If you asked me the question, “where were you when you found out about 9/11”, then my answer is “in a car park in Loughborough”. I remember it crisp and clear: the gravel underfoot, the way my mum’s voice trembled a little when I asked her, with childlike sincerity, if there would be a World War Three. “I don’t know,” she replied. I had been learning about World War One and Two in my history lessons, and I pictured biplanes overhead and the slide-whistle sound of bombs falling. I remember being vaguely excited about the idea of building an Anderson Shelter in our back garden, and terrified of everything else.
We have these moments cemented in our memories before we even knew we were making memories, a perfect photograph of history being written. It’s strange to think that we’re living through history now — a moment that will be in classroom textbooks years from now, with children writing essays on the effects of the pandemic on politics and economics. It’s enough to make you want to rebel, to protest, to say that we are not history — we are the present, and not something to study as if it was just a Thing That Happened. Yet here we are, in unprecedented times, and the answer to “what would you do if the world burned down around you” is “try to survive”.
It’s even stranger to think that those history books may very well include screenshots of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Media has always been tied to history, from the Romans telling stories that give us insight into women’s rights, to black-and-white movies that capture the fear of dystopias, to the civil rights movement being captured on film. Humans are storytellers, and we will fictionalise our greatest desires and fears until we are wiped off the planet.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons didn’t mean to capture the zeitgeist. Nintendo knows a lot, but they had no way of knowing that their game would come out precisely on the weekend that everything went to hell, nor that it would capture the public imagination in a way that’s hard to put on paper.
I have never before wanted to exist in a “metaverse” — a video game that’s more than just a game, that provides a real-world market, an economy, a place for socialising, and for living a fully-realised virtual life — until the first few weeks of Animal Crossing. Suddenly, I didn’t want to exist anywhere but Egg, my island. The real world was crumbling around me, but the vibrant world of Tom Nook and friends was perfect, and so, blinkered like a horse, I lived there instead.
In this virtual world, a utopia was being built, by the players who wholeheartedly believed in it. Friendship was widely and easily available — I could turn up to the islands of perfect strangers and find a connection there, giving gifts, admiring their island, and communicating with simple emotes. The spirit of generosity led us all to give away furniture, recipes, and fossils that we didn’t need, and money only mattered because it was what we used to buy more furniture.
Despite the Stalk Market, there were no robber barons or planet-destroying billionaires to worry about, and I would have happily given my money to the villagers of Egg if they ever showed any interest in it. And, speaking of interest, Tom Nook — despite his reputation as an evil landlord — never asked for any, and let you pay back the house loan at your own pace.
It’s bizarre to think that Animal Crossing: New Horizons perfectly captured the hopefulness of those first few weeks of the pandemic, because, one year on from both, that hope is faded and crumpled like a fallen cherry blossom. Isabelle’s sunny disposition and the tropical paradise of Egg has so little in common with the reality of the world in March 2021, and yet, at the very beginning of Spring, it’s hard not to feel like everything will be alright. Crocuses and snowdrops poke their heads out of stone-hard soil like a world waking up from a long sleep, and we know — despite freezing temperatures — that the Earth is on the mend.
Spring always follows Winter, even though it often feels like it’ll never come. The sun gradually spends more and more time on our side of the globe, clawing back the darkness and warming the air. Seasonal depression begins to melt like ice, and we remember what the colour green looks like as Mother Nature begins to roll out the carpet. Bad things end, and good things take their place, since time immemorial.
One year on from Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ launch, it’s time for Bunny Day — the beginning of Spring, the in-game representation of Easter, when a man died and came back to wipe the slate of the soul clean. One year on from the beginning of a global pandemic, vaccines — the light at the end of the tunnel — are being rolled out worldwide.
It would be naïve to say that things get better, and stay better. There are, undoubtedly, trying times to come. But Animal Crossing: New Horizons is such a perfect representation of the ups and downs of the pandemic, and the way it brought us together for a brief time — the way it united people from all stripes and gave us a brief glimmer of hope — that it would be a denial to leave it out of the historical records. Museums, archivists, and video game historians alike are working on documenting the game’s dominance in early 2020, and how it even affected politics and economics.
It’s not fun to be part of history. It’s not fun to become a statistic for future children to be forced to learn in boring lessons. But, even so, I hope that historians outside of the video game sphere take note of the symmetry between Animal Crossing and COVID. Interesting historical parallels like this don’t come around every day. We can’t deny that video games are a huge part of history, and although the general public still doesn’t take us that seriously, this could be a step towards more legitimacy.
So, yes. This is yet another thinkpiece by a games journalist that points out that Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out at the start of a global pandemic, like we didn’t all notice that. But, when people ask “where were you when COVID hit”, then I have my answer: I was in Egg.