Talking animals keep us from cracking up

The author in his digital form.
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Our son George circled March 20 on his calendar long before our current public health crisis. That was the day the new “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” game would be released for his Nintendo Switch.

I must admit that I reacted to George’s palpable anticipation with a healthy dose of fatherly skepticism.

“So, you’re an animal in a village?”

“No, you’re a person. Your neighbors are animals.”

“And they talk and wear clothes.”

“That’s right. And you do your banking with a raccoon named Tom Nook. He loans you money for a house.”

“What? You play a video game where you have a mortgage? That doesn’t sound very fun.”

“Yeah, but he’s pretty cool about how you pay it back. There’s no hurry. And you can make money selling fish and things you make.”

And if I lasted this long in a conversation about “Animal Crossing” that was above average. I’m not much of a video gamer. If I’m working to pay off a mortgage I’ll do it in the real world. Here, capitalism is much less adorable but keeps me in Greek yogurt and Diet Mountain Dew.

The game arrived a few days after Gov. Tim Walz announced that Minnesota schools would be closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Really, Nintendo’s timing could not have been better. I made the joke that the game was actually George’s remote learning curriculum.

I didn’t realize that it would actually keep our family sane.

First, George got going building a house and learning the ropes of the game. Then his brothers Henry and Doug joined him. One day, after dinner, my wife Christina joined in.

Now, Christina tends to be very serious about new hobbies. She doesn’t try them often, but when she does she has to be pulled away from them like a dog from a dropped meatloaf. Otherwise she won’t sleep. Before we knew it, her house was even bigger than George’s. Her game character was wearing a cardigan and looked almost exactly like her real self.

I held out. It was nice to see the family bond over a game and all. But I was going to stake out a spot along the sidelines, peering over the top of my newspaper like fathers of old.

Then George handed me the controller. Try it.

“Pffft. Whatever. Don’t even see what the big deal is.”

I took the controller. Made some tools. Chopped some wood. (Wood makes furniture). You can mine iron and gold out of the rocks. Sometimes you find fossils that you can donate to the island’s museum, run by a loquacious owl named Blathers. You can do yoga with a monkey and a bear. Fly on a plane piloted by a dodo.

Before long I had paid back my raccoon overlord, only to sign up for an even bigger loan for an even bigger house. The whole time I’m catching fish, clearing weeds out of fields, and traveling to other islands to exploit their natural resources.

Sometimes when I’m particularly wound up about life in the real world I ask questions. What is the raccoon’s angle? What does he get out of these interest free loans and financial incentives for menial tasks? Are the resources we sell him worth more than we’re told? What is the currency basis of “bells,” the island’s version of company scrip? Is this like Bitcoin?

But often these questions fade into the soft and soothing music of Animal Crossing. This may be an oligarchy, but it’s a benign oligarchy run by trash pandas with considerable consumer and human rights protections.

There’s plenty to do on this island, but no deadlines. Neighbors look out for each other without concern for politics, religion or, well, species. No drama. The worst thing that can happen to you is getting stung by wasps. Even then you treat yourself with medicine that you can make yourself. Self-Medicare for all?

My family turned to a video game to find an escape from the fear and uncertainty of our real world. What we found was a dream for a better tomorrow. And lots of fish.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and is the creator of the Great Northern Radio Show which aired for eight years on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, April 19, 2020 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


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