It all started when Rachel Mooney’s Animal Crossing character got access to a floor pattern of terra-cotta honeycomb tiles. They weren’t as slippery as the Metro’s, but the way the light shone off of them reminded Mooney of the way the setting sun would reflect off the flooring of above-ground stations. Then, she got plasticky, orange chairs that screamed “public transportation.” When she got the concrete walls: “My brain was like, just make the Metro,” Mooney says.
Over the course of five hours, Mooney painstakingly overhauled her Animal Crossing house to emulate the iconic Brutalist architecture of DC’s Metro stations. After spending two hours to create the raised bumps of the platform edge, Mooney turned her Animal Crossing home into a striking homage to the Metro, complete with whimsical DC additions like a giant panda, a rideshare scooter, and a pile of cherry blossom leaves.
Mooney is just one of many Washingtonians who are attempting to recreate their pre-Covid DC lives in their Animal Crossing islands. Released on March 20 as the pandemic was getting underway, “New Horizons,” the newest installment in the Animal Crossing series, has sold more copies in a single month than any console game in history, and has become a cultural cornerstone of Covid-19 society. Twitter is filled with references to game character Tom Nook, a couple had a virtual marriage in the game when their in-person ceremony was canceled, and the game’s cherry blossom trees stood in for the real life ones people couldn’t see at the Tidal Basin this year.
Though iterations of Animal Crossing have been around since 2001, many players are picking it up for the first time, looking for a way to kill time while stuck at home. Tom Bridge is one of those recent adopters. Though he’s had a Nintendo Switch for a few years now, he hadn’t heard of Animal Crossing until recently. “I was looking for a game that was relaxing and not mentally taxing or stressful,” he says. “I’ve been playing for about four weeks [with my son]. I log in every day because I enjoy the daily routine of it…it’s a great way to spin down at the end of the day.”
Together, Bridge and his son, Charlie, have been recreating their Brookland neighborhood in their Animal Crossing island. So far, the father/son team have made shops with the Brookland’s Finest logo and a Menomale Pizza seal, and have added a painting of the Franciscan Monastery to their house’s wall.
Their finishing touch: a recreation of the DC flag that flies over one of the main buildings. The stripes were easy to form in the game’s pixel editor, but the stars were a little more complicated. “It’s a pentagram mapped on a quadrangle grid, and that just sucks,” Bridge says. “It’s a lot of trial and error…it probably took me an hour just to do the design.”
Bridge’s character sports a 9:30 Club T-shirt, designed by the people at the real 9:30 Club. Meanwhile, longtime Animal Crossing player Natalie Escobar’s character wears an NPR Code Switch T-shirt she designed herself. Escobar, who’s an assistant editor at Code Switch, had been pushing for “IRL” merch for the show before the pandemic. “[But] that’s a whole process,” she says, one that wasn’t likely to be a priority at the moment. So, Escobar took it upon herself to spend an hour and a half turning the Code Switch logo into an Animal Crossing T-shirt.
“I was pretty sure the Venn Diagram of “Code Switch” fans and Animal Crossing fans had a pretty good middle,” she says. “But I actually waited a second before sharing [the T-shirt on Twitter]. I was like, ‘Is this a super dorky thing I just did? Maybe this is a new low.’ But then I realized that we’re all really regressing during this time. If I look like a big nerd, that’s the least of my worries.”
in quarantine I have:
— Natalie Escobar (@_NatalieEscobar) April 27, 2020
Escobar is also trying to satisfy her longing for DC’s congenial bar scene through the game. Combining the diveyness of Red Derby and the arcade feel of Lyman’s Tavern, she’s designing a space where she and her friends can have a familiar place to virtually hang out. Once construction is complete, she’s planning to have a bar opening party in the game, with Code Switch tees as party favors.
Animal Crossing is a fuzzy, family-friendly virtual reality game; a place where, as Escobar puts it, “there is no pandemic, and the worst thing that can happen to me is that I get attacked by a tarantula.” So why is it when players could create any reality they want, they create a reality in which they used to live?
“For me…it’s a tribute of wanting to go back there,” Bridge says. “There’s no normal right now. I’ve given up on normal ever being normal again. But I want to put the talismans out there in the world that I want to see again…[These things I’ve designed] are part of our community that’s hurting right now…We’re doing this as a tribute to them, to let them know that we’re holding them in our hearts even when we can’t see them.”