Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the island getaway we all need. My island paradise is covered in coconut trees, red tulips, and peacock butterflies. It’s perfect… a little too perfect, perhaps. The game presents a glamorous tale of island life when the reality is much more complex.
Real-world islands are suffering from sea-level rise, extreme weather, and ecological collapse, yet none of that exists in Animal Crossing. Look, I get it. Video games are supposed to be fun, right? Who hops onto their Nintendo Switch to think about their real-life anxieties? I know I don’t. I game to forget about the world.
Still, Animal Crossing glosses over both conservation and destruction in a way that makes me wish it were more true to island life on Earth. The developers missed a major opportunity to school players on the disproportionate risk island communities face on our overheating planet. For millions of humans on Earth, their island homes will become uninhabitable by mid-century. At this point, the climate crisis is so dire that we need all hands on deck, including video games like Animal Crossing to raise awareness about the risk real-world island communities face today.
For those who are unfamiliar, Animal Crossing: New Horizons involves developing a desolate island that is, essentially, yours for the taking. You share the island with a host of other characters, most of whom you invite to join your community. A bunch of raccoons led by capitalist scum Tom Nook gives you instructions on what you need to start a life there: gather branches, pick fruit, and clear trees for new homes. You quickly learn that catching critters is key in this game, mostly to get access to money and resources.
But there’s also a small conservation angle as well. You leave one of each critter you catch with the museum. Blathers, the owl who runs the museum, always offers to give you a piece of information on the specimens you bring. You can wind up learning random facts about long locusts or bell crickets if you take Blathers up on his offer to share.
The game offers recipes for how to turn trash into treasure, which is another wholesome part of gameplay that brings environmentalism into the fold. You can use things like the occasional boot you can catch while fishing—a sign of pollution—and, if you get a set, recycle them into a pair of new boots.
However, not everything on your island can be crafted. Similar to living on an actual island, you have to rely on shipments for specific items unavailable on your island like clothes, record players, toilet paper, and even solar panels (or oil barrels). That all has to be imported, and you often have to wait a day for your items to arrive. Islanders depending on imports is one aspect to island life the developers got right.
The game handles this element really lightly, though. Most of what you’re purchasing that’s imported is a bunch of stuff you don’t need but that you want because it’ll pimp out your crib: stereos, desks, and books, among other things. (In full transparency, I am addicted to buying all this unnecessary shit in the game.) In the real world, imports are much higher stakes than in the game. Sure, furniture still makes up a chunk of Hawaii’s imports, but its top imports include a lot of food products (and about 80 to 95 percent of Hawaii’s food is imported).
Resource management is also another aspect of Animal Crossing that doesn’t line up with the real world struggles of island life. Islands only have finite resources that, if not managed sustainably, disappear. In Animal Crossing, though, you never run out of fish or bugs to catch. You can take and take, and yet the ocean (or river or pond) will never stop giving. It’s a far cry from real islands where overfishing, resource depletion, and ecosystem collapse are real concerns that are only becoming more pressing as the planet heats up. And there are no signs of the massive insect die-off happening on Earth in Animal Crossing either. Instead, this endless supply of insects and fish are basically commodities you sell to Tom Nook’s raccoon crew who then take them to who knows where.
So far, players haven’t seen any other types of animals in the game, but island fauna is quite extraordinary on Earth. These animals shouldn’t exist merely for our economic gain as they do in the game. What’s more, many actual island species are endemic. Take Madagascar, for example. Most of its wildlife is found nowhere else in the world. That’s part of what makes islands magical. That’s also what makes them extremely vulnerable to outside influences such as people and the climate crisis. And yet again, Animal Crossing fails to accurately weigh the impacts people can have on native wildlife. Transplanting species like bamboo from another island in the game doesn’t have an impact despite the fact that invasive species can take a huge toll on real islands’ native flora and fauna.
Animal Crossing could have opened up these and other issues related to what it’s like to live on a real-world island, including the risks climate change poses. I always find myself excited to see rain in the game because it means my flowers get watered for me. The reality is far different for islanders in the real world who face the threat of storms battering their homes.
Communicating that threat to gamers through even a small storm that topples a couple trees or damages a home could help inform players on the impacts of the climate crisis. Or making resources finite and highlighting how to conserve them like how Native Hawaiians are trying to bring back ancient land management techniques could add another sustainability and indigenous knowledge layer of real island life. But I guess cyclones, rising seas, or island ecology were too complicated to include in a game meant to be relaxing, cute, and addicting.
I named my island Timeless before I knew what I was getting into. Well, turns out that time is of the essence in Animal Crossing. All my clothes shipped from abroad are available to purchase until 9 p.m. I have until 10 p.m. to sell the endless dragonflies, sea bass, and dinosaur fossils I’ve extracted. The island life is definitely not timeless. In fact, the clock is ticking. That’s true for both the game and the real world—except, in reality, the stakes are much higher.