Working From a Virtual Home? Exploring Animal Crossing as a Cultural Space

In this post, Errol takes a look at Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and how this video game offers a virtual creative and cultural space.

Like the rest of my team, I spent most of the time between April and September either furloughed or working from home. I’d be lying if I said I found the transition and the experience easy, of course – it has been a stressful time, and one that I’ve found unnervingly quiet. I found myself missing many things within the Whitworth, including the stories that the Visitor Team would tell each other. Many of the blogs you see on this page once came up in conversation between some of us, or stem from some of the exceptional exhibitions that our curators put together. Whether it’s history’s medical oddities, or tales of the gallery in the decades before I was even born, I realised that I missed learning from the cultural space around me, and those who work alongside me.

A strange result, then, to talk about a videogame. Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released just a few days before the UK eventually committed to a national lockdown, and it very quickly became a comfort space – creating my own little island, getting to know the characters who visited and eventually moved onto the island, even doing the little elements of maintenance, like pulling up the weeds that inevitably sprung up in my flowerbeds – all of it was rather relaxing. 

But the Museum reminded me of being back at the Whitworth, in all the best ways. Within this videogame, you get the opportunity to build your own museum, and stock it with things that you find across the island – digging up fossils, catching insects and fish, and also purchasing artworks, such as paintings and sculptures, to exhibit within the space. Obviously being part of the Visitor Team involves none of this, but when providing each item to Blathers, the in-game museum’s director, he will offer to tell you stories about the historical items and artworks that you’ve provided him. Each of these stories is both incredibly well-detailed, and told in an entertaining, engaging manner, a way that fascinated me deeply, led to me being invested in the space, and in the character. 

Once I became invested in the in-game museum, I realised that this entire game, if you play it right, reflects much about the Whitworth that I’ve fallen in love with over the past year that I’ve worked there. The artwork that you see in the museum, the spaces that you curate and develop, both inside that space and outside of it, are more than just spaces for contemplation and observation, they become spaces for learning and the development of ideas and conversations. They become spaces where you can bring your friends to explore, allow them to develop ideas about their own island spaces, and you have the opportunity to visit your friends, too, have a look at how different people create the spaces they live in, and think about the spaces in which people feel most comfortable in. Each object placed on your island becomes more than an aesthetically pleasing item, it’s a representation of yourself and the experience of your island; your own curated exhibition, as it were.

It’s your own little space that you can interact with at your own leisure, a space that respects the outside world and sustainability, but also encourages you to explore the island’s biodiversity and also to expand it, find things out about the space you’re in, constantly working to discover and learn. If, like me, you’ve been primarily stuck indoors over the course of this lockdown, having a stylised yet realistic online environment to explore and develop in your own way has been a blessing. I may not have been able to explore Whitworth Park half as much as I would like, but I’ve been able to work on creating my own green space and, with other inhabitants on my little island, you often encounter them enjoying themselves in those spaces, too.

Moreover, it’s a space where children and adults can enjoy themselves – and these are spaces in which parents and their children could play alongside each other, too! In the past few weeks, colleagues of mine have explored recreating art from within our collection within Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and I’ve taken it upon myself to hang some of this artwork within the spaces on my island. It’s been lovely to support my colleagues from within a virtual world and develop my own space that encompasses the kind of learning and safe environment that the Whitworth, too, embodies. I’ve been part of online events in games, such as going to see people on their birthday, celebrating important dates and cultural events in that space where normally, events would have happened within the Whitworth. While Covid-19 has stopped face-to-face events, these kinds of online spaces allow us to, in a sense, replicate the things we’ve missed. It might not be the same, but it’s an interesting parallel experience.

As videogames go, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a breath of fresh air at a time when we’ve rather needed one. Nintendo’s co-director, Hisashi Nogami, described his vision of the game as “like it’s another living room, where everybody gathers and enjoys a parallel virtual world together” and I couldn’t agree more with this depiction. It’s a space where those you know can come closer together and enjoy events, explore the world around them, learn and discuss in ways that often only come from cultural spaces. In a sense, this in-game virtual environment is a cultural space. But that conversation? That’s a whole new story…

Further Reading:

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