120 years ago Freud coined a term: wunscherfüllung—or wish fulfillment. He theorised that our repressed desires bubble up in strange places – like our dreams and fantasies. Even our slips-of-the-tongue can betray an unconscious feeling – like accidentally saying ‘love you’ to our boss at the end of a phone call (this is what we call the ‘Freudian slip’). During the pandemic I’ve found a very modern method of wish fulfillment—Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
Much has been written about this gentle and aimless game, which has no levels and few objectives. Even the original developers struggled to define it—back in 2003 directors Hisashi Nogami and Katsuya Eguchi talked about their desire to create a game that didn’t fit neatly into any genre. Eguchi describes earlier versions of Animal Crossing by saying: “We came up with the concept of a game where you hang out and do stuff with a bunch of people in a single field”. They finally labelled it a “connecting” game.
I purchased both my Switch and my copy of Animal Crossing the week before the first lockdown in Melbourne—and I wasn’t the only one. The weekend that Animal Crossing came out in Australia it sold out in stores across the country and even Switches were hard to come by. The game has proven to be a hugely popular form of escapism through the pandemic.
“Escape to a deserted island and create your own paradise as you explore, create, and customize…”
96% of adults daydream or fantasise every day. It helps us to relieve boredom and rehearse potential upcoming scenarios. One of the reasons we’re all so tired at the moment is because our minds are racing to cope with the number of new scenarios being presented, the volume of potential dangers and decisions.
Lately my own daydreams have been dominated by masks, navigating supermarket aisles and how I would cope without toilet paper. This internal narrative is reinforced by every conversation I have with friends, by the news, even by adverts—the only story permitted is the story of the pandemic.
Not so in Animal Crossing! As Isabelle, our friendly in-game island support officer, tells me: “There’s no real news today!” A few weeks ago she smiled and added: “But I got to do a video chat with my family back home! Mom and Dad are both great!” (It’s comments like this that makes me wonder if Nintendo are deliberately tweaking the script of the game to help us cope with the pandemic). The regularity and monotony of this alternative world offers deep psychological relief in these times of turbulence, and provides a safe way to practice new narratives in our daydreams.
The game leans into this—even the marketing around the game deliberately blurs the line between reality and fantasy. All the quote headers I’ve used are from the game’s website or Twitter account. Animal Crossing is sold as a ‘real’ escape—complete with testimony from ‘residents’ already living the island dream:
“Personally? This island is definitely the best island I’ve ever seen, or heard of, or imagined, or been to.” Rosie
The universally beloved Isabelle even runs the game’s Twitter account, having taken over social media duties from her boss Tom Nook in July. Here Isabelle and Tom regularly offer ‘life advice’ and ‘event information’ about the island getaway package.
Landlord Tom Nook is a perfect representation of the game’s blurring of real and imaginary. You might think he’s just a racoon—but he’s actually a tanuki (his name Tom Nook is a play on tanuki).
This animal has special significance in Japanese folklore. The bake-danuki, known as the mythical version of a tanuki, is famously known for its ability to grant wishes. Although their appearance is different from Tom Nook’s, often depicted with huge testicles that are manipulated into fishing nets or drums, the bake-danuki deceive and play tricks on humans too.
“Show off your island utopia to family and friends—or pack your bags and visit theirs.”
With rates of anxiety and depression rocketing as staying apart to keep each other safe, the wish fulfillment of Animal Crossing offers a way of playing together. You are able to invite friends over for visits, send gifts and meet new neighbours. Large celebrations are held on the plaza to commemorate achievements.
I attended an online games festival where a Muslim player, Rami Ismail, described how he had celebrated the breaking of the Ramadan fast with friends and guests from Twitter through lockdown. He spoke about how the game allowed him to recreate the joy of gathering with friends to share food and watch the moon through this important festival.
As reality has slid into the world of disaster movies, normalcy has become my biggest fantasy—but it often feels far away and even wrong to wish for the indulgence of going for hikes and seeing my friends when so many are really suffering. I have dreams about going to shopping centres or barbeques or hugging my friends. I wake up feeling horribly guilty.
To contrast this, the first evening I visited my friend Sim’s island on Animal Crossing was perhaps the happiest of lockdown. The catharsis I experienced as I headed to the airport, boarded a flight to her island and sat back as the screen showed my progress over the ocean was intense. A grin split my face as I met her avatar and she invited me into her home. We only lived three suburbs away from one another, but this was the first time I’d hung out with her in months. I was giddy as she showed me her field of flowers and her new toaster.
“Hunt down insects at the crack of dawn, decorate your paradise throughout the day, or enjoy sunset on the beach while fishing in the ocean.”
The leaves of the virtual trees turn gold or are replaced with a profusion of petals. Rain soaks the island, making flowers sparkle with intrinsic joy and depressing my neighbour (Nate, a bear) who muses that you could ring out his sweater and “make a me-soup”. Blathers, the museum curator, encourages you to explore and learn about the natural world around you (although he has an intense distaste for insects). While we’re stuck indoors becoming very well acquainted with our couches, the game is keeping me going with a simulacrum of nature.
Your island is also bursting with fruit, like the cornucopia of Greek mythology – the symbol of abundance and fertility. In these times of scarcity and empty shelves, we can take pleasure in the three-day cycle of our fruit trees in Animal Crossing, while hoarding as much as we like in our houses without shame. On top of this we have the tanuki—themselves symbols of prosperity and fertility—even if Tom Nook’s gigantic balls are not explicitly shown, they are surely implied in his boundless lending capacity.
“Has anyone else been having interesting dreams lately?”
The latest release introduces the dream suite—allowing us to visit other islands in our dreams. This dream within a dream takes the game to Inception levels of meta-narrative.
Many of my friends and colleagues have remarked that one of the most joyful aspects of lockdown has been virtually transporting into each other’s homes and families. My colleagues’ children attended morning meetings, cheerily waving and showing us their drawings. Dogs and cats loomed in at the camera at odd moments. We’ve admired each other’s decorating and craft projects. The new dream suite allows us to do this in Animal Crossing too —another person’s reality has become a dream, an escape. And frankly, it’s given me a lot of island-envy!
“Fireworks shows will be held every Sunday on your island during August!”
These routine connections with others, with nature, with our normal weekly habits have become tenuous—but Animal Crossing’s gentle banality encourages us to slow down and remember normal life, even while seemingly offering us pure escapism.
The Nooklings close their shop at 10pm, Isabelle reminds us to pace ourselves on Monday as we’ve got the whole week to go and wishes us a “happy weekend” on Saturdays. The game has introduced a weekly firework display on Sunday evenings, encouraging us to gather with our fellow islanders and appreciate the beautiful display. Day and night separation, the weekend, routine—who knew you could long for these things? As days blur into monotony, Animal Crossing gently reminds us to take a break, remember the little things, keep a little rhythm to our lives.
Perhaps the fantasy that the game is delivering is not the escapism that they overtly reference in their marketing —but the normality that we’re all desperately craving. A return to the rush and nothingness of our ordinary lives. Thanks to Animal Crossing’s focus on finding joy in simplicity and “connecting people” it taps into this wish fulfillment and is a powerfully compelling game.
As parts of the world once again retreat into lockdown and the future looks more and more unsure, the dreamy certainty of Animal Crossing provides a safe haven for those looking for a happy daydream.