Animal Crossing Is a Millennial American Dream Simulation

With a new update to the video game, young people have even more of an excuse to seek out escapism during the pandemic

Image: Getty Images

Animal Crossing: New Horizons couldn’t have arrived at a better time. The nostalgic, life simulation game came out in March, just as we were starting to hunker down in our homes. A colorful digital world, filled with ripe fruits and adorable pudgy animals, the video game was the perfect antidote to the fears and uncertainty wrapped up in a global pandemic. Millions of people escaped into the Animal Crossing world, with 13.41 million copies of the game sold within the first six weeks of its launch. With its latest update landing on July 3, new features to the Nintendo Switch game add to what many are longing for this summer: the ability to hit the beach and swim in pristine waters.

In Animal Crossing, you are in control of your virtual life; you explore, build your dream home, and create your community. Gameplay is soothingly domestic and simple. The graphics are bright and warm, and flowers perpetually sway in a relaxing breeze. Money even grows on trees. Paying off your home mortgage is as easy as picking fruit and catching butterflies, and trading those in for cash.

Essentially, in Animal Crossing, you live the American dream. And for millennials like myself, that makes the game especially bittersweet.

Animal Crossing is a form of escapism, a cathartic sense of relief to offset the feeling that the American dream is more distant than ever.

The millennial version of the American dream is unlike that of previous generations. We’ve been shaped by crisis after crisis, from 9/11 to the Great Recession, mounting student debt, climate change, and now, the Covid-19 pandemic. The millennial worldview is marked by uncertainty rather than stability. The future feels precarious, leading many young people to value spending their money on a preferred lifestyle over saving for retirement. The traditional American dream — to work hard and earn a stable, white-picket-fence life — feels depressingly unattainable.

For my generation, Animal Crossing is a form of escapism, a cathartic sense of relief to offset the feeling that the American dream is more distant than ever. Millennials are disproportionately affected by job loss during the pandemic. We’re living through our second global financial crisis in just over a decade (and we never financially recovered from the first). It’s easy to see the appeal of a game that emphasizes stability and home ownership, when our financial future looks so bleak.

Millennials somewhat notoriously lag behind previous generations in home ownership rates. Many simply cannot afford to set down roots or start accumulating wealth. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to own a home. In Animal Crossing, they can. You start in a tent on your island. Players spend a fair amount of time upgrading and building their dream home. Paying off housing debt in the game is easily attainable, it comes down to patience and hard work.

Going from a tent to a customized home is the epitome of the rags-to-riches, American dream story. But in the real world, this is obviously never a guarantee.

It’s a technicolor safe haven to escape the uncertainties of the real world.

Having an island community in Animal Crossing is to visit a simpler time, where our connections were solidified by where we lived: We ran into our friends and neighbors on the street, or at the grocery store. It’s a type of connectivity that is lost in the digital world, and it’s a stark contrast to our current reality, where we can’t take pleasure in those small in-person interactions.

For a generation already facing a crippling sense of eco-anxiety and existential fears about the fate of our environment, Animal Crossing offers a pristine escape in a world where climate change doesn’t exist. It’s the kind of natural world we want to inhabit in real life. There are no factories belching out toxic smoke or concerns about plastic waste. Ripe fruit grows on trees, and you can catch fish from nearby bodies of water. Everything seems to be in balance.

For fans of the latest release, there’s good reason why Animal Crossing: New Horizon feels like more than just a game. It’s a technicolor safe haven to escape the uncertainties of the real world. This world offers predictability and security. Animal Crossings’ version of life is one that appeals to the anxieties of the millennial generation.

In Animal Crossing, I don’t have to worry about job loss or global warming. I already own a virtual dream home, and I never worry about whether I can afford the mortgage.

Also, I can DIY a succulent garden. It doesn’t get more millennial than that.

Likes to pet cats, travel places, and write stories ✈

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