Why has Animal Crossing: New Horizons been so popular during COVID-19 lockdown, and are the cute characters featured in the game so popular? My research at the Vitalities Lab explores this question with an ethnographic study of online Animal Crossing fandom communities and interviews with players. As a specialist in kawaii (cuteness), I’m interested in finding out how users relate to characters in game, their islands and each other through Animal Crossings’ kawaii design and interface. Emerging research has sought to capture the affective qualities of digital media, in particular its capacity to evoke feelings, experiences and decrease and increase capacities to act. In this blog post, we will be thinking about the kawaii characters that populate the world of Animal Crossing.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a game released for the Nintendo Switch in March 2020 when many regions across the world, such as Australia, America, Canada and Europe began to practice social distancing in response to COVID-19. The game, made in Japan (released in-country under the title Doubutsu no Mori), is designed to be kawaii in order construct a safe and playful environment for users. Players befriend and form relationships with kawaii animal ‘villagers’ who populate the game space known as an ‘island’. You may have seen in the news reports of people having weddings, meetings and dates in-game. While this has provided a fun way to connect in stressful times, I’m interested in the way in which players relate to their digital animal friends who inhabit the island.
To enhance their experience of their island, players are encouraged to bond with the local villagers. A selection of 10 villagers move in from a random selection of almost 400 unique characters. While some players don’t mind who moves in, others actively seek to curate who lives on their island through purchasing characters via amiibo trading cards, visiting friends islands where their preferred villager lives and harassing ones they find “ugly” until they move out. Typically, the more kawaii a villager the more they are sought after by players.
There’s something “magic” about the way the animal villagers pull you into a suspension of disbelief. The villagers are friendly, missing you when you don’t log in to see how they are. They go about their daily lives shopping, watering your plants, exercising and more. In other words, the villagers are designed to elicit care giving behaviours by following the same design principles as virtual pets including realistic motion, interactivity, autonomy, promotion of subjective reality and personal attachment. By following codes and algorithmic parameters, these furry little friends illustrate what Pettman (2009) has described as ‘love as technology’. Can love be created and maintained through design? The playful nature of human and more-than-human relationships in the Animal Crossing points to the potential for digital technologies to augment the subjectivities of digital objects.
The kawaii design of these characters is also significant in shaping the way players relate to them. Studies in Japan and overseas have found that we are drawn to kawaii objects as something playful, something we can empathise with and sometimes needing our attention and care. Kawaii objects are also a way for adults to express creativity as a form of self-care. Other famous kawaii characters, such as Rilakkuma and Hello Kitty have been identified as valuable to adults as a means of finding comfort during instability and as a means of expressing care. We still don’t understand everything about kawaii objects and why they elicit these responses in us, and so Animal Crossing is a great opportunity to think about this.
But of course there are other appealing aspects of the game, including the customisation and curation of your personal island, the peaceful activities and pastimes you can carry out like fishing and gardening, and the ability to play with other online. I’ll be talking about these in later blogs!
Dr Megan Rose is an associated researcher at the Vitalities Lab, an adjunct associate lecturer in Sociology and Anthropology, Social Research and Policy at UNSW Sydney and a researcher at ANROWS. You can follow her Animal Crossing research via her Twitter and the Vitalities Lab blog.