Video games became one of the most important social vessels for children in 2020, but that was also true for parents. We were apart from our loved ones, some thousands of miles away from us, with no real end in sight to the quarantine and social distancing, necessary as it’s been. In a year when we needed to wrap our arms around our children more tenderly than ever, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” came at the perfect time. For some, it provided a new chapter in an enduring experience that kids-turned-adults have shared with their parents.

While the world at large was out of our collective control, our Animal Crossing islands provided some relief, some semblance of same. But the best part of casting our lines and putting down roots on our Animal Crossing islands, for some of us anyway, was learning to share those spaces with our children and, for the very lucky, our parents.

In my home, three of my four children played Animal Crossing. Two of them only played for a short time, but my littlest, V, has mostly stuck with me while I’ve been in and out of the island we founded together. More recently, as we picked the game back up in time for the Bunny Day (Easter egg) event, we took time after she was done with school to curl up together with our game. She’d wind her legs around mine and lean against me, filling me in on her day at school while she weeded her island and I did chores on mine.

With playgrounds shut down almost everywhere, the children and I needed to improvise to find safe options to play together. What Animal Crossing did for me, V, and many other moms and their children, was provide a digital playground to get lost in. And while I could go on and on about the importance of “joint media engagement,” a term coined by experts to explain the way adults and children interact with media together, it was more than that for us with Animal Crossing. It was building worlds together where we could invite our friends to play in digital form.

It was a gentle, relaxing way for us to spend time together after the stresses of my day and the frenzy of hers. V would visit my island and delight in running through my endless flower fields. She was never really interested in fashion, which was more of my thing, but I did give her a few frilly dresses to play with. What she loved most was going swimming in the ocean and showing me how to go diving. Then we’d wrap up our play time together by visiting her island and helping her organize her outdoor decorations. Honestly, V has an eye for it and didn’t need much attending from me.

On its 1-year anniversary, The Washington Post's video game team Launcher examines Animal Crossing New Horizons power users' islands. (Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

My story with my daughter is one of over a hundred stories that I’ve gathered from moms, adult children and their moms, and nonbinary folks operating in a “mom” role. Even before the covid-19 pandemic took hold of our lives, Animal Crossing has played a pivotal role in bonding time between moms and their children. Online play, whether that’s in Animal Crossing, Minecraft or Fortnite, connected families that were separated by the pandemic and, in some cases, many miles.

Many adults shared their stories with me on social media had similar experiences with Animal Crossing. Some of them fell into the game in its earliest GameCube days, others during its long life on the Nintendo DS as “Animal Crossing: New Leaf,” and finally on the Nintendo Switch as “New Horizons.” And during that time some have been sharing their experiences with their mothers.

“My mom (age 58) and I used to stay up all night in the GameCube version, setting timers to take turns on our files so we [didn’t] fish too long,” 28-year-old Robin Griffin, who works in localization out of Michigan, shared with me. “Over the pandemic, I bought her a Nintendo Switch and Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and it’s been great for us to stay connected from a distance.”

For Krystal VW Bergman, a 31-year-old woman living in Austin, Animal Crossing kept her close to her mother across the years and many miles that kept them apart.

“I remember getting ‘Animal Crossing: New Leaf’ for Christmas in 2012,” Bergman wrote in a Twitter direct message. “This was my first-ever Christmas away from my Mom. In 2011, I got sick from a virus that left me totally incapacitated most of the time and I had to drop out of school, quit work, and move back in with my parents so they could take care of me.”

Bergman explained she had been suffering from depression and anxiety quite a bit during her recovery period, which deepened because of her increased fatigue. So, to help with the depression and anxiety, Bergman opted to move in with another family member, which necessitated a move from Indiana to Texas. A couple of years into living in Texas and Bergman still hadn’t been able to fly home to see her mother, so the two of them devise a solution to spend time together — “Animal Crossing: New Leaf.”

“My mom has a heart condition and can't work,” Bergman noted. “She has to rest a lot, and while her overall condition has actually improved over the last five or so years, she's still stuck in bed or on the couch from time to time, so it meant a lot to me that she got this chance for calm escapism.”

The two were able to reconnect over Christmas in 2015 and rang in the New Year with glow wands that Bergman excitedly said looked “exactly like the ones from Animal Crossing.”

For Rachel Kowert, a 38-year-old psychologist and research director at Take This living in Ottawa, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” provided a way to explore creative connections with her 6-year-old.

“It’s been a way to connect with her different from the day-to-day of ‘do your homework,’ [and] ‘clean your room,’ ” Kowert said. “And I like that it’s not competitive. We also play a lot of board games, but being able to play collaboratively together and create this whole world has really been a beautiful creative process.”

In some families, as Animal Crossing moved from the Nintendo DS to the Switch, the children have grown alongside the series. Minerva Mori, 35, from Philadelphia, first started playing Animal Crossing on the Nintendo DS when her daughter, Cassie, “was still pretty small.” She let Cassie make a villager in “New Leaf” when she was around four-years-old. When “New Horizons” came out, Mori and her daughter were finally able to play the game together. Even though Cassie, who’s now seven, prefers having more creative control on their shared island, the two managed to find a peaceful cohabitation by passing the creative controls back and forth.

“Animal Crossing is only one of the many games I play with her, but I love being able to watch her express her creativity in the game,” Mori explained. “As a queer parent, it also makes me happy that she can explore all sorts of ways to express herself through her character. She changes her character to a boy about half of the time she plays. It’s also fun to see her picking out new outfits to reflect how she’s feeling on any given day. Are we feeling like a princess? A pirate? An evil robot? Who knows. Animal Crossing makes me really happy to know that no matter how old either of us get or how far apart we live, we’ll always be able to have something that brings us together.”

Morgan Shaver, editor in chief at Prima Games, doesn’t identify as a “mom,” per se, but they do inhabit that role. Shaver, 28, said they liked that their three-year-old son is being consistently introduced to new experiences in Animal Crossing, which he adores. In fact, “New Horizons” is a game Morgan uses as part of son’s speech and physical therapy exercises at home in Waterville, Maine.

Another mom, Julia Bianco Schoeffling, 38, from Los Angeles, chief operating officer of the Halp Network, picked up “New Horizons” with her daughter around March of last year, roughly the same time their dog of 13-years passed away. The island she and her daughter founded, Iggy’s Place, is a “constant reminder of her in our hearts.”

The past year had the potential to steal precious moments from us as our children grew, as our parents were kept at arm’s length. For many moms, we had to make do with what we had in front of us. In the case of “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” what we had was a connection to our children and our parents, a place where we could at least be apart together.

Amanda Farough is a journalist, video game business analyst, co-host of the Virtual Economy podcast and mother of four. You can follow her on Twitter @AmandaFarough.

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