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image of various animated characters from the Animal Crossing video game
Courtesy of Nintendo
How Animal Crossing Conquered the World

Two fascinating nonfiction articles explore how games can help us through difficult times.

From the September 2020 Issue

Learning Objective: to compare and contrast two games and the roles they’ve played in Americans’ lives

Lexile: 980L
Other Key Skills: figurative language, key ideas and details, cause and effect, inference, text features, summarizing, synthesis, compare and contrast
AS YOU READ

As you read the articles and study the images, think about what the games in these articles have in common.

How Animal Crossing Conquered the World

A delightful video game helped millions of Americans through a challenging time.

Last March, Angelina, 14, moved to a new neighborhood. Her new house is a cozy stone cottage surrounded by bright-green grass and leafy fruit trees. Anytime she wants, she can shake down a crisp, red apple for herself. Next to the trees is a yellow-striped hammock, where she takes long naps in the sunshine.

Her new home is beautiful, but what Angelina loves most are the new friends she’s made: Phoebe, Whitney, Tia, and Prince. They like to fish at a nearby beach together, wander around the local museum, and hang out at their favorite café.

Where is this delightful place? The dazzling world of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a video game by Nintendo that took the world by storm last spring.

Millions of Players

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a simulation game—that is, a game that closely simulates, or imitates, real-world situations and activities. In the game, each player creates a village on their own island of talking animals. Angelina’s friends Phoebe, Whitney, Tia, and Prince are, respectively, an ostrich, a fox, an elephant, and a frog.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is not the first simulation game—it’s not even the first version of Animal Crossing. But it is one of the most successful. Eleven million copies were sold within 11 days of the game’s release on March 20, making it the biggest launch of any Nintendo Switch game ever. By the end of the month, Animal Crossing had become the top-selling video game in the United States.

This success isn’t so surprising when you think about what was happening last March. Millions of Americans had just been told to stay home because of the outbreak of Covid-19. We couldn’t go to school or soccer. We couldn’t go to a movie or grab a slice of pizza with friends. In fact, we weren’t supposed to leave our homes for much of anything. To pass the time, some of us took up puzzles or baking. Others perfected dozens of  TikTok dances. Many of us binged TV shows and movies.

And millions began playing Animal Crossing.

Courtesy of Nintendo

Who Created Animal Crossing?

The first version of Animal Crossing was released in Japan in 2001. One of the game’s creators, Katsuya Eguchi, said the game was partially inspired by a bout of homesickness. He had moved from his home in the city of Chiba to Kyoto, the city where Nintendo’s headquarters are located. Missing his family and friends inspired him to create a game that would help people stay connected.

The Power of Play

Animal Crossing is not the first game to become popular in a difficult time. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, when millions of Americans lost their jobs, families entertained themselves at home with affordable board games like Monopoly and Sorry! In 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession, both video games and video gaming equipment experienced a spike in sales.

Why do humans turn to games in periods of struggle and uncertainty?

One reason is that games—whether it’s Animal Crossing, hide-and-seek, or Clue—can make us feel better. As Dr. Rachel Kowert, a psychologist who studies gaming, explains, “Games are great at fixing our mood and reducing our stress and anxiety.” That’s because when we play, our brains release feel-good chemicals called endorphins.

Still, not every game becomes a hit. So what is it that has made Animal Crossing such a smashing success?

For one thing, the game is easy. Even someone who doesn’t play video games can quickly pick it up. It’s also gentle. You don’t play to win; you play to play. There are no dangerous storms to outrun, monstrous creatures to kill, battles to win, or high scores to obtain.

Animal Crossing is so simple and nice,” says Sophie Keil, 14, from Granada Hills, California. “You hang out with animals and collect things. It’s a peaceful game.”

Even the sounds and graphics are soothing. From the bright, cheerful colors and the serene background music to the rounded edges of the animals’ bodies, everything is designed to make players feel happy and calm. One writer from The New York Times described the game’s aesthetic, or look, as a “warm hug.” And during a time when something as simple as going to the store had become scary and dangerous, the “warm hug” of Animal Crossing was exactly what many of us needed.

“I think for a lot of people it’s a means of escape,” says Angelina. “They want to get away from the bad parts of the world right now.”

Kowert believes that many are drawn to the game because its mundane, real-world tasks—watering plants, chatting with neighbors, visiting shops—provide a sense of normalcy during a strange and chaotic time. Take 12-year-old Quinn, an Animal Crossing fan from Silver Spring, Maryland. He has a list of “chores” that he likes to complete every day in the game. He feels a sense of accomplishment when he waters his flowers, catches a few fish and some bugs, and checks in on his villagers.

How much is too much? Playing video games can be good for you—in moderation. Experts recommend limiting yourself to an hour or less a day.

Socializing Safely

Courtesy of Nintendo

There is another aspect of Animal Crossing that brought players comfort: You can play it with other people. In real life we may not be able to gather in large groups, but in Animal Crossing, groups all over America held virtual backyard barbecues, birthday parties, graduation ceremonies, and even weddings.

But despite the joy that games like Animal Crossing can bring us, experts agree that playing video games shouldn’t be the only thing you do to cope during a tough time. Nor should you do it for hours and hours every day. If playing a game gets in the way of regular life—if you’re skipping meals, skimping on sleep, or ignoring plans with friends—it’s time to scale back.

More Than a Fad

Will the Animal Crossing craze last forever?

Probably not.

But even as people start drifting away from their virtual villages and back into their real neighborhoods, Animal Crossing will be remembered as more than a fad. It will be remembered as a game that helped millions stay connected and uplifted during a very difficult time.

As for Angelina?

“I’m happy there,” she says. “I haven’t had any negative things happen on that island.”

A Sweet Treat in a Tough Time   

The fascinating history of Candy Land, one of America’s most popular board games

Erin Cadigan/Alamy Stock Photo (green piece); Chris Willson/Alamy Stock Photo (1955 board & box); Courtesy of Hasbro (modern board & box)

As Eleanor Abbott looked around the hospital ward, what she saw was heartbreaking: row after row of beds occupied by children.

The year was 1948, and the children—as well as Abbott herself—were being treated for polio at a hospital in San Diego, California. Polio is a disease caused by a contagious virus. In its most severe form, the poliovirus attacks the nervous system and can lead to paralysis, difficulty breathing, and in extreme cases, death. People of any age can get polio, but it affects mainly young children. In the mid-1900s, polio was one of the most feared diseases in the U.S., with major outbreaks occurring every summer.

Most of the kids in the polio ward with Abbott had never spent much time away from their families. Now they were on their own in the strange and scary environment of the hospital. They were homesick and frightened. They were also incredibly, painfully bored.

In the ward, there was nothing to do but wait—for the nurse to come by, for the next family visit, for the weeks or months it could take to recover to pass. Abbott, who was a teacher, decided the kids needed something to do, something that would take their minds off their illness and relieve their boredom. And so she invented a game set in an enchanting, imaginary world made of candy—a game we know today as Candy Land.

Bettmann/Getty Images

Three little league players visit with two young children recovering from polio in a hospital in New York in 1955.

An Instant Hit

Abbott’s game was blissfully simple—and perfect for the young children in the ward who couldn’t yet read or write. Players moved along a winding path of colored squares, picking cards to see which color to move to next. The first player to reach the finish line won.

Candy Land was an instant hit with the children in the ward. It transported them from the bleak world of the hospital to a delightful world of sweets.

After Abbott recovered from polio and left the hospital, she brought her game to the Milton Bradley Company, a board game manufacturer. Milton Bradley bought Abbott’s idea and in 1949 created the first version of Candy Land that the public could buy. Across the front of its box, in cheery, looping script, was the game’s slogan: “A sweet little game for sweet little folks.”

It turned out to be the perfect moment in history for a game like Candy Land. That’s because, thanks to frequent quarantines, it wasn’t just kids in hospitals who needed something to do. It was all kids.

From 1916 until the early 1950s, outbreaks of polio led to the closure of many swimming pools, beaches, parks, and other places where people gathered. Worried parents kept their kids at home, hoping to prevent them from catching the virus from friends or classmates.

Without computers, smartphones, or the internet, kids couldn’t keep in touch with friends the way they can today. There was no binge-watching Hulu or playing Animal Crossing either. Many parents purchased Candy Land to keep their children’s boredom at bay. It quickly became Milton Bradley’s best-selling game.

Thanks to Candy Land, kids stuck at home could travel through the Peppermint Stick Forest, pass under the Gingerbread Plum Tree, and slide down the Rainbow Trail. They could visit a world where the worst thing that could happen was to get stuck in the Molasses Swamp for a turn or two.

Generations of Children

By the early 1970s, polio was almost eradicated in the United States, thanks to the introduction of a polio vaccine in 1955. It took longer to wipe out the virus in some other parts of the world, but today there are only a few countries where it continues to spread.

Although polio has faded away here in the U.S., Candy Land has not. Over the years, many new editions have been released, with updated looks and new characters like Princess Lolly and Lord Licorice. There was a computer game based on Candy Land as well as an animated movie. In 2005, Candy Land earned a spot in the National Toy Hall of Fame. Today, more than 70 years after Candy Land’s debut, about 1 million copies of the game are sold each year.

Eleanor Abbott would surely be pleased to know that her “sweet little game” has delighted so many generations of children.

This article was originally published in the September 2020 issue.

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Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Close Reading, Critical Thinking, Skill Building

1. PREPARING TO READ (8 MINUTES)

2. READING AND DISCUSSING (45 MINUTES)

3. SKILL BUILDING AND WRITING (20 MINUTES)