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Animal Crossing Aiding Future Conservation

Updated: Dec 27, 2023

Isla Stubbs comments on the game popular across the world, and how the next generation of conservationists could be playing right now.

In the digital age, the lines between real life and virtual reality have blurred. One game that has remarkably transcended its role as mere entertainment and has sparked an interest in environmental awareness is Animal Crossing. Nintendo's beloved life simulation game series, with its latest instalment, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, released in 2020, has emerged as an unexpected champion for the environment and conservation efforts.


Animal Crossing has always revolved around the concept of living in harmony with nature. In this game, players inhabit an idyllic island paradise teeming with anthropomorphic animal villagers, lush flora, and captivating landscapes. There are in-game actions of players, such as planting trees, tending to gardens, and learning all there is to know about bugs, fish, and sea creatures.


Could playing AC:NH inspire children to pursue STEM degrees? Image credit: Isla Stubbs.


A study published in 2021 by Fisher et al., assessed the impact this game could have on conservation efforts. Animal Crossing: New Horizons quickly became one of the best selling games of all time, with currently over 43,380,000 sales - the second most sold game for the Nintendo Switch. So how can we put this popularity to good use?


Here are a few ways in which Animal Crossing is making a positive difference for the environment:


Fostering an Appreciation for Nature


Animal Crossing's visually stunning natural landscapes and the charming inhabitants of the virtual world inspires players to appreciate the beauty of nature. Many players find themselves developing a newfound interest in the environment, as you catch these bugs, fish, and sea creatures, to build up your “critterpedia” and donate them to the local museum, where you gain knowledge about wildlife, as well as learning about the progression of evolution through the assessment of fossils. As of now, the game boasts a grand total of 236 different species, featuring 80 insects, 120 species from marine, freshwater, and deep-sea environments, 11 shrubs, six trees, 11 flowers, three 'weeds', and five types of mushrooms.


In the game, players are encouraged to participate in various activities that parallel real-world conservation efforts. They can plant trees, create and maintain gardens, and remove litter from waterways, recycling it into usable objects. These actions instil a sense of responsibility and a hands-on approach to environmental care, leading players to consider similar actions in their own lives.


Educating Through Gameplay


While the primary objective of the game is to provide enjoyment, it also discreetly imparts knowledge about different aspects of ecology and environmental sustainability. As players engage in fun activities, they gain insights into seasonal changes, local wildlife, and the significance of maintaining a harmonious ecosystem. The game goes further by offering educational facts for various in-game species, recognizing that conservation initiatives often prioritise species valued by the public. By enhancing the in-game infrastructure and customising information shared with players, whether regarding their ecological role or economic value, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has the potential to foster a genuine appreciation for biodiversity.


Blathers educates players on a variety of species. Image credit: Isla Stubbs


Ecological Interactions


Players have the creative freedom to shape their islands according to their preferences. Islands featuring a diverse range of habitats, such as forests, meadows, and ponds, at varying altitudinal terrains, lead to increased species diversity - a concept mirroring real-life ecological dynamics. Similar to reality, specific species make appearances in particular ecological niches; for instance, the orchid mantis is exclusive to white flowers.


Within the game, species-specific interactions between insects and flora, coupled with the island star-rating system, encourage players to enhance the floral diversity of their islands. This mechanism inherently promotes the idea that habitats rich in species hold greater value. Whether players initially aimed for a pro-conservation endeavour or simply sought to improve their island rating, the game subtly reinforces the notion that species-rich environments are inherently more valuable.


The Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing butterfly only appears near flowers at certain times of the year. Image credit: Isla Stubbs.


The Problems of Animal Crossing


Valuable Creatures


Upon capturing wild invertebrates and fish in the game's islands, players can cash in on their virtual treasures for in-game currency, known as bells. Around 86% of the 200 catchable species actually have real-world commercial value. The concern here is that incorporating such values into gameplay might unintentionally fuel or legitimise a demand for these species in the real world. In places like Japan, the overexploitation of insects for pets or decorative purposes is a leading cause of population decline.


Startling reports from National Geographic suggest that international smuggling is contributing to this rising market demand. Take the Hercules Beetle, for instance, worth a hefty 12,000 bells in the game. Native to Bolivia, these beetles play a vital role in the nutrient cycles of tropical forests. However, their illegal harvest can result in up to 6 years of imprisonment. Despite this, they remain popular as pets in Japan, highlighting the potential consequences of intertwining virtual and real-world values.


Blathers and Bugs


Despite the numerous positive in-game interactions with invertebrates, Blathers, the museum's owl curator, consistently exhibits a strong fear of insects, known as entomophobia, which has intensified in successive game releases. The information he provides as museum curator is often limited and replaced with comments that reflect his disdain when they relate to insects. If Blathers could overcome his fear and express an appreciation towards invertebrates, it could inspire players to challenge common negative preconceptions held by many people.


Bathers’ fear of invertebrates is displayed consistently throughout the game. Image credit: Isla Stubbs.


Charismatic Species


The game showcases 391 non-playable animal characters, known as villagers, representing 34 different species that can take up residence on the player's island. Interestingly, the anthropomorphic villagers mainly belong to higher vertebrates, primarily mammals. On the flip side, the catchable biodiversity comprises non-sentient invertebrates or lower vertebrates. This clear taxonomic distinction highlights a recurring trend observed in various studies: people tend to show more concern for “charismatic species” like lions, bears, and deer, often overlooking equally endangered or ecologically significant taxa such as beetles.


Nevertheless, Animal Crossing: New Horizons introduces some exceptions, allowing both frogs and octopuses to exist as both villagers and catchable creatures. This departure from the norm highlights that it's not always necessary to segregate these taxonomic groups within the game.


Villagers categorised by taxonomy. The diversity within each taxonomic category is illustrated through corresponding silhouettes. Image credit: Fisher et al., 2021.


In a world grappling with environmental challenges and a need for greater conservation efforts, the impact of a video game like Animal Crossing may seem small. However, the power of this virtual experience should not be underestimated. It serves as a gentle reminder that the environment is something to be treasured and protected, and it encourages players to transfer these values into their daily lives. These experiences can serve as the catalyst for a new generation of environmentally conscious citizens who will, in their own small ways, contribute to the betterment of our planet. Animal Crossing is a testament to the potential of the gaming industry to inspire positive change in the world and promote the values of conservation and environmental stewardship.


About the Author: Isla Stubbs (she/her) has graduated from The University of York with a BSc in Environmental Science. She has now started the first year of her PhD in Ecotoxicology, continuing at York.

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