New Forms of “Escapist Entertainment”? Nintendo Got It Right with Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Logo of Nintendo Switch
"Nintendo Switch" by tophrrrr is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In the field of home entertainment market, Nintendo Co., Ltd., including its subsidiaries and associates primarily engage in the innovation, development, manufacture, and sale of entertainment products(Nintendo.co.jp, 2019). The “dedicated video game platforms” for the handheld systems and home consoles developed by Nintendo Co., Ltd. has made it an innovative market leader both in its local and overseas market.

While products in the video game industry are highly competitive with relatively short life cycles and also significantly impacted by consumer preferences, a unique platform ecosystem of Nintendo Switch has explored a new market in the global game industry. By combining in-home and handheld experience into ‘one’, the game console “Nintendo Switch” has gained great popularity among its users.

With a focus on the concept of “social sharing community”, a critical analysis will be drawn on Nintendo’s latest platform “Nintendo Switch” and one of its most popular games—Animal Crossing released in 2019. While examining the ways that Nintendo’s approach to blurring the boundary between the real world and game-world, this essay will also evaluate how its product has been used in transformative ways altering online communication between its users. Finally, a discussion on Nintendo’s profound revolutionary transformations of providing the gamers with a new form of “Escapist Entertainment” will be explored.

What is Nintendo and why Nintendo Switch?Nintendo Switch and Nintendo Switch Lite

Figure 1: “Nintendo Switch and Nintendo Switch Lite” by Nintendo.com. All right reserved

Nintendo is a Japanese company founded in 1889 which initially specialized in the manufacture of card games and then turned to video games in the 1980s. According to Nintendo’s basic management policy, as indicated in Annual Report 2019, their highest emphasis of business expansion is placed on “providing users around the world with exciting forms of entertainment that they have never experienced before”. In doing so, Nintendo has employed strategies to expand the number of users who have access to Nintendo IP (e.g. characters and worlds from their games) as well as making active use of Nintendo IP to expand the domains and scale of entertainment which it offers(Nintendo.co.jp, 2019).

 

Nintendo Popular IP
Figure 2: “Nintendo Popular IP” by Interpark. All right reserved. 

According to Nintendo’s earnings release report 2018, their IP related income (e.g. Super Mario Run, Fire Emblem Heroes and Animal Crossing) reached 9.0 billion yen with a 0.4% increase on a year-on-year basis. For the latest dedicated video game platform–Nintendo Switch, nearly 20 million Switch consoles are sold and overall Nintendo has generated 30.5 billion JPY (equivalent to $275 million) operating profit in 2018, with an increase of 80% compared to last year. Ultimately, the launch of a new video game platform “Nintendo Switch” and the continued development of popular IP games have boosted Nintendo’s potential in product development and contributed to increasing its competitiveness among other players in the industry.

Figure 3: “The “Big Three” in the global home entertainment industry” by Gamecrate.com, all right reserved. 

Indeed, the potential growth of the video game industry is considerably under the impacts of technological developments, the development of production processes, and the specialization of players in the competitive market environment(Aurègan & Tellier, 2019, p.8). Compared to two of Nintendo’s biggest competitors, Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo innovatively developed new control schemes that cannot be emulated on any other platforms. By focusing on consumer’s needs, the Nintendo Switch is designed to offer a sense of “being together” and “play everywhere” that allows its users to keep up with their friends online wherever on public transport, at a party, or at home alone.

Historical development of Nintendo and Nintendo games

In 1992, Nintendo once became a market leader in the Japanese game industry that it made up 80% of the console market. However, for more than 20 years the video game industry has undergone profound changes mainly due to the arrival of new players in the same sector from consumer electronics (Sony) and IT (Microsoft). According to Kim and Mauborgne’s work on Blue Ocean strategies based on an observation of Nintendo‘s launch of its various console generations, it is suggested that the “innovation-value” which product generates is the key to success for video companies like Nintendo.

Unlike other forms of media, the digital game is more like a “participatory narrative” as the players are not positioned as passive observers of visuals and audios. Instead, the interactive nature allows the players to be represented by their avatar existing within the game as well as outside the game by directing the avatar’s action through a controller interface. Rather than simply watching the game storyline unfold, the players make their decisions on taking actions, making choices by becoming the avatar. While playing the game, the player’s sense of immersion in the game-world is both limited and facilitated by the interfaces(Goldberg et al., 2016).

In the 21st century, the video game industry is generally considered to be one of the latest and most innovative cultural industries. As the production of such digital products follows a cycle of “creation-production-commercialization”, the success of a video game is characterized by a very specific user experience.

Over the past years, Nintendo has been focusing on normalizing portable gaming devices to make game playing easily accessible at any time, anywhere and it has already taken the game-world outside the confines of consoles(Goldberg et al., 2016).

Nintendo’s Ecosystem Map Explained

As expressed by Ahmed Elmezeny and Jeffrey Wimmer in their article on analyzing digital game cultures, the growing international significance of games is mainly attributed to the globalization and digitalization of the game industry(Elmezeny & Wimmer, 2018). Below, an ecosystem map of Nintendo is created to illustrate who is involved in the creation, distribution, and consumption of  Nintendo’s product and what roles they play in different ways.

Nintendo Ecosystem
Figure 4: “Nintendo Ecosystem Map”

With Nintendo’s products offering to both its local and international consumers, the company works closely with partners, suppliers around the world, and the regulatory policy and rules by national and state governments vary in which country or area Nintendo operates in. For game-related online forums, site policies designed by online gaming communities also apply.

As indicated in the diagram, companies such as Sony and Microsoft are the direct competitors of Nintendo in the home entertainment industry. However, Nintendo also competes with mobile technology companies such as Apple and Samsung in the area of mobile entertainment but not specialize in the home entertainment or game industries.

The core suppliers are the manufacturers of Nintendo’s consoles, such as Infineon Technologies, Maxim Integrated, NVIDIA, and Texa Instrument; Game developers who create the game including plotlines, special effects, programming; and 3rd party intellectual property who provides entry points for Nintendos game design.

Nintendo’s partners including publishers, distributors, advertising media, and also streaming services. By collaborating with international distributors (such as Bergsala in Swegan and Tencent in China), the globalization of Nintendo has become successful, especially in Asian countries and the US(Koizumi, 2016).

Understanding the appeal behind Video Games

To be defined as “successful” in today’s game market, the services and products received by the player are not only based on preconceived or fixed content. Instead, the players are looking for more possibilities explored from the game itself, for example, the appropriation and personalization of the content, more creative scenarios, unique characters, more innovative and challenging game designs, etc(Aurègan & Tellier, 2019, p.7).

Understanding the video game as an artifact of contemporary digital cultures, Fromme and Unger argued that the genre of game changes over time(Fromme & Unger, 2012).

“Animal Crossing” is one of Nintendo’s most successful IPs for over two decades and it has been available on previous Nintendo platforms. Even there is a gap since the last launch of Animal Crossing in 2012, it is obvious that the “life simulator” feature games are becoming popular again.

As Rachel Kowert (2020) suggested in the article,  “a sense of normalcy” is what Animal Crossing offers to its players. In this game, the game world is not grounded in fantasy, instead, a frontier-like narrative of building a personal island and connecting with animal neighbors and visitors to create a virtual community is the core of the game design(Basuarchive, 2020).

Using Animal Crossing as an example, participation is the most important component of such video games. With features such as “motion control”, “local co-op”, “local wireless”, and “online play”, Nintendo Switch has made its way to engage with more users to join in the “Nintendo community” by holding events, sending messages or gift and inviting “friends” to come over for a visit…All these common things together make Nintendo’s Animal Crossing become an ideal platform for imagination and creativity to take place(Wolf, 2012). In this sense,  Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2019) can be considered as an amalgamation of innovative ideas that Nintendo has developed over years.

Animal Crossing on Nintendo Switch
Figure 5: “Animal Crossing on Nintendo Switch” by Nintendo.com, all right reserved. 

Nintendo’s Animal Crossing as a “new” form of social media

Referencing to an article post on MIT Technology Review titled “Why Games like Animal Crossing are the new social media of the coronavirus era“, it is argued that video games like Animal Crossing create a virtual escape for people to socially relate with other members of the online community(Basuarchive, 2020). Besides, it is also worth to note that participation in games-related web forums, the readership of game magazines, and socializing with other game players certainly demonstrate how the video game plays a role in people’s social and cultural lives(Mayra, 2016).

During the time of US election 2020, #BidenHQ becomes a trend on Twitter as the Democratic candidate Joe Biden and his team created a campaign on Nintendo Switch’s platform, launching a new virtual field office for voters to visit in Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

As claimed by the director of digital partnership of Biden-Harris campaign, the goal of this campaign is to gather supporters across the country connected wherever they are (Makena, 2020)

By presenting Biden’s island (Biden HQ) as an amusement park with exclusive in-game campaign merchandise such as “Democratic National Committee’s ‘I Will Vote” website. Therefore the visitors including his supporters are able to get information about the election in this way. Also, an avatar character of Joe Biden even walks across the island to greet the visitors and his visitors can take “virtual selfies” with him in a range of decorated areas. It also demonstrated how community norms are built up in the virtual world, just like the way how it works in reality.

While the players actively sharing the “dream code” (invitation code) with friends in the real world, the political campaign becomes influential to both cyberspace and society. Also, when those players share a screenshot of them visiting Biden’s island and post it on other social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, the level of its social impact can be increased to the next level.

Screenshot of Visiting Biden's Island in Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Figure 6: “Screenshot of Visiting Biden’s Island in Animal Crossing: New Horizons” by the verge.com, all right reserved.
Screenshot of Twitter #BidenHQ #Animal Crossing
Figure 7: “Screenshot of Twitter #BidenHQ #Animal Crossing”, all right reserved

Check the video below for a quick tour at “Biden’s Island” to experience how Nintendo made its video game a new form of social media

A Final Note

Overall, the dominant ideologies represented by Nintendo’s video games such as Animal Crossing has facilitates the formation of virtual communities online and make it becomes a new form of social media where users are engaged to interact and communicate with each other(Kim, 2014).

Considering the interactive nature of video games, game developers like Nintendo normally strive to search for new ways to provide the players with a sense of immersion. While facilitating user-generated content, Nintendo’s game like Animal Crossing: New Horizons has proven to become a unique platform for online social sharing to take place.  By allowing each player with unique ways to play and explore their desired island as they see fit, this type of game appears to be addictive to players in today’s society who are looking for an imagined world full of new possibilities. Thus, the new forms of  “Escapist Entertainment” which Nintendo offers to its users are attractive and innovative.

Reference List:

Aurègan, P., & Tellier, A. (2019). Nintendo in the Pursuit of the Blue Ocean. In E. Pellegrin‐Boucher & Pierre Roy (Eds.), Innovation in the Cultural and Creative Industries (pp. 1–28). https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119681250

Basuarchive, T. (2020). Why games like Animal Crossing are the new social media of the coronavirus era. MIT Technology Review. https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/04/16/999944/coronavirus-animal-crossing-video-games-social-media/

Elmezeny, A., & Wimmer, J. (2018). Games without frontiers: A framework for analyzing digital game cultures comparatively. Media and Communication, 6(2), 80–89. https://doi.org/10.17645/mac.v6i2.1330

Fromme, J., & Unger, A. (2012). Computer games and new media cultures: A handbook of digital games studies. Computer Games and New Media Cultures: A Handbook of Digital Games Studies, 1–710. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-2777-9

Goldberg, A., Lee, S. A., & Pulos, A. (2016). It’s Dangerous to go Alone! Take this (New Technology): Nintendo’s Impact on the Technological Landscape of the Video Gaming Industry. In Transnational Contexts of Development History, Sociality, and Society of Play (pp. 65–91). https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-43820-7

Kim, J. (2014). Interactivity, user-generated content and video game: An ethnographic study of animal crossing: Wild world. Continuum, 28(3), 357–370. https://doi.org/10.1080/10304312.2014.893984

Koizumi, M. (2016). Japanese Video Game Industry: History of Its Growth and Current State. In Transnational Contexts of Development History, Sociality, and Society of Play Video Games in East Asia (pp. 13–64). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-43820-7

Makena, K. (2020). The Offical Biden HQ in Animal Crossing Has Poll Booths, Ice Creams, and No Malarkey. The Verge.Com. https://www.theverge.com/2020/10/16/21519505/joe-biden-animal-crossing-new-horizons-biden-hq-campaign-election

Mayra, F. (2016). Open Invitation: Mapping Global Game Cultures. Issues for A Sociocultural Study of Games and Players. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 2(11), 249–257. https://doi.org/10.1177/1367549407088337

Nintendo.co.jp. (2019). Annual Report 2019 for the fiscal year ended March 31, 2019. https://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/pdf/2019/annual1903e.pdf

Wolf, M. (2012). Animal Crossing Series. Encyclopedia of Video Games: The Culture, Technology, and Art of Gaming, 21–23. https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy2.library.usyd.edu.au

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yan Duan
About Yan Duan 2 Articles
USYD 2nd-year Digital Culture/Film studies