‘Animal Crossing’ Isn’t Just a Game — It’s a Political Platform

Activists have started to use the game to protest more than Tom Nook’s predatory loans

Images: NextGen America

For years, we have been debating whether or not video games lead to increased violence, and after decades of research, we’re still not entirely sure. But as the 2020 U.S. election looms, a much more urgent question has arisen: Can video games encourage people to get involved in politics?

The answer is probably yes.

For many, Animal Crossing provides a sense of stability in a time of chaos. According to a YouGov poll, 40% of American millennials — the highest figure of any generation surveyed — say they have been gaming more during the pandemic.

Animal Crossing New Horizons has proved especially popular, smashing digital sales records. So far, it has sold 13.41 million units worldwide. It has become the best-selling Switch game of all time in Japan, already overtaking the lifetime sales of the next best selling game, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

It’s hardly surprising. The release of the game couldn’t have been more timely. The virtual world has given players a sense of stability and a much-needed distraction from a seemingly unending cycle of devastating news at a time of global anxiety and uncertainty. There are no bad guys to defeat, no difficult puzzles you must complete, and no way to beat the game and win. The biggest challenge is repaying your loan to a pesky capitalist raccoon.

With cultural events postponed indefinitely, many brands are taking to Animal Crossing to stay connected with their customers. Top fashion labels, including Marc Jacobs, Valentino, and Sandy Liang, are among the labels testing out the platform as a way to virtually showcase their collections; Getty has created an Animal Crossing Art Generator for players, and the Detroit Lions partnered with Animal Crossing to announce their 2020 schedule on Twitter.

For others, it has become a way to protest while social distancing.

Unable to take to the streets, many players have used Animal Crossing to continue protesting amid the Covid-19 lockdown — including Hong Kong protestors.

Last month, Twitter user Joshua Wong posted a screenshot of his Animal Crossing island on Twitter. It featured a banner that read “Free Hong Kong — Revolution Now.”

A post from Joshua Wong’s Twitter account

In response, China cracked down on sales of the game, officially removing it from major online stores, including the world’s biggest e-commerce website, Taobao. But this hasn’t stopped people from playing. Citizens are now paying a premium to gain access to consoles abroad.

PETA is protesting the game’s fish exhibits

As part of Animal Crossing, players can collect fossils, fish, bugs, and art and donate them to their island museum, which is run by an owl named Blathers. But for animal rights organization PETA, even virtual animal cruelty is a step too far.

The organization recently posted its own controversial Vegan Guide to Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which answers “tough ethical questions” such as “Should I leave the hermit crabs in the game alone?” and “How can you enjoy your island in an animal-friendly way?”

“Fish aren’t decorations and don’t belong in bowls or tanks, whether they’re at an aquarium or on a desk,” a spokesperson said.

NextGen America is using the game to engage with young voters

NextGen America is an organization dedicated to identifying, engaging, and mobilizing people under the age of 35 who are less likely to vote or who are not currently registered to vote. During the pandemic, the organization has used Animal Crossing to connect with young voters.

“We are dedicated to meeting voters where they are,” says NextGen’s Nevada state director, Mark Riffenburg. “We know that the gamer community skews disproportionately young, and given pandemic-induced social isolation, voter engagement on this platform makes perfect sense.”

On April 21, the organization held its first digital event — an Earth Day rally.

“In an ideal world, we would have hosted an Earth Day rally. How do you host a rally when you can’t leave the couch? Animal Crossing,” says Riffenburg.

“The event got people talking about climate change and discussing the future of political organizing. Political action doesn’t have to exist outside our daily routines. You can make a difference in spaces you frequent every day — it’s just a matter of starting the conversation.”

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been visiting people’s islands

Even Ocasio-Cortez has picked up a console. On May 7, the Democratic representative announced on Twitter she would be opening her inbox for four minutes to allow her followers to send her an invitation to their island.

Before visiting, she even asked her followers for advice on the etiquette for visiting players’ islands. But her first virtual house call seemed to be a success:

She was even wearing a hand-drawn campaign shirt.

But the idea didn’t go down well with everyone.

Ocasio-Cortez didn’t seem fazed.

Should games be strictly for escapism, or do politics have a place?

Lorraine is not alone in her opposition to the combination of politics and video games.

“It’s supposed to be innocent and magical and not have stuff like that,” one Reddit user posted in response to users decorating their islands with political slogans. It’s a viewpoint many share. For lots of people, games are a form of escapism. Allowing politics into an area that most people consider to be a politically neutral space risks people becoming even more disengaged.

But Riffenburg disagrees. “A gaming platform, in practice, is similar to a college quad or a community center: It’s a meeting place of young, potential voters who are receptive to conversation,” he says.

“Should politics overrun gaming and make the space overtly political? No, of course not — but as a digital gathering place, there’s a unique opportunity for political discourse in-game while respecting both the medium and the players. The gaming space has a lot to gain from an organized, politically knowledgeable base.”

Could ‘Animal Crossing’ become a platform for activism?

Research has shown that contact by political campaigns is effective in engaging young people and driving voter turnout. Young people have consistently had the lowest voter turnout — but they are becoming more engaged. In 2014, only 20% of people aged 18 to 29 voted. In 2018, 36% voted. That is a 79% jump — the largest percentage increase of all age groups.

Over the past couple of years, we have witnessed a huge wave of youth activism, with the climate crisis at the forefront of the agenda. But with global Covid-19 cases continuing to climb, it’s likely that activism as we have come to know it won’t be returning for a while.

Games like Animal Crossing are helping to reshape how we can connect and fight for causes we believe in as we head into a future where social distancing could become the norm for a long time.

Tech journalist. Contributing Editor at PandoDaily.

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