A literal description of Animal Crossing is easy. The games follow the only human in a setting populated by adorable anthropomorphized animals as they catch bugs, go fishing and shake down fruit trees in exchange for bells that serve as currency. Each game’s environment is unique, but the objective of customizing the surroundings remains the same.
Pinpointing how a game designed for children amassed such a large young adult following since the release of the first game in 2001 is a more difficult task. The simple gameplay mechanics and beautiful backgrounds contribute to its widespread popularity, but how does Animal Crossing retain the attention of a gaming demographic that constantly demands new features and better graphics?
Understanding the fanbase of Animal Crossing offers insight into how this game has become beloved across the world. In 2012, 69% of Nintendo 3DS users were men. When Animal Crossing: New Leaf was released the same year, 56% of the 3DS and game bundle sales were women aged 19 to 24. Something about the game inspires young women to the point that they actually became the majority of sales for a male-dominated product.
The aforementioned age range provides integral insight into why the games are so well-liked. Ages 19 to 24 are turbulent times for most young adults trying to navigate the world by themselves for the first time. Everything from college stress to paying off student loans occurs during that time frame. For young women, that pressure is even stronger as they face inequality in both school and the workforce. Animal Crossing provides a refuge from these pressing issues; there is no gender inequality in a cast of animals and no predatory loans when the loaner has no time limit for repaying your debt.
Customization is the hallmark of the Animal Crossing series. In New Leaf, you are appointed mayor of a town and have the freedom to create ordinances and public works projects to customize it. In Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, you play as a camp site manager with similar freedoms. A sense of stability and routine pervades the games. You earn bells, buy customizations and earn bells again. Whether it is a camping ground like in Pocket Camp or a town in New Leaf, the player has the authority to make their space whatever they want it to be.
This is a welcome departure from childhood and the less than ideal housing situations of young adults. For millennials and members of Generation Z, buying a house is a fantasy in an unfair and steeply-priced housing market, but you can always purchase and upgrade your home in Animal Crossing.
Animal Crossing also makes the dream of finding a steady job that matches the cost of living an in-game reality. Bells can be earned a multitude of ways and sometimes literally fall out of trees, removing the stress of cost from the player’s mind. At the beginning of each game, Tom Nook will give you a loan so that the player can build their home. This loan accrues no interest and can be repaid whenever.
Capitalism in Animal Crossing does not exist to oppress but instead uplifts; it is the capitalism taught in school instead of the crushing reality of late stage capitalism that 21-year-olds are forced to live with. What Animal Crossing provides to this generation is control over their surroundings and their income that is hard to come by in real life. A home you can customize, more than $100 in your bank account and loans you can actually repay are the dreams of young adults everywhere and Animal Crossing allows them that experience.
The stress of being a 20-something in 2020 can also contribute to mental illness, which develops by age 24 in 75% of people. The stigma surrounding mental illness pervades society even though it is common: 1 in 7 people will be diagnosed with one in their lifetime. Stress only exacerbates these conditions, which only leads to more stress, creating a vicious cycle that requires treatment to break. And while Animal Crossing will not treat mental illness, it is a great stress reliever. Playful soundtracks and relatively easy to achieve goals make it easy to pour hours into the games and leave the harder parts of reality behind for just a moment.
The cast of characters in Animal Crossing help compose the relaxing atmosphere of the game. They each have distinct designs and personalities, and all of them want to see the player succeed in whatever capacity you are playing in the game. In-game villagers even notice when you haven’t played for a while and display distress at your absence, asking where you’ve been and expressing their happiness that you’re back. Building a good relationship with them is essential to your success in certain installments of the series: New Leaf does not allow you to modify your town until you receive a 100% percent approval rating from the villagers.
The camaraderie provided by the villagers creeps up slowly. At first, interacting with them is a chore and then favorites emerge until you’re invested in the life of an anthropomorphized cat. The sense of community in every game is lovely and provides the player with a setting where their wellbeing is a concern and their presence is noted, something few 20-somethings have had the opportunity to build for themselves yet.
Interactions with the villagers range from gameplay tips to nonsensical ramblings, but on occasion, they are incredibly insightful. One of the most popular quotes from the series is from Katrina, a fortune teller that appears in every game. In New Leaf, she says, “And remember that bad times … are just times that are bad.” The sentiment speaks optimistically to its demographic of young adult players struggling with mental illness and the transition from adolescence to adulthood — bad times, just like any other times, will pass.