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[Keywords] Animal Crossing and Intrinsic Motivation

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is available on Nintendo Switch


I missed my first day of Animal Crossing on Saturday since New Horizons released half a year ago.

My home island of Granvisch has been getting rave five-star reviews for the last four weeks. I paid off the last of my home “loans” in June (if you can even call a no-downpayment, no-interest, no-repayment-date offer a “loan”). I can’t even remember the last time I unlocked or upgraded a major feature.

Yet I’ve been strolling through my digital neighborhood seven days a week from March through September.

I know this isn’t unique; I still see a reliable rotation of my friends list popping into the game on a regular basis. But it’s nowhere near how it absolutely dominated everybody’s playtime every day back in spring. Nowadays, Granvish is seeing a fraction of the weekly tourist numbers from its “heyday”, which even defeats much of the social element of the game. It seems like the lion’s share of islanders ironically petered off sometime during the summer.

So why am I still plugging away at Hour #242?

Put simply:

Because I’m not done.

Sure, the game of Animal Crossing: New Horizons might be “done” in a sense. I rolled the credits months ago.

But that’s not any mark of a finish line for me.

To that point, one of the “People Also Ask” phrases I repeatedly see when I search for Animal Crossing information:

“Does Animal Crossing New Horizons ever end?”

Which feels like such a radically different understanding of the game that I can’t even really grapple with it.

It’s like the ol’ metaphor of pounding a square peg into a round hole.

There’s certainly an expectation with most video games that you can “complete” them. Final Fantasy will eventually run out of story to tell, you can finally collect every star in Mario, and you will, given time, inevitably die and end your run of The Binding of Isaac. Then you probably eject the game, say you’ve “beaten” it, and may never feel the need to come back. That’s the standard flow of things.

But that’s just not how Animal Crossing is built, and certainly not how my brain interprets it. It’s a sandbox – in the elementary-school unstructured-play sense, not the Saint’s Row “open map filled with goodies” sense. It’s a malleable space where I can dream up and then build a combined café and study, or an untenable-in-real-life outdoor library, or curate a natural park and campground. Most of all, it’s a garden I feel compelled to tend to; or rather, a singular bonsai tree.

And the thing about bonsai trees is, they’re such a personal and long-lived toil that you won’t ever see mine unless I’m already having you over for tea.

Animal Crossing: A Shared Horizon
Not everyone is here – but that’s not why I built it.

By Invitation Only

I’ve toyed with a lot of ideas for how to share my deep-seated adoration of Animal Crossing with others.

Maybe I could start a side-project where I share cozy vignettes from my island. Write little gossip reports on how my villagers are getting along? (Static and Freya? Totally a one-sided drama.) Compile examples of all the little details that make the game shine, like how a placed fan will cause loose items in its path to rustle slightly, or that in-game television sets have scheduled programming (including an accurate-to-your-island weather report at 6:45 PM)?

Ultimately, I never pulled that particular trigger. It felt like crossing a line somehow, but I couldn’t put a finger on the reason.

Then I ran across a particular line in a book this summer:

“Your own joy can be something you produce.”

I’ve come to look at the things I consume in a different way since I started blogging regularly. Shows I watch and games I play aren’t always a “turn-your-brain-off-and-fall-in” affair. Just as often now, I notice the structure that holds them together, the choices the creators made, and what about that I want to pull out and examine.

Heck, I’m even doing that right now with Animal Crossing, which totally runs contrary to how I’ve experienced it for the last six months.

And this isn’t meant to be a grousing session. It’s fun to engage with fiction on that level, to try and understand what does and doesn’t work – and, more importantly, why it is or isn’t effective. It’s a fun mindset to take into a new experience.

But it’s a different mentality than I took into these things even a few years ago. Games and shows become relaxing hobbies because they’re non-performative activities, after all.

I Play for Play’s Sake

And that’s what’s got me so darned excited around the announcement of – and recent trailer for – Rune Factory 5.

I’ve said a lot that I adore “farm-life sim” games in the vein of Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley. And, to an extent, that’s true; exploring a new town and planning a “new life” is thrilling. It hits all the right notes of discovery with the appearance of wide-open opportunity.

For the first dozen hours.

You see, I’ve never made it through the first winter season in either of those games.

To be fair, the Story of Seasons series has broadened its gameplay over time, and Stardew Valley boasts a wealth of varied activities from week one. But both still manage to feel prescriptive to me. Your options in former revolve around how well you’ve maximized the gains from your farm, creating a singular focus. The latter almost immediately saddles you with a laundry list of long-term objectives, pinning a “you should be working at Task X” note to the back of my mind.

They’re supposedly open-ended, but in reality, they’re nudging you into a proper way to play.

Rune Factory, on the other hand, felt different.

There are certainly objectives and a story, but ultimately they affect your day-to-day very little after the first few dungeons usher in new townsfolk. To be honest, I forgot that the main quest was even there a lot of the time, especially when the game notably goes months between story beats.

Instead, it only exists in the same way that everything else does: to supplement, but not define, your lifestyle.

Sure, Rune Factory bears the subtitle “A Fantasy Harvest Moon“. But that famous Harvest Moon farming cycle? You can task pets with automating that whole operation for you, or ignore it entirely! Or, if that is your bag, you can get into the deep magick that is crop rotation and soil quality.

Other players will be drawn into the top-down RPG dungeoneering, with or without a side-hustle of forging (and selling) their own gear.

Still others are just big fans of the characters and the mock-social elements. You can spend days upon months trying to coax the residents into showing off more of their seemingly-endless unique interactions.

Me? I spent my time in Rune Factory learning how to bake the best Apple Pie, because it’s Clorica’s favorite food.

That’s nothing I’m doing because the game necessarily says I should.

It’s something I’m doing because I think the end result will be worth it to me personally.

Rune Factory's Animal Crossing Vibes
It’s not about the tasks; it’s about where and how you’re doing them,

A Fantasy Animal Crossing

That same drive is what has me sure that I’ll still be playing Animal Crossing next March. Because, just like the actual projects I do to tend to my physical home, that task list has no bottom. It’s forever a work in progress, and not one that’ll tick up any finite “completion” bar or value counter.

But it’s not derived from some in-game list, nor is it something I’m making just so I can post to TwitTokStagram and be done with it forever. It’s poking around and nudging the game state ever so slightly toward my personal ideal version of it, in the little ways that maybe only I will ever care to notice.

So this is the last that you’ll hear about Granvisch from me. That is, unless I know you personally, in which case you really ought to see the DadZone across the bridge.

And I’ll gladly let my friends finish their own bamboo groves and fountain squares and steam-baths on their islands.

Out here, on the horizon, we build for ourselves.


By the way: if you’re playing Animal Crossing and want to show some affinity for the Geek to Geek Media Collective, you can download these designs to your game using the Designer Codes in the image!

New Merch Horizons
For the low low price of “absolutely free”!

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