside academia’s growing interest in ‘Animal Crossing’

(The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Throughout the spring semester, many of Dr. Ashley Brown’s students started asking her the same, peculiar question: “What are your turnip prices?”

“It was really quite sweet and cute,” said Brown, an assistant professor of entertainment arts and engineering at the University of Utah and an avid fan of “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” in which selling turnips is a key mechanic. “They’d be really keen to get me to visit their islands, and we’d even trade items, which was fun.”

It was not the first time that Brown had combined Animal Crossing with academia. In 2015, she co-authored a scholarly essay entitled, “'Animal Crossing: New Leaf’ and the Diversity of Horror in Video Games,” which examines the cutesy series through the lens of works by famous thinkers like Sigmund Freud and Martin Heidegger.

“It’s a simplistic, casual game that anyone can pick up, but there are some really dark, horrible themes that I think are interesting and amusing,” she said.

At the time of its publication, Brown’s essay was one of only a handful of academic articles exploring the “Animal Crossing” series. But with the release of New Horizons — and its immense mainstream popularity as a result of the covid-19 pandemic — the series is shifting from a cult hit among academics to a serious subject of scholarly attention.

“The release of New Horizons was just a very exciting moment for a lot of gamers and scholars,” said Dr. Emily Flynn-Jones, a former postdoctoral research fellow at York University and now creative director of KILLJOY Games, a boutique, independent games studio. She is also the editor of this summer’s forthcoming issue of Loading … The Journal of the Canadian Game Studies Association, which will feature scholarly articles devoted entirely to the “Animal Crossing” series. The papers will all have been peer reviewed for quality of research and editorial standards by a group of game studies academics.

Can virtual nature be a good substitute for the great outdoors? The science says yes.

With the “Animal Crossing’s” broad, interdisciplinary appeal — not to mention its newfound mainstream popularity — Loading’s contributors are hopeful that the journal will not only bring the series to the forefront of game studies, but continue to push the boundaries of what is acceptable and standard in higher education.

“I really hope — it’s my dream, really — that game studies can be at the forefront of academia in accepting different, innovative, and accessible forms of scholarship,” said Dr. Emma Vossen, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of British Columbia and a Loading contributor. She previously served as editor in chief of “First Person Scholar,” a website dedicated to providing timely criticism of popular video games.

“If you want a job in academia, you have to partake in this slow, meticulous process of getting journal articles published,” she said. “But people in game studies want what they’re doing to be seen by a broader audience: enthusiasts, journalists, developers. It has interest beyond just other academics.”

In particular, Vossen is hopeful that Loading will help a wide range of readers — from academia and beyond — realize that “Animal Crossing” and other seemingly simple games are actually worthy of serious discussion.

“If I tell someone on the street that I’m writing an academic article about ‘Animal Crossing,' they’d say, ‘What?’ But if I tell them I’m writing an academic piece on a game about war, they can wrap their head around that,” said Vossen. “So my hope is that this [journal] not only means more people will take ‘Animal Crossing’ seriously for academic study but also realize that all these games that appear ‘childish’ are actually very worthy of serious examination.”

The journal contains essays that explore a wide variety of topics, including a psychological look at the impetus to accumulate, the emotional qualities of the series like building relationships with animal neighbors, and how the game is a response to an increasingly isolated society pushing back against communalism.

Nintendo says Tom Nook is a ‘good guy.’ They’re right, and not for the reasons you think.

Vossen’s contribution, titled “Tom Nook, Capitalist or Comrade?: On Nook Discourse and the Millennial Housing Crisis,” takes the oft-debated topic of whether Tom Nook, the series’ Tanooki landlord, is good or evil and examines what those types of conversations — what she calls “Nook Discourse” — mean.

“My argument is that it doesn’t really matter whether Tom Nook is good or evil,” she said. “What matters is that ‘Animal Crossing’ has created this very productive space for people to have conversations about wealth and labor. In day-to-day life, this isn’t something people are normally talking about, but they’re more comfortable calling out Tom Nook as evil than they are calling out their own landlord or Jeff Bezos.”

Her paper goes on to read the game as an “economic power fantasy” in which millennials can momentarily escape the perils of real-world challenges, like the prohibitive real estate market.

“You pay off your loan and see your labor actually result in something that we don’t have access to in real life,” she said.

Other papers in Loading focus on the act of playing “Animal Crossing” for certain types of gamers. Gracie Straznickas, a PhD student at DePaul University, contributed the paper “Not Just a Slice: ‘Animal Crossing’ and a Life Ongoing,” in which she draws on her own personal experience of playing “Animal Crossing” while recovering from an injury in high school that kept her homebound.

“I wrote this paper before covid-19 hit,” said Straznickas. “So it’s been very interesting to see how what I experienced then is what many people are experiencing now.”

Why do we enjoy games that make us work? Proficiency, control, fairness, escape.

She argues that the game’s focus on mundane tasks — as simple as walking and gardening — and its celebration of small, personal goals can be exciting for those unable to go outside and perform those same activities. The paper dives deeper and notes that self identity is often based on social interactions and normativity, and “Animal Crossing” serves as a replacement for that when players are trapped inside.

“When we’re not getting that face-to-face interaction and conversation, it can be almost weird to figure out our own identities,” she said.

She goes on to note that the “ongoingness” of “Animal Crossing” — how it seamlessly blends with the real world — is what distinguishes it and other “slice-of-life” games from other video game genres. She notes that intense games often absorb players mentally and can even distract them from physical pain. As a result, switching back to reality can be discomforting, but not so with “Animal Crossing.”

“When the game world and real world are so closely tied, like in ‘Animal Crossing,’ you are immersed while still being reminded that you’re in the real world, so it’s less painful to switch between the two,” she said. “In this way, ‘Animal Crossing’ eases me, as a player, in and out of gameplay quite nicely.”

The Loading journal is in the final stages of peer review, and the contributors are optimistic that it will serve as the foundation for more research. Flynn-Jones points to the emerging player communities as particularly rich ground for future “Animal Crossing” scholarship.

Animal Crossing’s massive popularity has made it less like paradise and more like Wall Street

“Scholars should embed themselves in those communities now, because this stuff won’t make as much sense retrospectively,” she said. “And our memories of ‘Animal Crossing’ might be quite different, so there’s an immediacy that is important.”

But Brown notes that perhaps the best research will be conducted months — or even years — down the line, once “Animal Crossing” has faded from gamers’ minds.

“One of my favorite types of studies is when you look at the shells of former communities after they fall apart and people leave,” she said. “I’m guessing by Autumn we’ll see articles exploring how people abandoned their sweet animal villagers. Those villagers actually mourn you — it’s this Victorian, morose, gothic thing — and I can’t wait to see how people react to that.”

Gregory Leporati is a freelance writer and photographer covering esports, tech and travel. His recent work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Engadget and Ars Technica. Follow him on Twitter @leporparty.

Read more:

‘Ghost of Tsushima’ is a so-so samurai ‘film,’ but a pretty great samurai game

‘Umurangi Generation’: A photography game that urges you to look closer

Playing as an elderly woman in ‘Watch Dogs: Legion’ brings thrills, danger and laughs