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Animal Crossing’s Nature Day event is a farce – the Nintendo game teaches kids toxic lessons about the environment

The hit Switch game will celebrate its own in-game version of Earth Day tomorrow, but its positive message is undermined by gameplay that teaches kids to look at nature as a business opportunity, writes Louis Chilton

Wednesday 22 April 2020 13:31 BST
In Animal Crossing: New Horizons, players are encourage to plunder the natural world for resources
In Animal Crossing: New Horizons, players are encourage to plunder the natural world for resources (Nintendo)

When people talk about poor taste in video games, they do not usually mean games like Animal Crossing. They mean games like Call of Duty, wherein civilian massacres are depicted with brutal subjectivity, or Grand Theft Auto, in which sex workers are flattened under sports vehicles with garish abandon.

Few games have ever courted the epithet of “harmless fun” as insistently as Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the Nintendo Switch game that has already broken several sales records since its release a month ago. In New Horizons, you control a customisable avatar who colonises an idyllic island populated with talking animals. The game has quickly become a sensation, heralded as a timely escape from the grim realities of the world. But New Horizons can still leave a sour taste in your mouth, no matter how much sugar is piled on.

Today is Earth Day, the global environmentalist celebration marking its 50th anniversary. According to the movement’s website, Earth Day’s aim is “to build the world’s largest environmental movement to drive transformative change for people and planet”. Tomorrow, following a substantial new update, New Horizons will celebrate its own version of Earth Day, a splashy off-brand event called “Nature Day”. This is the second such event within New Horizons’s first month of release, following on from a non-denominational “Bunny Day” celebration over the Easter period.

On some level, this event makes perfect sense: Animal Crossing ostensibly revels in nature. Throughout the game, players are encouraged to plant trees and flowers, grow a selection of fruits and learn about the local fauna in the local museum. To begin with, the player’s own island is a verdant paradise, with plantlife papering the ground and rivers teeming with fish. But there is a rank hypocrisy at play in New Horizons’s Nature Day fanfare.

During the game, the bounties of nature quickly become commodities, to be hoarded, sold and repurposed in the name of progress. Forests are razed for the wood to build garden tables; fish are dredged from the rivers to be sold at the local shop. Once you’ve played the game for a while, and unlocked the game’s more advanced landscaping tools, you are able to shape the very structure of the island, paving over water and levelling cliffs into convenient flatland.

Things get even more problematic when it comes to “Nook Miles Tickets”. Available to purchase with in-game points (named “Nook Miles”), these tickets grant you a one-time flight to a deserted island. Once there, you can deforest, fish and generally pillage to your heart’s content, leaving a clutter of tree stumps and empty holes in your wake. After you have drained the last iota of value from the island’s resources, you jet off home, and the unwanted, used-up island sinks into the sea. It’s almost as if the game is putting its own spin on the age-old koan: if 30 trees fall in a forest, and no one will ever be around to hear them, do they make a sound – besides “cha-ching”?

Animal rights organisation PETA have released a guide to New Horizons, advising players on whether or not in-game activities are appropriate for vegans. On many counts, PETA determined that the gameplay depicted activities that were “not only cruel but also bad for the environment”, such as collecting live animals and storing them in the museum.

Now, it’s rarely a wise use of anyone’s time to get worked up over the ideological transgressions of a video game, especially one as frivolous as Animal Crossing. And in other aspects, New Horizons deserves credit for its progressive values (for instance, it has done away with the series’s previous gender binaries and embraced an “anything goes” approach to clothing and appearances).

New Horizons is not pretending to be any sort of ideological battleground. Far from it. It will probably lift only the most superficial aspects of Earth Day, using the occasion as a veneer to add some shine to otherwise familiar activities, and perhaps introduce a few new items.

But unlike the bastardised not-quite-Easter event, Nature Day cannot simply use the aesthetics of its real-life equivalent. Earth Day is immutably political. It is impossible to discuss the beauty of our planet without also recognising the efforts that must be undertaken to preserve it, and the very real jeopardy it is in. New Horizons is attaching itself to the worthy ecological principles of the holiday by implication, principles which its gameplay insidiously rejects.

Given the game’s current explosion in popularity, and the large number of children who are playing it, the Nature Day event provides the chance to exert a positive influence. On some small level, it will help educate younger players about the importance of the environment, which can only be a good thing. Unless New Horizons overhauls the rest of its gameplay, however, it will also teach them that the natural world amounts to nothing more than a business opportunity – and, I daresay, that completely misses the point.

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