Nintendo's Animal Crossing Update Turned Out to be Perfectly Timed

Nintendo's Animal Crossing Update Turned Out to be Perfectly Timed

Who could have guessed a week ago how precious the dream of civil civic government would become?

Much like basically everyone I know — young or old, man or woman, white or not, straight or queer, born in America or abroad — I find myself dismayed (if not entirely surprised) by the results of yesterday's elections. I prefer not to get political here, but I will say that many, many people in my life fall into categories that our new president-elect openly demonized in his climb to power; while I'm rarely happy with the direction of politics in this country, this is the first time a political outcome has made me feel genuinely afraid for the people I love.

When I went to sleep last night, the presidential race was still in play. But I woke up damp with sweat at about 3 a.m. after a few hours of restless dreams, checked the final results, and sat awake anxiously for the rest of the night. I texted back and forth with my wife (who was staying with family for the night) to try and help her make sense of things, watched an outpouring of disbelief flood the internet, and resigned myself to the reality that I wouldn't be getting any more sleep.

Rather than fling myself in futility against insomnia, I decided to pick up my 3DS and tool around in my Animal Crossing: New Leaf town. Nintendo dropped a sizable free update for the game last week... not entirely without warning, but still, the scope of the update and the lack of any price tag attached came as something of a shock. Having spent a lot of time with the game back at the time of its release (and having had quite a bit to say about it), I was curious to check out the new material — especially since it pulls in last year's perfectly charming Happy Home Designer and all the work I completed there as well.

In truth, though, I haven't really been able to spend any time with the updates's new material. The rather sizable time investment I made with New Leaf vanished into thin air during the Great New 3DS Transfer Disaster of ’15, wherein some of my system's data made the move just fine while other info — such as the 100-odd hours I'd spent with New Leaf — evaporated. So, my return to New Leaf hasn't been a matter of picking up where I left off but rather a case of starting over from scratch.

I actually got a start on my all-new town (Jusenkyo, headed up by mayor Ranma) back over the summer, when Nintendo first announced a New Leaf update would arrive by the end of the year, but I didn't make it very far into the fresh save file. The process of going through the opening rigamarole all over again — meeting new residents, establishing my tenure as mayor, all of that nonsense — became a chore in no time at all. I didn't even manage to move poor Ranma out of her tent or even introduce myself to all the town's residents before wandering off.

Over the past few days, however, the journey has suddenly become a lot more compelling than it did months ago. It's not just the addition of the update; like I said, until this morning, I hadn't even experienced any of the Welcome amiibo content. But as tension surrounding the U.S. elections mounted, I found the game requirements that seemed so onerous over the summer took on an almost therapeutic spirit: Simple, agreeable tasks building toward small but positive ends. Shaking trees for bells, catching bugs and unearthing fossils anew, gathering mushrooms, planting strategic trees to brace myself for maximum money-rock exploitation, and having vapid conversations with my air-headed animal neighbors: All meaningless actions, but collectively each one a step toward a happier neighborhood.

There is, I think, a certain irony in taking pleasure in menial work as the nation elevates a man who, in Animal Crossing terms, was born with a million-bell cheat code active, lost them all in the turnip market, and kept going by sneaking into other people's villages and pawning off all the valuables he could get his hands on. But even more so the fact that New Leaf specifically revolves around the concept of civic involvement, of tirelessly working for the betterment of the community, of asking not what your village can do for you. This election feels like a repudiation of such high-minded ideals; I mean, the entire point of New Leaf is that a new person who looks nothing like the other citizens moves in, is welcomed with grace and good cheer, and sets about pitching in to make the town a better place. The new mandate established by the American people, by contrast, amounts to, "Get out."

There's no room for that negativity in Animal Crossing. It's a game that reminds you, gently, to be considerate of others' sensibilities when you create content to be shared with your fellow players. It's a game where everyone pulls together to make the system work. Where the largest and most opulent building in the entire town is a museum that thrives with the player's participation. Where breaking rocks, digging holes, and planting trees results immediately and obviously in a more beautiful world. And most of all, it's a world where weird-looking animals may chuckle about your appearance but are ultimately more than happy to invite you into their homes to show off their decorating sensibilities and share workout tips. It's menial and relaxing and satisfying and, above all, it's friendly.

New Leaf has been a welcome distraction in a time of uncertainty, and I'd never have thought to revisit it now if it weren't for the Welcome amiibo update. I guess the challenge now — for myself and anyone who values gentility over venality — is to translate those therapeutic virtual actions into reality. It may not be possible to bring Animal Crossing's harmony to life in the actual world, but surely the very least we can do right now is try.

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