The social app that I find myself unexpectedly spending more time in these days (other than Hubs) isn’t a game that I was familiar with prior to a couple of weeks ago. Despite being an avid Nintendo fan since I got my first console at the age of seven, I had never had the delight of playing Animal Crossing until the latest release. Now, it’s hard to imagine my daily routine without it. Part of that is at least in some what guided by the fact that the game came out around the same time that the Bay Area implemented a mandatory ‘shelter in place’ order that is going into week 4, but it’s also influenced by the fact that the game is just… good. It’s more than good – it’s delightful.
While social virtual reality applications are often compared to massive online multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, EVE, or Guild Wars, I find myself increasingly convinced that there are lessons to be learned from the seemingly more simple, casual games. Animal Crossing has no combat, which immediately drew me in – it’s a game literally built around social dynamics and building community. Sound familiar?
The Intersection of Expression, Environment, and Community
On the surface, social VR applications have had a bit of a tough go over the past several years. A number of the earliest ones folded before the Oculus Rift launched a consumer version; others were acquired, and still others pivoted and failed to find traction, ultimately shutting down entirely. Yet others have thrived, developing rich communities of creators and users who contribute to an overall ecosystem of fresh content and strong social bonds. The platforms that continue to exist today address several core needs that are reflected in Animal Crossing, and are strong particularly in understanding the intersection of expression, environment, and community.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons addresses each of these components in a balanced way to great success. The game is built from the ground up to facilitate each of these principles, and gives the user agency in the space that they create while simultaneously facilitating a social environment that keeps users safe across the spectrum of trusted, semi-trusted, and potentially unfamiliar individuals. The game is designed to be safe for children, and is thus more restrictive than you might observe in a social VR platform that is geared towards use by adults, but these lessons hold true regardless of the age group or community demographic.
The ability for one to express emotions, creative control, and agency over their own decision is an important part of our human experience. We thrive when we find ways to share our stories and our perspectives. As a species, we crave innovative new places where we can generate content in different ways. Platforms that find ways to encourage safe expression and exploration of our feelings, emotions, and desires on on a day-to-day basis are powerful ones. In Animal Crossing: New Horizons, players can express themselves in countless permutations.
The game is very lightly prescriptive: you can choose to express yourself by picking different activities to do on a day to day basis; to create routines in the game or to attack each session based on random whims – either is fine, and encouraged. Players collect all kinds of objects and materials to craft, create, and decorate with. They’re given tents that become houses; islands that can ultimately be terraformed, customization kits – the list goes on. Players can chat with each other over text messages via a virtual “phone” in the game, or by selecting from a set of predefined emotions that are unlocked over time.
Lesson: Social VR platforms should provide multiple different mechanics for letting users communicate with one another, both verbally and non-verbally
Expressiveness in social VR takes different forms. The ability to use voice chat, text chat, or other media to converse with others in a shared space are all elements of expressiveness that a user can adopt in order to make their feelings known. Avatar expressiveness, and the ability to select a virtual identity that changes based on the context, is also an important facet of expression.
Animal Crossing considers your core identity (name, birthday, island) as immutable concepts (at least as far as I’ve gotten), but allows your character’s physical appearance to change as dramatically and frequently as your heart desires. And as a player, your ability to express yourself goes beyond your own identity: you have the ability to express yourself in the decisions that you make about how to interact with your island, your neighbors, your friends; the furniture you place and the flooring you pick for your rooms; how much you leave to chance vs. how much you self-direct; the amount of privilege and trust you give your friends
Lesson: Expression should move beyond an avatar selection, and be mutable, extending into an environment that users have agency over when in a permissioned space.
One of the concepts that Animal Crossing handles beautifully is the concept of sandboxed creativity that facilitates identity as an expression of one’s environment. Players begin with a couple of preset villagers, accompanying the player on their journey to their “deserted” island, on which the game prompts you to build out your own town. Your island is your environment – you begin with a few decisions about where buildings go, then are slowly able to transform your island by planting new trees, dropping decorations, choosing which non-player characters get to move in, which defines your island culture, and ultimately unlocking the ability to terraform your space.
Lesson: New environments hold a lot of emotional power to a player, especially when they are able to extend it as a construct of their expressiveness and self-identity. By creating safe places to explore, and teaching creative tools in a paced manner, social applications can encourage playful experimentation in users and encourage positive, prosocial behaviors.
The game on-boards you to each of these tools in a delightful manner, balancing agency and choice with story; implemented in a way that allows for a self-guided, self-paced process. You don’t have pressing deadlines, monsters that will kill you if you don’t skill up fast enough, and it’s incredibly easy to progress faster if your friends help you.
Virtual environments can have a significant impact on influencing our understanding of social context. Applications that give users control over their environment are also giving users additional agency over defining the context of their meeting – it would be difficult to have a birthday party in a board room, and it’s hard to have a work meeting in a nightclub (trust me, I’ve tried).
Not all social VR applications will require a user-generated environment component – in fact, for many multiplayer experiences, granting users full control over an environment would break the unified and cohesive experience required for structured storylines. But these customizable spaces need to exist and will do so across a spectrum of configurability.
With Animal Crossing, the environmental customization is built very intentionally around these axes. Permanent changes cannot be made to your island unless you’ve increased your trust with the players on your island (often, platforms will choose to increase trust and permanence at the same time). Instead, small, insubstantial, reversible changes can be made: a friend can leave a coffee mug behind, or turn the lights on.
Lesson: Trust is a critical factor in considering the degree of environmental customization that can be done by different users in a social VR application.
Some platforms make application-wide decisions about where their software falls; Hubs, the social VR platform that I work on at Mozilla, allows users to change these axes on a room-by-room basis.
It is this trust that feeds into the final tenant of what Animal Crossing: New Horizons gets so right about their game: community.
When we turn to social applications for connection with others, we do so because we are craving the opportunity to share our thoughts, feelings, ideas; to co-create and converse; to explore and question and accomplish a task; to achieve a goal. There are many different ways that we seek out these community-driven tasks, but at the core of all of them, we seek out places where we trust that we are safe to do them. Building a community is hard (check out Jessica Outlaw’s series on 9 ways to build strong cultures), and at the surface, Animal Crossing: New Horizons focuses the community element on NPCs – there is no intentional mechanic for helping you meet new people.
Lesson: Social VR applications can adopt a range of trust models for engaging with other players. Not all applications need to address every possible permutation of a social network.
Many people think that social VR falls under a “metaverse” umbrella, in large part because of the self-described way that the term is used by people working on large-scale social apps. In truth, social VR is a lot more simple than that: it’s virtual reality, with other people. Some applications aim to create new communities; others will strengthen existing ones. The same application does not automatically need to do both, and Animal Crossing falls more into the latter than the former. Instead of creating extensive new trust networks, the platform provides mechanics that replicate layers of our existing ones. Want to meet someone new? There are plenty of places to find other players online. The layered permission and trust structure means that you’re generally safe to allow a player over with limited risk to your island, home, and well-being.
Instead, the game focuses on many of the elements that Jessica writes about in her blog. You are the hero of your own island; your friends are the heroes of theirs. Islands share holidays, so there are rituals and routines that all players have in common at the same moment in time.
Because of this varied trust model, community is able to develop naturally around your existing social structures. You primarily hang out with friends, friends-of-friends, or mutuals on social media. There is a culture of bringing gifts, sharing flowers and fruits and whatever new clothing item is in stock on a given day. You know that at any time that you have invited players into your world, you can close your island’s gate and back to safety.
At the end of the day, what we are building in our social VR platforms is not entirely new. It’s not easy, and there are novel components to the technology itself, but it’s not an unexplored area of work. We just need to know where to look for it, and right now, for me, that’s in Animal Crossing.