The Popularity of Animal Crossing Exploded During Lockdown, an Academic Explains Why

It was only released a year ago but the game has already sold over 30 million copies worldwide and has become the second-best-selling game for the Nintendo Switch after Mario Kart 8 Deluxe

Many believe that Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which was released on March 20, did so well because it came about just as the world was going into lockdown in response to the pandemic, but what exactly made it so timely during such tough times? One academic ventured to find the answer. 

Dr Chris M. Comerford, a lecturer in communication and media at the University of Wollongong, surveyed 1,898 people from around the world. He found several reasons why people flocked to the game, but one reason dominated.  

That reason was routine. When asked the primary motivation for playing the game, the majority of survey responders, 624 players and about a third of the sample, said it was “the daily routine of tasks and maintenance”, with a further 438 players listing it as their secondary motivation. 

“We’re creatures of habit and in a time where almost all of our habits have been thrown under the bus… we need something to keep us going and to keep our brains ticking over and not just becoming consumed by the things we have to do,” Dr Comerford told POPSUGAR Australia. 

Animal Crossing allows players to escape to a deserted island and build a community from scratch. In the game are non-player characters — various species of animals with different personality types known as villagers — that also inhabit the island as neighbours. The time in the game matches real-time.  

Routines are created around gardening, chopping down trees, hitting rocks to mine resources, hunting for fossils and visiting villagers. There is no real goal of the game and players are able to play freely.     

Video games gave us something that the simple routine of getting up and going to the home office every day couldn’t and that was “giving you a routine you want to be doing and giving you a routine that’s pleasurable and a habit that is enjoyable,” Dr Comerford said.  

Dr Comerford, who also plays the game, found lockdown challenging when his regular routine of commuting to work and lunching with colleagues was taken away.

“Before I started playing Animal Crossing, I was very listless in the mornings because my routine was thrown off so much and I didn’t have an idea of what to fill it with,” he said.  

“I tried getting up a bit earlier and going for runs, or getting up earlier to read my book at home instead of on the train but… I didn’t have the same kind of discipline for that routine at home as I do out in the world.” 

In the game, a typical day would have him checking on his island first thing in the morning with his wife, who also plays and has her own island. During his lunch break, he would log back on to talk to villagers and spend time on a current island project. Finally, in the evenings, he and his wife would visit each other’s islands and play together.    

Nicky Cayless, 26, marketing professional, started playing the game when it was released in March. At the time she was unemployed, having lost her job in January. Before playing the game, her days were mostly unstructured.   

“I would wake up and not know what I was going to do with myself or my life that day, and so there were a lot of aborted TV shows, a lot of revisiting other games and stuff but nothing that really stuck that much. It was just something about Animal Crossing that really clicked,” she told POPSUGAR Australia

“I played like full-time job hours, eight hours a day, at first. And then I sort of kept playing like really obsessively probably until about October or November last year, and since then I’ve just played on and off.”  

In his research, Dr Comerford looked at the work of sociologist Robert Stebbins on the concept of ‘serious leisure’.  

“[It] is essentially taking a practice that’s not your job or not something you’re being incentivised to do through being paid for it, more or less, and treating it with a depth and a degree of attachment that could in some cases border on it being job-like,” Dr Comerford said.  

According to Stebbins, serious leisure is a good substitute for those missing that routine provided by working life. It is “an appealing feature [for those] who must endure severely shortened workweeks or no work at all”. 

This can explain Nicky’s playing style. Apart from playing the game “full-time job hours”, she also set goals for herself in the game.

“I’d play until I accomplished something and then I would take a break. I would still be playing, but without purpose until I came up with the next thing for the day.” 

She has amassed a whopping 1,120 hours in the game. Her next most-played game, which she has had for four years, is sitting at just about 200 hours.  

Nicky now only plays the game every week or so. “I got a job and it was chill at first but it has got more hectic. It hasn’t been replaced with another game so much as life got in the way.”  

Her favourite villager is Diana. “If people don’t like Diana, they’re ridiculous,” she said.