Tired of Social Distancing in Kansas City? You Need An Island
Texting and Zoom calls have grown tedious. We never do things together any more. Enter Animal Crossing.
Melody Rowell isn't a video game enthusiast. At least, she didn't used to be. But after cycling through a handful of pandemic hobbies, she was itching for something new. That's when pictures of her sister's character from Animal Crossing started appearing on her phone.
Animal Crossing is a video game where each player creates a character, and each character gets an island to live on and develop. Each island has its own topography and weather patterns, revealed in stunningly vibrant animation. By selling whatever grows on a particular island, characters can earn currency, which they then use to make their islands beautiful.
"My sister was like, 'If you get one, I could come to your island and bring you presents,'" Rowell recalls. "And I was like, 'Wait. You can come to my island?"
That changed everything. Rowell didn't have a Nintendo Switch, which you need to play Animal Crossing, but her sister's pictures made her want one. The world in the pictures seemed like a soothing retreat from the world she was actually inhabiting.
"All of a sudden I was like, if I don't get a Nintendo Switch, if I don't get this video game, I'm going to die," Rowell says.
Acquiring the Switch was an ordeal. It's been flying off the shelves since COVID hit. At one point, Rowell's distress got so bad her husband secretly spent an entire afternoon refreshing box store websites until one of the devices became available.
"The first time that Meagan and I were able to play together, we played for two hours. I called her on the phone and had her on speakerphone, we were narrating the little characters," she explains. "I actually got really emotional because I was hanging out with my sister. We were experiencing something new together. We both had our little controllers and she's telling me on the phone, 'OK, follow me.' And then she takes off running and I'm running after her."
The sisters, 31 and 27, live in separate cities. Under normal circumstances, they do a lot of traveling together. This game felt closer to that experience than they had been in months.
Jeffrey C. Hall at the University of Kansas researches friendship. He says that what Rowell and her sister are doing when traveling or playing Animal Crossing is called "side-by-side" interaction — as opposed to talking, which is considered "face-to-face," even when it happens digitally.
Face-to-face activities are the only kind most of us have had in a while, because it's all that's really possible by phone, text, Facetime, or Zoom. Even sitting six feet apart doesn't lend itself to an activity.
Side-by-side activities are crucial to relationships because they provide a foundation of shared experience.
"Before we had all this leisure to do things like travel and play games, in a broad historical context, people did things that were helpful together," Hall explains. "They helped each other with the harvest or fixing a house after a storm."
Which, oddly, is a big part of life in the Animal Crossing game.
When Rowell started playing, her sister came to her island with tools and plants and helped her get started.
"Your island has a native fruit," Rowell explains. "Mine is apples and hers is oranges. And so my apples are worth more on her island. So I saved my apples until I had a lot of apples. And then I asked her if I could come to her island and sell them."
That subsistence version of a social life, friendship for survival, is what Adib Khorram is doing on Animal Crossing in perhaps a more literal way.
Khorram is a Kansas City author who writes young adult fiction. His first book, Darius The Great Is Not Okay, came out in 2018. It's a coming of age story about an Iranian-American teen coping with depression and grappling for a sense of belonging. The sequel, Darius The Great Deserves Better, comes out this week. It pictures a better life for Darius, who's just come out as gay when the book begins. The usual book-release fanfare can't happen, so Khorram is inviting readers to come visit his Animal Crossing island instead.
Khorram admits, "I had plans to travel, to go to conferences, talk to teachers, talk to librarians, go visit schools and talk to kids. And like, none of that is happening now."
Khorram saw one or two other authors do book launches on Animal Crossing, but he wasn't so sure about opening his island to strangers. He didn't want anyone trampling his flowers, but more importantly, there's a chat function in the game, and he was worried about potentially racist or homophobic messaging in that space, which he could not be there to monitor all the time.
Then Nintendo made an update allowing players to create static versions of their islands that anyone can visit, but no one can change. Kind of like a read-only version of a document. Suddenly, he was excited.
To his delight, Khorram says, "I found this little website that you could upload an image and it would translate it into an Animal Crossing pattern with a QR code, and I was like, 'Oh, I can put my book cover on my island.' And so then I designed a bunch of scenes from my book into my island and put some little art up and I was like, 'Yes. Hashtag Darius Crossing.'"
Khorram doesn't know if this promotion will translate to sales. He won't be able to track how many readers actually visit the island, either. But being able to do this is still important.
"It's a substitute for doing nothing," he says. "I think a lot of people are feeling really powerless right now. And this at least feels like I'm doing something."
In addition to his publicity, Khorram's entire writing community has, in a sense, shifted to this game. Writing is solitary, but Khorram is part of a national network of young adult authors.
"We very quickly saw, you know, people basically staying at home and events being canceled, authors having their debut novels come out in the height of the pandemic. And it really felt in a way like all of us kind of coming together to just say, 'Oh, this sucks, but how can we help each other?'" he queries.
They've done that by maintaining that sense of community, if only by helping each other buy and sell turnips on Animal Crossing, a world without a pandemic, a world where there's a medicine for every sickness and nothing bad ever happens.
Khorram suggests, "It's not competitive. There is no win condition. All you're trying to do is make a beautiful island. You get to set the standards of beauty. Basically, you are in complete control. And that feels really nice."
This is also, in a sense, what Khorram is doing in his book. He's portraying a kinder world than the one in which we live.
"Sometimes I feel like my job as a writer is to show the world as it is. And sometimes my job is to show the world as it could be," Khorram says. "I want to show what could be and, tell young people, you deserve better. They have a right to expect good things from the people around them. Even though sometimes people around us fail us, we still deserve the very best."
That's precisely what makes Animal Crossing a video game for our times.
"There is something powerful in trying to depict a kinder world than we have," says Khorram. "A lot of that is a reflection of the world that we are living in."