Updated at 10:30 a.m. ET on April 15, 2020.
Many years ago, when my son was 5, he got upside down on a long-term loan in Animal Crossing, Nintendo’s 2002 video game about running away from home to lead a prosaic life in an adorable animal village. The problem was familiar, although perhaps not to a kindergartner: He had spent his income on the trappings of consumer life—furniture, garments, accessories, even video games. But now he had no room for all that stuff, he explained to me. He also had no cash to pay off the mortgage, which the local real-estate tycoon, a raccoon named Tom Nook, had forced him to take out upon arrival. Until the note was paid, my son reasoned, he wouldn’t be able to take out another loan—to fund a home expansion that would finally make room for all his purchases. “What should I do?” he asked.
For years, I spun this story as an example of games’ special ability to teach complexity. What the hell kind of video game consigns you to a mortgage when you boot it up? But Animal Crossing had taught my young son about the trap of long-term debt before he ever had a bank account.
Animal Crossing is back, and what a time for it to arrive. A new title in the franchise, New Horizons, launched in late March, just as many Americans were settling into quarantine; its players have since found comfort and relief in the game’s cute pastoralism, a reprieve from uncertainty. The title has become so popular, in fact, that Nintendo Switch consoles have become about as hard to find as hand sanitizer. Amid social and economic chaos, with most people holed up inside, the days having melted into a shapeless slurry, Animal Crossing serves up unexpected consolation by offering surrogate habits—a structured, if fictional, alternative to normal life.