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The people who spent the year in ‘Animal Crossing’

Snow topped trees, ice sculptures and the sound of rushing waterfalls. Susana Liang built out her “Animal Crossing” island complete with a Christmas dinner, various shops, a wedding reception, an igloo campsite, a picnic, a mini version of the Greek island Santorini, elaborate walkways and a cozy home with plenty of Christmas trees.

“Winter makes everything covered in snow and it’s all white, so it makes it feel a bit more ethereal and dreamy. It’s one of my favorite seasons in the game,” said Liang, who works in health science in New York and has spent over 2,300 hours playing Nintendo’s “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” since a few weeks after the game’s release. It’s always winter on her island. Every time winter is about to end, she time travels back to the beginning of January to stay in the season.

The game debuted on March 20, 2020 and has sold over 31 million units, coming in second place behind “Mario Kart 8 Deluxe” as the best-selling title on the Nintendo Switch. The global pandemic has also endured for a year, and Liang is one of many players who have spent the equivalent of a month or more playing the game and transforming their islands from grass-covered and rural to unique vacations away from real-world problems.

As people around the world stayed home more often due to mandatory lockdowns, self-isolation periods for those who had come into contact with the coronavirus and many jobs going remote, they began to have long, empty evenings with plenty of free time. For some, the familiar jingle that plays when starting up “Animal Crossing” is a callback to early pandemic days.

“For over two months, we only left the house for grocery runs,” said Jeremy Smith, 39, a stay-at-home dad in Oklahoma, who has played for 1,400 hours. Toward the end of April, he and his wife decided to buy a Switch after seeing other people playing it and knowing they liked “Animal Crossing: City Folk” on the Nintendo Wii.

At the time, many retailers were sold out of Switches, so Smith had to drive to a Best Buy almost two hours away. “I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s the best thing we could have done,” he said, “It gave us connection to the outside world.”

He created an Amazon-like website for Animal Crossing. It’s getting millions of clicks per day.

Smith is one of the admins who run the Facebook group Animal Crossing Free Community, with over 11,000 members. The group is dedicated to sharing free items with each other and fostering a sense of community among fans of the game.

Being an admin is “actually a lot more work than you would expect,” Smith said, who described having to review requests to join the group and approve posts before they published, as well as checking for rule breakers. “Because we are a free group, we don’t allow anyone to offer to pay with Bells or Nook Miles tickets. That in itself is like a full-time job. But it’s worth it.”

“I always invited people to my island to learn the DIY [recipe] that my villagers were creating or to craft items they may not have the DIY cards for. Between myself, my wife, and my son, we spent most of the day with our gates open, letting people come get whatever they needed.”

On Smith’s island, he has horse stables, a paleontology dig site and themed rooms from TV shows like “Bob’s Burgers” and “the X-Files.” And like a few other “Animal Crossing” super users The Washington Post spoke to, Smith considers himself a completionist. “It took me eight-plus months but I’ve completed my museum,” Smith said, who added that he spent many hours fishing and catching bugs gradually without fast forwarding the game’s internal clock to skip days.

Inside “Animal Crossing,” players complete tasks like fishing and shaking trees to find critters for the island’s resident collector, Blathers. They pay off a mortgage to de facto landlord Tom Nook, who puts them into increasing debt by offering additional updates to their homes. Different island visitors have more tasks to put gamers to work: catching fish competitively in “seasports,” buying turnips to sell on the “stalk market” and purveying artwork that may be real or forged.

For some, these tasks proved to be tiresome over time, even while they lent “New Horizons” a sense of rustic charm. Just as people experienced pandemic burnout in real life, they did so in “Animal Crossing” too.

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

Clara Kim, a 24-year-old Twitch streamer in California, said she played the game for over 10 hours each day when it first came out, and she’s still playing the game often now. She’s spent nearly 2,000 hours in total on three different Nintendo Switches.

“I rushed through the early part of the game and got terraforming as fast as I could,” Kim recalled. “Around the time before the Halloween event came out, I didn’t play ‘Animal Crossing’ at all. I lost all motivation to play because the game felt a bit lacking.”

Kim had already played through the game’s content and needed more things to collect. “Collecting stuff in general is such a big part of ‘Animal Crossing.’ I feel that players always feel the need to collect more and more things,” Kim said.

Seasonal events that Nintendo introduced, including Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, attracted Kim back to the game. And streaming her island to Twitch kept her motivated.

A common thread among these “Animal Crossing” super fans is that once all the content has been played through, there’s almost no draw left to the game, and that during the first few months of ‘Animal Crossing,’ updates didn’t come frequently enough.

Meiling Li, a 25-year-old schoolteacher in New York who has spent 855 hours on her island, said that these days she doesn’t log on as often, as she feels “pretty much satisfied with how my island looks and who I have on my island.”

As the world weathers a pandemic, Nintendo may just be recession-proof

Occasionally, with new updates Nintendo offers — including one on March 18 that expanded the number of custom design slots a player can hold from five to a total of 50 — players get attracted to return to the game. Li has long awaited the custom design update, which allows her to use more of the design ideas she had thought of without sacrificing existing designs she had saved. It drew her back into the game.

“I think it’s really great that Nintendo listened to user feedback about wanting more design slots,” she said.

Early on in the pandemic, Li dove into “Animal Crossing,” planning out her island, trading friends and visiting each others’ islands to water flowers. It helped her pass the immense amount of free time she gained from staying home during the pandemic.

Nicholas Kole, 33, a video game character designer in Vancouver, who logged a total of 460 hours together with his wife, said he embraced “Animal Crossing” for providing a sense of relief in a harrowing year.

“'Animal Crossing’ is inextricably linked to the feelings of those early days of dipping in and out of the news cycle, as how bad it all really was, was coming into full view,” Kole said. “I’m really grateful for 'Animal Crossing’ — it didn’t make it all go away by any means, but it gave us a pleasant escape.”