Changing the Way We Mourn with Animal Crossing: New Horizons

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It was either perfect or macabre timing when Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out. March 20 rolled around and people turned on their Nintendo Switch consoles to find much-needed relief from the pandemic. 

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The video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons (ACNH) allows players to dive into a simple world where they play as a child-like human living amongst anthropomorphic animal residents. Though the basics of the game have not changed, the outside world is influencing how we play it.

COVID-19 has pushed people to find creative ways to connect with others. Online funerals are now a necessary option due to the social distancing regulations across each state. And as some players are still unable to go outside, they’ve found unique opportunities to memorialize deceased loved ones using Animal Crossing memorials.

But how has this video game evolved into a beloved and emotionally complex space where people build memorials and mourn deceased loved ones?

What is Animal Crossing?

Animal Crossing has held the hearts of Nintendo fans for nearly 20 years. It’s a low-stakes life simulator where you can do anything you’d like at any hour of the day on your own island. For example, you can showcase your interior design chops or “show off” your green thumb by planting flowers and trees all across your island.

There are some goals and achievements in the game that enable you to unlock its full potential. It’s not unlike the world-building game Minecraft — but on a much smaller scale.

A key feature of Animal Crossing is that you can visit other people’s islands and interact with them and their inhabitants. Nintendo might have expected people would host birthday parties inside the game. But with the pandemic raging outside, people turned to Animal Crossing for more than that. 

Some industry experts gave talks in the game, museum curators helped gamers build their own galleries, and people even held weddings. In a game developed as an adorable virtual sandbox, players built houses, constructed their own island layouts, and decorated their homes.

Players also felt empowered to invent heartfelt memorials on their islands to honor those they have lost.

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Using Animal Crossing to Memorialize Loved Ones

The coronavirus pandemic has prevented many people from honoring loved ones with traditional grief rituals like funerals, visitations, and memorials. In one article from Inverse, Animal Crossing player Jay Lee shared their story about the loss of their mother and grandmother. In the absence of installing a gravestone at their mother’s graveside, Lee decided to make a memorial on their island.

On the popular Animal Crossing subreddit, Jay Lee posted a picture of two beach chairs side by side on the beach with a little rose in a vase to memorialize their grandmother and mother. Many other players have also posted similar sentimental screen captures of their memorials to loved ones who have died.

Animal Crossing’s furniture catalog includes some traditional pieces and other oddities. One piece is called the “western-style stone,” a gravestone marker players can use to designate a sacred spot on their island. Some other players chose different ways to honor a loved one, such as the following:

  • Others etched out heart-shaped ponds using the landscaping mechanics in the game or made gardens for loved ones. 
  • One player posted a picture of her husband next to a telescope overlooking the sky during a meteor shower.
  • Others made elaborate memorial spots to remember a furry friend. For example, a player used some wedding paraphernalia and fashioned a small area surrounded by waterfalls, a white antique organ, white sashes, and black tulips to honor their dog.
  • Some players recreate portions of loved ones’ houses within their own designated digital residences. Even those who are unsure how to make their own shrines in memory are looking to Reddit and Facebook for inspiration and advice.

No matter the kind of memorial, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has become so popular because of its ability to bring people together when they feel isolated. It gives players a unique way to share their personal beliefs, their lives, and what they hold most dear.

Even the people who helped bring the game to life were surprised by the emotional and intimate creations that players shared. In a Twitter thread, Nintendo employee Rob Heiret commented on its popularity and significance during such a tenuous time.

“We've never had a time like this, where safety and responsibility to one another keep us physically distant, and digital tools have taken the place of face-to-face contact,” he wrote. 

“I saw a screenshot from someone who, unable to visit their real mother's grave for Mother's Day, created a place in the game to visit. And that feels important... Not only is Animal Crossing: New Horizons a safe, pleasant, perpetually smiling space, it's a world of its own that the player can shape to their whim. Obviously the real world feels very out-of-control right now, so that, I think, is the secret sauce to this game.”

Mourning Online in New Ways

Because the game runs just like our 24-hour lives, players have all the time they need to establish their own routines and prioritize what needs tending. It could be watering the flowers, visiting other animal neighbors on the island, paying back your mortgage (yes, that’s a thing), or just lazily fishing and catching some bugs. 

People have also had to reimagine the way they honor their loved ones. In the U.S., more than 100,000 people have died from COVID-19. Many died isolated and alone, their families unable to comfort them and grieve with others.

What was once an expected ritual to attend the funeral of a deceased loved one is now gone as a viable option in today’s landscape. These days, you no longer have normal commuting hours, office meetings, brunches, or coffee meetups — or holding funerals, visitations, or memorials. Those who wish to stand alongside their loved ones in sympathy have been able to do so virtually thanks to the use of Zoom, WebEx, and other video conferencing technologies. It is a makeshift measure, similar to how players have used Animal Crossing to do the same.

These new mourning rituals are a testament to the human need to mourn. Dr. Alan Wolfelt, who created the term “Needs of Mourning,” says that chief among these needs is the ability to remember the person or thing lost and establish the importance they have had in our lives. 

Despite the difficulties, people continue to develop and create intimate ways to memorialize their loved ones. Animal Crossing is just one of many ways that people can creatively honor someone in a place they call their own.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is More than a Video Game

The video game is a far cry from real life. After all, it’s a life simulator where a raccoon can lend you money to expand your home and a shih tzu announces new visitors and upcoming neighborhood events.

The ability to connect with these anthropomorphic animals is no doubt one of the main calling cards of this game. But it’s also a place where you can weave your own personal tastes and designs into your gaming experience. COVID-19 certainly changed the way everyone lives, but it has not taken away people’s abilities to mourn and express love for those who have died. Everyone has just become more creative.


Sources

  1. Bogost, Ian. “The Quiet Revolution of Animal Crossing.” The Atlantic, 15 April 2020. www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2020/04/animal-crossing-isnt-escapist-its-political/610012/
  2. DaRienzo, Gabby. “Exploring Grief in Animal Crossing: New Horizons.” The Order of the Good Death, 13 May 2020. www.orderofthegooddeath.com/exploring-grief-in-animal-crossing-new-horizons
  3. Kleinman, Jake. “How Animal Crossing Helped One Gamer Mourn Their Dead Mom.” Inverse, 17 April 2020. www.inverse.com/gaming/animal-crossing-new-horizons-memorial
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