Animal Crossing New Horizons – A Year of Memes, Politics and Business Models

On March 20th 2020 Nintendo released their fifth main title for the Animal Crossing franchise under the name Animal Crossing New Horizons. How has the game held up over the course of the year and just what kind of an impact has New Horizons had so far on not only the Nintendo community but also many other areas of culture?

The wait for an Animal Crossing title for the Nintendo Switch was a long and highly anticipated one. Switch users had waited just over three years to play the beloved real time life simulator since the Switch’s original release in March 2017. New Horizon was initially delayed in 2019 and a 2020 release date kept fans appeased. When the game’s trailer and its title was released during a Nintendo Direct stream 11th June, no one had any idea of the impact the game would have during 2020.

Playing in a Pandemic

New Horizons had the most perfectly time release as it coincided with the announcements of lockdowns due to COVID-19. In fact, the release was so perfectly timed it was almost scary. During that week just before launch, the UK was just about to enter its first lockdown and Animal Crossing New Horizons became the ultimate island getaway for a lot of people. I had already pre-ordered a copy and so, waiting on that fateful Friday morning for the post to arrive was both excruciatingly slow and extremely exciting. Opening up the package and slotting the game cartridge into my Switch for the first time was a wonderful feeling which took me back to childhood memories of spending hours on my Wii and DS playing Animal Crossing.

Many people who purchased copies of the game found that they now had a lot of new free time to try and fill in lockdown. I was also one of these people (kind of). The game released during the Easter holiday in the midst of my final year of university meaning I had a lot of time to procrastinate from all of my final assignments. Which would I prefer, spending hours stressing on my dissertation, or selling my soul to Tom Nook? Obviously my choice was going to be the latter!

From my experience, the continuous stream of doom and gloom news about the pandemic and lockdown took its toll on my mental health and many others felt the same. New Horizons was the perfect form of escapism for those struggling to get through each day. The simplicity of its gaming mechanics and play style makes it an excellent stimulant for serotonin. Some may look at the game and think of it as mundane and boring compared to other larger than life games such as Breath of the Wild. But mundane is good. Mundane and boring is what people needed. It almost became a craving to pine after tasks and activities which in the past would have been considered by many to be boring daily chores. The world shifted from feeling normal to feeling like the apocalypse and gamers went from wanting disaster themed, chaotic games to something a lot simpler and closer to normal life.

Every Animal Crossing game works on the principal of players coming back each day for daily tasks and character interactions and New Horizons is no exception to this rule. Players wake up every day to buy new items, catch new fish and bugs and are rewarded for logging on everyday through the Nook Miles system. The game forces its players to be patient with their progress so instead of blasting through world quests and trials, New Horizons offers players a sense of accomplishment through slow but steady progress. When a new villager moves in, my house was upgraded or my new cherry tree started growing, I would feel a huge surge of excitement for the following day when I’d get to see the fruits of my labour. Seasonal changes and festivities were another huge driving factor for players are new seasons brought in new elements to the game. Seeing the trees change colour, obtaining new seasonal items and having a rotation of fish and bugs to collect throughout the year allows for continuous growth and development within your island.

New Horizons not only offered players the opportunity to feel some sort of normality, but it also offered the opportunity for socialising without any of the new potential risks. Players could tour and explore each others islands and chat to one another through the in game chat functions. The game gave family and friends the chance to socialise with one another whilst sharing their love for Animal Crossing. All kinds of occasions including birthdays, dates, weddings and graduation ceremonies were implemented by players including myself as a friend and I held a graduation ceremony which was adorable!

Celebrities and social media stars also began playing and discussing the game online. Celebrities such as Brie Larson, Elijah Wood and Mark Hoppus alongside YouTubers including Pewdiepie and Jacksepticeye were doing island tours. Elijah Wood surprised one of his fans by asking her if he could buy some of her turnips and Brie Larson posted a YouTube video dedicated to her love of her island. These kinds of interactions between social media creators and big time celebrities was incredible to witness as a preexisting Animal Crossing fan. Such a vast amount of people from all walks of life were able to come together in ironically one of the most isolated periods of modern history.

A Nintendo Switch Boom

Although many Nintendo and Animal Crossing fans got first day access to the game, many people were left feeling disappointed as lockdowns brought in a video game boom. Supplies weren’t meeting the new demand due to the pandemic. According to an article from The Guardian the UK’s video game market alone brought in a record £7 billion due to more people looking to consoles, mobile games and virtual reality headsets to help entertain themselves.

Since its release New Horizons has sold over 31 million copies which is an extremely impressive number especially when you compare that figure to the 35 million copies sold of all previous Animal Crossing games combined. Within the first six weeks alone over 13 million copies of the game were sold and New Horizons is currently the second best selling Nintendo Switch game after Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Alongside the record sales of the actual game, Nintendo Switch consoles became one of the hottest commodities alongside toilet roll and hand sanitiser. Many retailers were completely out of stock of any Switch consoles and scalpers jumped at the chance to prey on those desperate to want to get their hands on one. Consoles were being sold for up to double its original price and the consoles are pricey enough at their regular retail price.

Wholesome Turns Meme Worthy

The Animal Crossing franchise holds a special place in a lot of peoples heart and overall it is an extremely wholesome game franchise but 2020 gave it a trendy and often meme worthy status. Hundreds of images and videos began circulating around the internet referencing everything from pop culture, memes alongside in-game jokes about the content and the trials and tribulations of playing New Horizons. One of the earlier memes I remember after launch was to do with trying to obtain 30 iron nuggets. Another memorable one was the infamous Bunny Day fiasco as players began finding Easter themed eggs everywhere to the point where it disrupted the gameplay. You see a fish in the water? Nope it’s just an egg. Oh a present balloon, whatever could be inside? Another egg. It was rather disastrous for players to say the least and memes became a source of venting player frustration.

Animal Crossing New Horizon quickly became a trend on various social media sites including Twitter and TikTok. I’d find myself logging on to Twitter only to be bombarded by COVID related news or posts about New Horizons. Although the COVID news was horrendous for my mental health, being bombarded with Animal Crossing content felt like it balanced out the toxic news. Logging onto social media added fuel to the Animal Crossing fire as Twitter provided plenty of fan art, island tours and photos, QR codes for highly crafted clothing designs and a surplus of memes and general discussions.

TikTok allowed myself and many other fans to engage in creating video based content connected to the franchise. Popular trends included using the insanely catchy and slightly overused “Bubblegum KK” in videos often singing along with the made up language of Animal Crossing. Island tours became a hugely popular trend so people could share their creative flare and people would film themselves hunting for their favourite villagers. My personal favourite was the lookbook trend in which players would film their characters in a variety of stylish outfits to music to show off their own style.

The Nookazon Business Model

Alongside trying to make bells within the world of New Horizons, players have taken opportunities to grow their own little business models in connection to the game. Besides scalpers, one of the most prominent business models I’ve seen arise from New Horizons is Nookazon. Not even a month after the launch of New Horizons did Daniel Luu decided to create his own Amazon inspired website to provide an online video game trading service. The website acts similar to sites like eBay allowing players to buy and trade in-game products in exchange for bells and Nook Mile Tickets. Players can trade a variety of goods including items, DIY recipes and even villagers. The website even offers Nookazon achievements similar to shopping reward systems and buyers can review sellers and their products and services. With a pretty sleek website design and incredibly innovative idea it is the kind of business model which would make Tom Nook himself proud.

Playing Politics

Although Animal Crossing is known for Tom Nook and his capitalist claws, the game ended up being mixed into real life and highly important politics. Protestors in Hong Kong used in-game features including the custom designer to create banners and images which read “Free Hong Kong – Revolution Now” alongside pixelated images of the Chinese president and Hong Kong’s chief executive. Due to lockdown restrictions, protestors turned to the game to continue their protesting which allowed their voices to be heard. The game had not yet been an approved title to sell in China at the time but many people were still able to get their hands on foreign copies. The criticism expressed by activities through New Horizons led to the game being completely removed from being sold in China.

Current United States President used New Horizons as a political campaign to try target the younger generation to encourage them to vote in the 2020 elections. Biden’s team set up his own island which was named “Biden HQ”. Biden HQ provided players the chance to visit him on his island where they can take a tour and collect their own Biden themed in-game merchandise such as yard signs, beanies, t-shirts and caps. Visitors could also visit the multilevel campaign field office where Biden and Harris’ had rooms featuring their personal effects. A polling station could also be found on the island which directed players to information on voting in the election and Joe himself could be found roaming the island saying “no malarkey” to his visitors.

Nintendo eventually banned any political activity within the game. The company released a new set of guidelines for players which outlined that they wanted politics to be kept out of the game all together. The rules which were brought in stated that people couldn’t use the game as a marketing platform that directed players to real life activities and campaigns. This included giveaways, sales pages, sweepstakes and activities which involved players having to follow social media services.

Although using New Horizons as a political tool was quickly banned and brushed under the carpet, it shows how impactful the game was for 2020. Ten or so years ago when I was playing previous Animal Crossing games, never did I think it would become a place for some major political moments.

In Conclusion

It has been one hell of a year for Animal Crossing New Horizons and was a year that no one would have ever seen coming. This is certainly a game which will go down in the history books for the colourful launch year that it had. It’s doubtful that New Horizons would have had the impact that it did without the pandemic. Although the Nintendo and Animal Crossing community would have created plenty of hype for the game, I don’t think it would have been to this extent had life gone on as normal. While some players may have dropped off of the New Horizons hype, I think even a year later the game has really left its mark on a lot of people and it has still got a lot of life left in it. The first anniversary has just passed but the game has plenty of new updates and content for fans including the Sanrio collaboration returning to the franchise alongside announcements of the Build-A-Bear X Animal Crossing New Horizons collection. Here is to New Horizons second year! Let’s hope it is a good and slightly less eventful one!


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