Nina Simone said it best, “You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” And let’s face it, these are very strange times. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that creatives have turned to a video game to engage with art. We’re separated in public through plexiglass screens, masks, and stickers on floors. So what role do video games play in a “high art” discourse, and why is Animal Crossing so popular?
Animal Crossing is social simulation game that embeds your character on an island with anthropomorphic animals. In Animal Crossing: New Horizons you’re first dropped on an island with only a tent and it’s up to you to interact with the other residents and use basic resources to craft new items. Animal Crossing: New Horizons also introduces a new currency for completing certain giving the user opportunity to buy unique items. This currency translates into a social currency within the platform that allows you to influence how other residents behave and even where they build their homes.
At its core, Animal Crossing is a community engagement driven social platform that gives users a release and a sense of control. It’s an escape; it’s a safe space where you can build little worlds and hang out with friends thousands of miles away or just a few blocks down the road. This video game sensation was initially released almost twenty years ago as a social simulation game. In March of 2020, Nintendo released its fifth version of Animal Crossing for the Nintendo switch during the height of the initial wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Amid the world on lockdown, Animal Crossing became a way for people and artists to interact in a fun and lighter environment than the one we’re currently living in.
A few years ago, the idea of engaging fine art, film, and video games in a conversation would seem like a stretch at best. But with the permeation of technology into our everyday lives, it’s high time we look at these mediums through a different lens. Tools like VR gaming and Video conference teaching in 2020 expose the pain points whistleblowers on education, and the arts have been yelling from the rooftop for over a decade. The hierarchy of what constitutes “art” and how we engage with it is gone.
Community Engagement and Technology
Creatives all over are turning to Animal Crossing as an outlet for conversation. Some are using it as a tool to talk about the blur between technology and reality. Some are using Animal Crossing to hang out and have “studio visits.” The unique game design of Animal Crossing allows creatives to import their artwork into their made-up worlds. Both of these views use the video game to reflect the importance of community engagement in our creative lives. Whether those interactions are in person or through a cartoon land in Animal Crossing, it doesn’t matter; we need that interaction to create. And there’s something inherently enjoyable about running around in a make-believe land with an avatar stand-in without opposable thumbs. We’re going to look at two different ways that creatives (filmmakers and painters alike) are using Animal Crossing to create and discover content within their respective mediums.
The Filmmaking Commentary
“Don’t Peek” written and directed by Julian Terry, co-produced and starring Katie C’etta with fellow co-producer, Alexander Anderson, is a self-professed “quarantine short.” The core team of Terry, Anderson, and C’etta created the entire short with just equipment they had in the apartment. “Don’t Peek” uses Animal Crossing as an allegory for our inner self and brings to life a strong millennial voice. It demonstrates what a fun, well-done short with timely implications can say. “What if you could listen to your inner self? What would it want, and what would it be saying?” Terry said in a phone interview with artistic fuel. “I love when you get a peek into what people are actually feeling, or actually thinking about.”
The writing is superb. The camera work is tremendous. And actor Katie C’etta’s shines in the six minute short. “Don’t Peek” is devoid of dialogue but, C’etta has us all yelling at the screen to put down the device, long before she does.
A peek behind the curtain
Alexander Anderson and Julian Terry first met as interns at Buzzfeed in 2015. Anderson and Terry are the creative team behind multiple productions (Whisper, The Nurse). “Don’t Speak” is an excellent example of indie filmmaking at its core—a bunch of talented friends, with little to no budget, coming together to make art.
“The short was really Me, Katie and Alex. We worked together with what we had to make it work.” explained Terry. “Alex said, “Hey, I have this black magic camera. Let’s shoot it.”
I got an insight into the shoot through a call with Terry and C’Etta where they explained some of the staging processes. It was a case of doing what you can with what you have. The crew literally taped lights to the ceiling to control the lighting. Only for the lights to fall periodically throughout shooting. Working within a limited timeframe, they would shoot late at night and wrap within minutes, with C’Etta calling time saying, “Okay, it’s 3 am. It’s time for bed.”
Fine Art critique and Animal Crossing
At the beginning of the pandemic, as I ended a video call with Danny Ferrell (he was teaching me guitar); he said, “Alright, I gotta go, I have a critique in Animal Crossing.” To which I responded, “What?”
Danny Ferrell is a teacher at Carnegie Mellon and an internationally showing artist, lauded by Artnet News as one of the top emerging artists. So suffice to say, I was caught a bit off guard. But as Danny and I recently discussed, this speaks to a broader context of art engagement and teaching in a technology-based society. The video game, Animal Crossing had become a meeting place for artists to talk and engage in art discourse outside of the traditional forums. The most 2020 thing I can think of, honestly.
I was able to follow up with Danny recently about the idea’s genesis and what it means in a wide-ranging pedagogical sense. Danny said that his partner, Devan (Shimoyama), built an “artist studio” in his Animal Crossing house on his island. Devan said, “Let’s do a studio visit. So, we invited all our friends in Animal Crossing.” (Animal Crossing allows you to upload your own artwork to decorate your home). Danny explained that it (studio visit) was more of a fun “photo op” in the video game than an in depth critique of their artwork. But, he touched on the wide-ranging implications of the animal crossing universe in the public sphere saying, “It’s a really great repository for everyone to express their creativity in what is otherwise a very dull and corporate world environment.”
Danny spoke more about the artistic implications of the game, stating, “The island itself becomes a kind of studio visit. You’ve designed everything. There’s a certain flow; there are different themes; people make some incredible things.” Ferrell said. “People spend 900 hours making a painting, making a sculpture, and there are different utilities or moral values we assign to those things, those mediums. I think they (fine art and video games) both have equal value.”
Video games, Gen Z and teaching
In today’s fast changing environment, we’re confronted full force with new technological advancements that require creatives to rethink how and what we’re talking about. Big tech and its role in our lives is only growing, and that permeation isn’t siloed from the artworld. The next wave of educators are tasked with the responsibility of acknowledging these changes and adjusting accordingly. It’s a privilege to be driving these conversations and steering the next generation of artists in a way that not only addresses their concerns but tells their stories through the lens they deem pertinent. In this case, through video games and Animal Crossing.
Kaeley is a contemporary artist and cultural organizer who loves good espresso and a cold Coke Zero.