I Finally Asked: What Is Animal Crossing?

If you, like me, have no idea what the hype is about, this story is for you.

hands holding a Nintendo Switch
I’m confused! William West/Getty Images

There are many things that are confusing to me about our current times. Among them is why everyone is obsessed with Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The game was released on March 20, as the latest edition in a series of Nintendo games dating back to 2001. Back then, I never heard about Animal Crossing; now it seems that’s where everything fun happens! There’s an entire Instagram community centered around Animal Crossing fashion; Marc Jacobs was involved in some kind of virtual shirts collaboration. A developer recently held a tech conference in Animal Crossing. Also, the turnips from the game are … uniting us. I had to look all that up, because: I don’t know anything about Animal Crossing. The only thing I know about it is it seems to involve more round-headed humans than animals.

To get to the bottom of the game’s current appeal, I spoke to Jane Hu, a regular contributor to Slate’s Future Tense, a friend whom I used to see in person sometimes, and a recent denizen of the virtual world of islands and turnips. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Shannon Palus: How was your weekend, and how much of it did you spend playing Animal Crossing?

Jane Hu: It was lovely, in part because I spent like half of it playing AC. I had friends over to my island for the first time and went to an AC birthday party.

For those of us who have been sitting out the phenomenon: How would you describe this game to an alien?

You create a digital avatar, who arrives on a small and purportedly untouched island alongside a troupe of raccoons. Your goal is to make the island your home, through plundering natural resources and getting bamboozled into selling and buying goods through the raccoons’ economy.

I have a lot of follow-up questions. What is the troupe of raccoons doing there?

It’s only partially explained, but the head honcho racoon, Tom Nook, appears to be the one who arranged for all of you to move to this island.

And you live on the island and plunder with the raccoons?

It seems like you are really the only one doing the plundering; the raccoons facilitate the plundering by paying you in Tom Nook’s currency (“bells” and “Nook miles”) for your work and the goods you provide. Like, you get “miles” for shooting balloons holding presents out of the sky, or for chopping a certain amount of wood. You can redeem them for things like plane tickets, wallpaper, or—my favorite—Nook Inc. T-shirts and hats.

So, “balloons holding presents” is a natural resource in this world? And racoons are just fully evil overlords?

Some people disagree that they’re evil. I’ve had at least two debates about this recently, but I definitely think they’re problematic. I have railed against Tom Nook because he brings you to this island and tells you on the first day that you happen to owe him 80,000 bells, and that he’ll graciously loan you that money until you can pay him back. One of my friends argued that it was at least an interest-free loan, and that without the Nooks, you wouldn’t even be on the island. Which is true, I’ll give him that. I also don’t want to paint him as completely dependent on my labor. He makes additions to the island, too, and invites vendors and a museum curator to enrich the place.

And the island is at least a place that is not your house, which sounds nice.

It’s been so soothing to “live” somewhere else and see my friends in that digital space.

How do you visit other islands and do things like birthday parties?

So each island has an airport, run by dodo birds. You have to friend people through your Nintendo Switch profile first, and then your friend can either invite you with a code or just open their island gates to all their friends. From the traveler’s perspective, you tell the dodos you want to visit your friend, and you’ll fly there on dodo airlines. It’s actually very exciting—when you’re getting guests, it shows you your friends’ “flight info” and the progress of their flight as a type of loading screen. Then it shows your friend walking through the gate and into the airport!

One big thing I’ve been wondering: You need a Nintendo Switch to play this game. Did everyone just have Nintendo Switches? How did everyone get into this all at once?

The game came out just as the COVID closures hit, so it was perfect timing even if you weren’t a fan of the series before. I played Pocket Camp, the phone version of Animal Crossing before the Switch game came out, and had been thinking about getting a Switch just for the AC release. But I didn’t act quickly enough and then they were sold out. Somehow my mother-in-law was able to snag one for me last week as a birthday present.

I intuitively understand the appeal of virtual camp, but what does hanging out in the game involve?

It’s so many of the things I wish I could do in person! You can wander around together just taking in the sights, and if your host is amenable, you can pick their fruit or catch fish together. Yesterday, I showed some guests my island’s museum collection, and on my friend’s island where she was having her birthday party, I marveled at her spread of sushi and cotton candy, and bought some new flowers and clothes at her island store that aren’t available on my island. Every hangout I’ve done on AC has also been accompanied by a Zoom call so you can actually kind of interact in real life too.

OK, one more question: Is there a way to win Animal Crossing?

Not really. It’s a lot like life: Some people take the most pleasure in building enormous houses and amassing cool furniture, while others just enjoy fishing and collecting bugs. There’s not really a wrong way to do it. And it’s really nice to exist in a space where the rules of the universe are clear and predictable.