After a long day of work, I was looking forward to flying to Lazy Egg, my virtual island in Nintendo’s new Animal Crossing game. What I found was a tropical paradise under siege. Players from across the internet were pounding at my island’s door. For over an hour, they came flooding in, effectively crashing my game. In their arms, these strange visitors all carried the same thing: turnips.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. With its storybook aesthetic, Animal Crossing: New Horizons promises a relaxing escape from a not-so-gentle world. Unsurprisingly, the cutesy homesteading simulator has become a smash hit during lockdown. But on Tuesday night, as players bombarded me with tweets, texts, and DMs, my private island felt more like my own personal hell.
You could argue that this was New Horizons working as designed. There’s an in-game mechanic where players can speculate on turnips, buying them from a runny-nosed pig at one price and selling them to a pair of raccoon brothers for another. (Players jokingly refer to this as “the stalk market.”) Crucially, prices don’t just vary day-to-day, but also island-to-island. For the player who dreams of making it big, having a friend on another island with sky-high turnip prices is like winning the lottery.
At noon on an otherwise ordinary day, I checked my turnip price, and lo, it was through the roof. Raccoon twins Timmy and Tommy were offering to buy turnips for a whopping 602 bells—the in-game currency—apiece. In general, a price under 100 is bad and one over 300 is pretty great. After I posted the 602 figure in my workplace Animal Crossing chatroom, I watched my colleagues’ irises change into dollar signs.
Party at Victoria’s island! Are you opening the gates now? During work hours? Haha, just kidding! I started getting DMs from folks at the company I’d only ever talked to in passing—not that I minded. Getting to know more coworkers despite social distancing is a perk of playing, not a burden.
A little after 5:30 p.m., I made a critical error. I tweeted out a screenshot of my turnip prices, joking, “RIP my island tonight when all my friends come thru.” Seconds after posting, I had strangers on Twitter asking to visit. At 5:55 p.m., my workplace messaging app blew up with calls to open my island’s gates. At 6 p.m., the first wave of visitors arrived.
I had planned to hide from the turnip horde in my virtual home, sitting on my virtual couch, watching my apple TV. (In this case, an apple-shaped television.) This was naive. Every time a player arrives on your island, the game shows you a cute animation introducing the visitor. It takes about 15 seconds, which is fine when it’s just one or two people. But with all of the air traffic on Tuesday, I was basically trapped, only managing a few steps before the dreaded animation began again.
Back in the real world, my phone was blowing up as friends, coworkers, and acquaintances reached out through every possible platform to say they couldn’t get in. Elsewhere, my Dodo Code—basically my island’s address—was passed around, letting people I didn’t know visit. And throughout it all, my anxiety skyrocketed, even though logically I knew there was no reason for this.
The night culminated in Brianna Wu—congressional candidate, video game developer, and friend of a friend—asking to visit. She made over 2 million bells, left me a generous 99,000 bell tip, and later called me America’s greatest hero when yet another friend asked at 9:45 p.m. if my gates were still open.
They were not.
It’s not like I came out of it with nothing. While not everyone who visited tipped, those who did left around half a million bells in total. Still, by the time 10 p.m. rolled around, it felt like sweet relief. Part of me felt guilty I hadn’t been generous enough to let random players onto my island. A bigger part of me wished I’d lied about my prices entirely. Heavy is the head that wears the turnip crown.
If you’ve never played Animal Crossing: New Horizons, it’s a wholesome game with a darkly capitalist undercurrent. You spend your days on your own private island, playing dress-up, paying off your home loan, and catching critters. Eventually, you start developing the place, building infrastructure like stores, bridges, and roads. It’s kind of like real life, except your income actually reflects the effort you put in and there are adorable animal friends with punny names.
New Horizons can be played alone, but it encourages playing together online, making the game a convenient virtual hangout in self-isolation—one that comes with a built-in activity. I’ve had Nintendo’s Switch game console for a little over a year. Before Animal Crossing I had exactly one “friend” on the platform. Now I have 39.
Sweetly, the game has put me back in contact with friends I haven’t spoken to in years, including a high school friend who is now a doctor in Florida fighting covid-19 on the front lines. He called one day to make sure that I wasn’t “one of the stupid ones” ignoring social distancing recommendations. He told me heartbreaking stories about his covid-19-positive patients, how some had already died, and how the state was doing jack to help his small hospital. He also told me he was on day 12 of a 14-day work week, and how if he didn’t call his parents every night, he woke up to dozens of messages because they’d convinced themselves he was dead.
This incredibly sober conversation ended with: “Yo, Vee, are you playing Animal Crossing?” That turned into plans to visit each other’s islands, which turned into further plans to exchange in-game items, and, of course, sell turnips. During voice chats, discussions of island logistics were peppered with asides about everyday life. Do you want this magnetic knife rack? Work still sucks, we’re getting flooded with covid-19 patients now. Shit, I have this dope katana. You want that?
I’m grateful that a video game gave us something to talk about beyond disease and dying. In the past few weeks, we’ve texted more than we have in the last year. A part of me is also incredibly sad knowing that without the world going to shit, there’s a good chance we wouldn’t have.
I’d like to say that the Great Turnip Fiasco was a one-off in an otherwise blissful experience. But something is not quite right about the game marketed as the perfect diversion in these troubled times. Until last week, it had been my refuge from the doom and gloom associated with the novel coronavirus. The worse the news got, the further and further I retreated into the game.
The turning point came when my fiancé was forced to stage a dinnertime intervention. “Babe,” he said. “You have to stop playing Animal Crossing and eat. Your island isn’t going anywhere.”
I waved him off with a “Yes, yes! I’m coming! I just need to finish selling these tarantulas.”
I did not come to the table for at least 15 minutes, maybe more. I sold the tarantulas but then got distracted by the wares the rascally raccoon twins were selling. After that, I obviously had to unload my new purchases. By the time I was done, I could feel the tension radiating from my fiancé.
“Are you angry?” I asked.
“Are you sure you’re not angry?”
“I just wish you were with me in this world, instead of always off in a virtual one.”
The words stung, but he had a point. Since Animal Crossing dropped on March 20, my vision has narrowed to the dimensions of a game console screen. When I wake up, I roll over and reach for my Switch and the life I’ve created on my island. I change my avatar’s outfit so she’s ready to start the day—which involves running to get daily bonus points, watering flowers, checking morning turnip prices, and collecting seashells on the beach.
While I do this, my fiancé makes coffee, breakfast, the bed, showers, brushes his teeth, unloads the dishwasher, takes out the trash, and gets ready for work. Despite my virtual self sticking to a healthy daily routine, back in the real world, I am an un-showered slob trying to get in as much play time before I have to log onto work.
It may have started out innocently enough, but my obsession with the game has turned me into a neglectful asshole.
In my defense, we’re living with two pets in a 550-square-foot studio apartment. When we were both at our jobs for most of the day, it was easy to make our cramped quarters work. Now, it’s a constant effort to avoid cabin fever. When I start to feel claustrophobic, the game lets me sneak out to a four-room house with lots of sunlight, plants, and non-Ikea furniture.
The turnip incident was stressful, but technical issues weren’t the real problem. My partner had just had a tough day at work. Instead of being present with him, I was shepherding friends, coworkers—and, frankly, some strangers—to turnip glory. I had to be firm in turning down several pleading requests to keep my island open. Most people were chill about it. Some weren’t. Over time, the game that was supposed to be uplifting had become a social quagmire where no matter what I did, I was letting someone down.
At its best, the game is a salve for loneliness—not a cure. One recent evening, I visited my coworker Catie’s island during a meteor shower. In the game, you can get rare star fragments by wishing on falling stars. I had called in sick to work that morning because of a killer migraine that left me vomiting from nausea. You’d think a sick day would’ve been the perfect time to binge a video game, but the bright screen hurt my eyes. I spent the day mopping my forehead with a wet towel, fretting that my digital flower gardens would fail if I didn’t suck it up and water them.
That night, I played through the brain-splitting pain to get those star fragments. The most soothing part of my day was standing with a virtual Catie on a cliff overlooking the ocean. The meteors were falling, my migraine ebbed, and it was peaceful. For a few minutes, everything wasn’t so bad. But then I left her island, and the migraine was still there.
When I bought Animal Crossing, I also bought into the narrative that the game was going to be the thing that got me through social distancing. I wanted to believe it could fill the gaps between therapy sessions, my anxiety about media layoffs, and missing my friends. And it does, to an extent. I just let it get out of control. I cared too much about turnip prices, virtual flowers, and building a not-real kitchen in a not-real house. Things that ultimately don’t matter and are just a Band-Aid on the wound that is isolation-related depression. What happens in a month or two when people move on to the next Fun Consumer Good and the world is still terrible? Will Animal Crossing still be the perfect game for this era then?
After our dinnertime talk, I invited my fiancé’s in-game character to Lazy Egg as an apology. My island came with a heart-shaped pond on a cliff. I took it upon myself to plant some tulips, add a garden bench, and rearrange the cherry trees for peak romantic vibes. We sat there in the game together for a few minutes and I acknowledged the ways I had been a jerk these past few weeks and promised to get it together. Then we both logged off for a date in real life.