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Archivists Are Trying to Chronicle Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ Unforgettable First Year

The challenge of documenting a virtual world.

"The serendipity of the time [Animal Crossing: New Horizons] came out is ridiculous,” says Lex Roberts, curator of the UK National Videogame Museum’s Animal Crossing Diaries. The project aims to capture “the cultural phenomenon that followed the release of Animal Crossing … in March 2020, just as the world was transformed by the pandemic.”

New Horizons has been inextricably associated with COVID-19, with early reviews making mention of how much we all needed an escape as lockdowns and quarantines suddenly became our lives. As it became apparent that social distancing would be around for a long time, the game became the location of weddings, memorials, protests, and political campaigning, to name just a few.

But it’s not possible to experience the same New Horizons as the one everyone was playing in the spring of 2020. “You can’t play the game and understand how people used it and what the experience of playing it in the [early days of the] pandemic was,” says Roberts.

Kelsey Lewin, co-director of the Video Game History Foundation, notes that the social experience has changed as people have moved on. “[Early on], a co-worker from six years ago just kind of randomly wandered into my town, because everyone was playing and my gates were open,” she says. “If you were to just randomly show up unannounced to someone’s island [now], it’s not going to be taken in the same way.”

“What’s important for the future is making sure that we have some kind of record of what the game was like in these moments of time,” she says. That’s what the National Videogame Museum is aiming for, and that requires more than just being able to access a Nintendo Switch and a game cartridge.

“It’s something that we’ve wanted to do at the Museum for a little while,” says its marketing and communications lead Conor Clarke. “A lot of video game history and preservation looks at the technological advancement of games and doesn’t really cast too much of an eye at the cultural history around games.”

The serendipity of New Horizons’ release date was their opportunity to try something new. The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, a grant-making charity, asked for cultural heritage organizations to “collect the history as it’s happening,” says Clarke, and the museum’s application to use the game for that purpose was successful.

“Playing a game is not necessarily the best way of understanding a game,” says Roberts. Instead, the open call asks for whatever kind of data volunteers might want to offer up. “We’ve had … audio recordings, we’ve had video recordings of people speaking to camera, we’ve had people writing diary entries of their experience, photo diaries of ‘this is the progression of my island over the last year.’ We’ve had some really interesting essays of people really reflecting on their experience and things that have happened.”