Museums are (Animal) Crossing Into Gaming
I never expected to be able to convince my family that “museums are cool” through a video game, but it is 2020 and honestly, it is the least weird thing happening right now.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out for the Nintendo Switch at the end of March and at the beginning of stay-at-home orders, making it the unofficial game of quarantine. It already had a strong following of people who had played previous iterations of the game over the past twenty years, but drew in a host of new players with the updated Nintendo console and lots of newly-bored people around the world.
While there are countless great articles on why this game has been a success (as well as some hilariously wild conspiracy theories -- Nintendo created the virus, didn’t you know?), this game holds a special place in my heart as a public historian who works in museums. Animal Crossing: New Horizons sparked discussions and enthusiasm for museums in a way that many of us in the field could only dream of. For the uninitiated, early on in the game, players can collect a variety of items that will be donated to convince a curator to come to their deserted island. That curator is a rather harried owl named Blathers, who dons a bowtie and endless facts about fossils, art, and fish, who asks for a few more items to donate before he can apply to open a museum on your island.
Blathers is every bit the stereotypical museum curator, but players around the world still immediately flocked to him. I had friends checking reddit to get Blathers and the museum as quickly as possible and as a person familiar with trying to get people to love museums as much as I do, I found it a nice change of pace. For a solid week, all of my texts were about this owl
curator and his burgeoning island museum.
The enthusiasm did not die-off as soon as museums were built on islands around the world and players could move on to completing other objectives around their island. Instead, Animal Crossing became a space to discuss museum experiences in a time where there is little outlet for communal experiences. The giant fish tank in the digital museum inspired people to talk about their experiences at local natural history museums and the fascinating fossil exhibits renewed interest in dinosaurs and evolutionary trees.
Creativity is at the core of Animal Crossing’s success and players quickly took to decorating the landscape around their museums. Some rebuilt the exteriors of museums they love while others allowed the things that would not fit inside the museum to spill outdoors. The care that museum staff put into exhibit design and visitor flow suddenly became standard topics for many players who began building their own de-facto museums.
This spark in museum discussions outside of my museum friends was great, and it only got better. With the most recent update, players can now collect art and donate it to the museum.
Players now have to dig deep into their memories of famous paintings to thwart the black market art dealer Redd, who peddles real works of art and slightly tweaked versions to unsuspecting players. My siblings who have been pulled through museums for years are now calling me to talk about works of art!
My favorite twist of all is that real museums started to get in on the game. The Getty Museum quickly put together an art generator tool for Animal Crossing players, allowing players to hang, wear, and share any of the images in the Getty’s open access collection.
The Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Cincinnati Art Museum also pulled together to make their collections available for players to build their own virtual museums. By opening up their online collections, museums transitioned from physical to digital exploration of their collections in a brilliant way.
Most creatively, Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Chicago Field Museum teamed up to stream a live museum tour. In lieu of a physical museum space to educate and discover with the public, Monterey Bay Aquarium staff took to streaming the new Animal Crossing game. Then, to make it even better, they collaborated with the Chicago Field Museum's Emily Graslie (also from the popular YouTube channel The Brain Scoop) to lead an educational tour of the fossils displayed in their museum. Beyond being just a good promotional tool to survive the pandemic, this ability to rapidly engage with video games is a large step in the right direction for many museums.
Museums are always trying to find new ways to reach different demographics and Animal Crossing opened doors into digital museum spaces we have not really engaged with in the field. While many museums took advantage of the Pokémon Go boom of 2016, Animal Crossing actually has a tangible museum presence that allows us to rather seamlessly connect with gamers of a variety of skill types and interests. Every museum conference I have been to has focused on how we can better incorporate digital tools and connect with the public in new and creative ways; a digital museum run by an owl may be an answer.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a game that centers around collection but also creativity and displaying the things you care about, and museums have taken the leap to show players how these fun game mechanics are reflected in the real world. Especially as museums face a bleak future, it is reassuring to see swaths of people around the world finding joy in collecting and sharing art, supporting (owl) curators, and itching to develop their museums.
With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic and the release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, museums have found their way into people’s lives in an unexpected way. Let’s hope we can channel our inner Blathers and inspire this movement to continue past the pandemic.