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Archivists are trying to chronicle Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ unforgettable first year

The challenge of documenting a virtual world

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“The serendipity of the time [Animal Crossing: New Horizons] came out is ridiculous,” says Lex Roberts, curator of the UK National Videogame Museum’s Animal Crossing Diaries. The project aims to capture “the cultural phenomenon that followed the release of Animal Crossing … in March 2020, just as the world was transformed by the pandemic.”

New Horizons has been inextricably associated with COVID-19, with early reviews making mention of how much we all needed an escape as lockdowns and quarantines suddenly became our lives. As it became apparent that social distancing would be around for a long time, the game became the location of weddings, memorials, protests, and political campaigning, to name just a few.

But it’s not possible to experience the same New Horizons as the one everyone was playing in the spring of 2020. “You can’t play the game and understand how people used it and what the experience of playing it in the [early days of the] pandemic was,” says Roberts.

Kelsey Lewin, co-director of the Video Game History Foundation, notes that the social experience has changed as people have moved on. “[Early on], a co-worker from six years ago just kind of randomly wandered into my town, because everyone was playing and my gates were open,” she says. “If you were to just randomly show up unannounced to someone’s island [now], it’s not going to be taken in the same way.”

“What’s important for the future is making sure that we have some kind of record.”

“What’s important for the future is making sure that we have some kind of record of what the game was like in these moments of time,” she says. That’s what the National Videogame Museum is aiming for, and that requires more than just being able to access a Nintendo Switch and a game cartridge.

“It’s something that we’ve wanted to do at the Museum for a little while,” says its marketing and communications lead Conor Clarke. “A lot of video game history and preservation looks at the technological advancement of games and doesn’t really cast too much of an eye at the cultural history around games.”

The serendipity of New Horizons’ release date was their opportunity to try something new. The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, a grant-making charity, asked for cultural heritage organizations to “collect the history as it’s happening,” says Clarke, and the museum’s application to use the game for that purpose was successful.

“Playing a game is not necessarily the best way of understanding a game,” says Roberts. Instead, the open call asks for whatever kind of data volunteers might want to offer up. “We’ve had … audio recordings, we’ve had video recordings of people speaking to camera, we’ve had people writing diary entries of their experience, photo diaries of ‘this is the progression of my island over the last year.’ We’ve had some really interesting essays of people really reflecting on their experience and things that have happened.”

“Playing a game is not necessarily the best way of understanding a game.”

Lewin and Roberts both emphasize the value of paying attention to the ordinary within the turbulence of 2020. “It’s really important that we were able to capture the protests and all of the huge pandemic-related events … that have been expressed in AC, but also the everyday. We’re really keen to not miss out on those everyday experiences like the date nights and hanging out with friends,” says Roberts. They give an example of an entry where the person’s Joy-Con had broken, meaning they started playing on the television while in lockdown with their family. “It meant that their family started to see what they were doing … and the parents got really into it.”

“There’s so much more than what gets reported on happening that is still very meaningful,” says Lewin. “What’s going to be important is that we’ve documented what it was like to play … what was going on at the time, what was the context, what was the community interested in and talking about, and what were the social dynamics that were going on.”

This is something that in some ways is easier today than it used to be. “Because people weren’t interviewing children on playgrounds back then, if you’re talking about a game from the ‘80s or something, [magazines] are really all we have,” says Lewin. “But Twitter is the new playground discussion, right?”

This is, at least in part, what digital humanities aims to explore, though scholars Quinn Dombrowski and Liz Grumbach say a complete definition is evasive. “If we put it in our own words then as many people will disagree as agree,” laughs Dombrowski, who works in the department of literatures, cultures, and languages at Stanford.

Grumbach, who leads the Digital Humanities Initiative at Arizona State University, obligingly gives it her best shot. “What I usually say is that it is either using digital tools to explore something that humanists would research or it is using humanities methodologies to explore the digital… or it is both at the same time. And when it’s both at the same time is when it’s really, really cool.”

The two have been running a series of lightning talks where other scholars in the digital humanities have been invited to speak from within Dombrowski’s Animal Crossing island. Attendees can either visit in the game or watch on Twitch. Though the talks typically aren’t about Animal Crossing itself, they have some insight into why it might have become so popular especially during the early months of the pandemic.

“I think what Animal Crossing does so well is that it captures the feeling of travel in a time where we cannot travel to see the people that we care about,” says Grumbach. She and Dombrowski are old friends, and they discovered that playing Animal Crossing “feels like we’re hanging out,” in a way that’s more personable than a voice or video call, or even other virtual spaces that try to simulate physical ones, like Gather. The island setting helps; Grumbach calls it a “really joyful environment.”

“Video games are a really difficult topic to exhibit!”

“One of the things that I like about Animal Crossing compared to some of those other platforms is the fact that it’s personal,” adds Dombrowski. “When you go to someone’s island, this is something that they’ve spent a lot of time putting together just the way they like it … and you can water their plants for them, and their physical digital presence is something where they’ve customized the way they look.”

The idea of putting together a COVID archive was a popular one in the digital humanities last March. Though Grumbach and Dombrowski do caution that there are potential ethical considerations around asking people to process these events while simultaneously sharing them for analysis and consumption, the former highlighted Arizona State’s Journal of the Plague Year, and the latter has also written some of their own thoughts about playing New Horizons during the pandemic.

Coming up on the anniversary, museum researchers are beginning to think about what kind of exhibition they’ll put together with the data they’ve gathered. “We tried really, really hard when we opened this project up not to make assumptions about what people would submit, so we haven’t planned the exhibition,” says Roberts. “So that’s a really exciting next stage.”

They’ve been considering themes as submissions roll in, mentioning examples like a recent collection on love they put together for Valentine’s Day, people expressing creativity through filmmaking and comics, as well as how people have formed relationships with the non-playable villagers in the game. And, echoing Dombrowski and Grumbach, they note that many submissions appear to view New Horizons as a specific place in a way that other social games, like Mario Kart, wouldn’t be.

The museum hopes that this will be a springboard for more cultural history projects in the future. “We’re constantly looking at … different ways of exhibiting games history,” says Clarke. “We’re constantly trying to innovate and try new things there because it’s a really interesting topic. Video games are a really difficult topic to exhibit!”

“You just have to think about: what is going to be important to know about this game in 100 years? What is it that we want to keep? And not an easy question to answer,” Lewin says. “But if we want to do a good job of actually preserving video game history, those are the questions we need to be asking.”

“I think it’s imperative to be gathering and collecting all of this stuff now before we’re trying to scramble and find it and pick up the pieces later.”