My grandmother lives on a lake, and to hear her tell it, it’s something of a folksy hodgepodge.
Like a tall glass of lemonade on a sweltering day, New Leaf is a game to be sipped and sampled in repose.
The lake community, she says, is the place where people from all the other places look to settle and relax under amicable weather, and where people who never left ease in deeper and stranger the rest of the time.
My grandmother is delightfully eccentric, and has been for as long as I have known her. Her creaking house may well be kept propped up by its filled bookshelves. She can cite the works of decades-retired professors and horticulturalists.She has more than a few cats, and a penchant for collecting frog-themed items. A sign plastered on the window at her back door – which, going by lake lexicon, is the one facing the road – warns of the “Neighborhood Witch.”
In her mid-70s, she is the most socially-attuned person I have ever met.
Without skipping a beat or sacrificing detail, she can spin a conversation from household developments to the state of the lakefront environment to local politics and gossip about the neighbors – all of whom she seems to know the activities, proclivities, and histories of, up and down their own family trees.
She is a voracious student of plants and wildlife, of bawdy storytelling and current events, of getting out every day to interact and absorb and give back. Her livelihood is collecting, finding substance in, and articulating the strange people and colorful lives of her small community.
It’s hard not to notice such spirited approaches to life at play in Animal Crossing, a series that for many of us seems to occupy much of our own. In the span of a month, its fourth iteration, New Leaf, has arguably become the game of summer, at least philosophically.
We can credit some part of its success to impeccable timing: the game is presenting an idyllic version of comfortable, rustic life just as the warm months ease in for many, when the prospect of tending to and complementing our spaces and ourselves becomes less a chore than a celebration.
It has hooks that make sharing our personal labors and designs no harder than selecting when, what, and with whom. It is an accessible, witty, and ever-present experience. And like a tall glass of lemonade on a sweltering day, New Leaf is a game to be sipped and sampled in repose.
To be sure, New Leaf’s is a tempered life. It does not approach bombast or attack its themes or move with urgency of any kind. Very little separates the highs and the lows. But I have seen nothing but excitement as friends and strangers exchange codes, swap agricultural and financial know-how, declare the gates of their town open for passage.
There is giddiness in the way we connect with it. The proliferation of its Twitter presence alone is indicative of our investment in the folksy minutia of these digital communities. Every day, we’re lamenting its limits and celebrating its silliness. We’re sharing snapshots of our weird neighbors and our weird collections.
We’re talking in shorthand about mortgages and routines and swings of fortune. We’re inviting people into our towns and into our homes.
If we are experiencing something genuine about New Leaf, it is that it makes caring, about ourselves, others and life on a small scale, not so strange a thing.
The popular experiences in games often arrive to the tune of shouts and shots and a lot of white noise. When they are sold on the merits of being graphically realistic, or terse, or scarring.
We buy them and claw for the outcome, the delivery and repetition of something that seems important or feels good. What comprises our gaming diet, then, becomes choked with the dazzling and disposable, experiences that ask for our time, not our concern.
On the same shelves as New Leaf are games and series, genres and sub-genres, that discourage personable response; an entire video game market in which sincerity only goes as far as the next exciting gameplay sequence.
Animal Crossing has few restrictions. You do not have to be “good” or “skilled” or “a gamer” to approach and appreciate the things it does. But you cannot play it without sincerity.
To be reminded of this truth is refreshing, especially as we find many others surfacing the same earnest excitement. Why, then, at a time when it’s not a going concern, have we latched so hungrily and in numbers to a game that takes us only as far as we choose to be genuine?
Because in times of isolated shock and awe, Animal Crossing feels, and is, healthy.
Where other games are glad to sell us a handful of hours to relinquish frustrations, or indulge desires, or placate fears and fetishes, New Leaf offers shares of a simple world and asks us to care.
This is as much a system as it is a philosophy. As Christian Nutt notes, New Leaf’s engine for motivation and perpetuation is other people. Game-controlled villagers and human players alike model attitudes and expressions through their diction, their clothing, the contents and arrangements of their homes.
The qualities intended to influence us change with the days, and may vanish from our towns with the seasons. People change, and leave, passing through our gates perhaps having left us with something tangible or inspired. The game constantly reforms, doing so with the hope that we might yet choose to make ourselves part of its close conversations.
The question games often have us asking is, What’s in it for me? At the end, how far back have I been knocked?
New Leaf challenges us to ask better questions. Not of what we might gain, or what meaning we’re to derive, but questions that take us from the safety of isolated experiences to the intersection of our lives and those of the people, digital and otherwise, around us.
What outfit has this person designed? Who’s that moving in now, do you think? What might I dig up or shake down or reel out from the stream?
New Leaf’s sentiment is not revolutionary, and may not be permanent, but it is nourishing, and for now, we’re receptive. And we’re finding out how wholesome it feels to commune, and to consider even your friends, the times they’ve had, who they’re choosing to be – for today anyway.