Building pandemic-era community with "Animal Crossing: New Digital Humanities"

October 25, 2021
Quinn Dombrowski
A screenshot of Animal Crossing: New Digital Humanities where Camille Villa presented on IIIF for bringing art into the game.

When campuses across the world shut down their physical spaces in March 2020, lecture series were canceled or moved to Zoom, where many of them remain to this day. Speakers and attendees learned how to manage the gaze of the webcam with carefully curated spaces in their homes, virtual backgrounds, special lighting, or reducing their presence to a simple black square.

Coincidentally, around the same time, Nintendo released "Animal Crossing: New Horizons" (ACNH) for the Nintendo Switch gaming console. This new addition to a long-running series allowed players to create their own island with a colorful assortment of anthropomorphic animal neighbors, under the administrative oversight of the capitalistic raccoon, Tom Nook. I hadn't played any of the earlier games in the series, and when I bought a copy, I mostly hoped it would motivate my kindergartener -- now at home with his pre-school and toddler siblings -- to practice his reading. A virtual Zoom talk by Jim McGrath about the game's affordances for cultural heritage inspired me to eventually create a character for myself. Explaining the mechanics of the game -- where you go around decorating your house and outdoor spaces, picking up weeds, watering plants, talking to neighbors, catching fish, and amassing seasonal items -- makes it sound like chores. But at a time when all sense of normal daily rhythms were disrupted, it was comforting to have something reliable and joyful, with just enough low-grade daily surprise and whimsy to keep you engaged. For months, the first thing I would do when I woke up was to pick something fun for Virtual Quinn to wear for the day, even when every day was sweatpants day for my physical self.

Weeks passed. We Zoomed and Zoomed and Zoomed. But we also played, publicly and privately, with screenshots and the #ACNH hashtag making frequent appearances on DH Twitter. By the time summer came and the international digital humanities conference moved to Zoom, I reached out to Shawn Moore with an idea: what if we held a lightning talk session the week of the DH conference in Animal Crossing? With a Nintendo Online membership, players can fly to one another's island -- up to 8 visitors at a time -- which would be perfect for a round of lightning talks or a small symposium. With a video capture card, and using the Discord chat platform for audio, Shawn was able to stream the lightning talks to Twitch so people could watch even without owning a Switch or Animal Crossing.

The experiment was a success, drawing a sizable crowd both "in-person" and via the Twitch stream. For people who play the game, ACNH strikes a balance between physical presence and privacy. ACNH avatars are highly customizable, both in their physical appearance and their attire. Unlike other platforms (like Gather.Town) that attempt to simulate a kind of spatialized presence with temporary avatars that exist only for one session, ACNH avatars often reflect a lot of time, thought, and investment in in-game design. One lightning talk attendee noted that at first, he couldn't tell who was who based on their avatar, but upon further consideration, their style choices gave it away. Having colleagues' avatars loudly applauding your presentation (instead of displaying an applause emoji or clapping silently on Zoom) was a refreshingly different virtual talk experience, and one that Liz Grumbach and I wanted to continue.

In fall 2020, we launched "Animal Crossing: New Digital Humanities", an ongoing virtual talk series held in Animal Crossing, where members of the digital humanities community in various professional roles share their work in a playful "DH hangout space" on my family's virtual island. Constructed out of alternating servers and bookshelves, the DH hangout space is thematically re-decorated for each talk, in collaboration with the speaker. We've had manuscript folia replicas for Allie Alvis's talk on the digital materiality of rare books, candles and desktop computers for Andie Silva's talk on remixing Shakespeare in the classroom, and set up a bar and a fortune-telling zone for a 2020 election day special. There's been Halloween costume contests and holiday parties with seasonal crafting and refreshments. On occasion, we've also taken "field trips" to other islands that have been built up in special ways, like Miles Smith's amazing large-scale manuscript recreations and "Green Knight" chapel.

While our speakers have come from many institutions, the series has also highlighted scholarship from a number of Stanford affiliates. In November 2020, History graduate student Merve Tekgürler presented on handwritten text recognition for Ottoman Turkish, and in January 2021, Camille Villa from Stanford Libraries' DLSS group presented on how to bring IIIF images into Animal Crossing as art. During the 2021 Association for Computers and the Humanities (US-based DH association) conference, our Animal Crossing "report from the field" also included discussions with Classics graduate student Annie Lamar and Salma Kamni about their CESTA-affiliated projects. Few of our presenters at that conference event played Animal Crossing, so we had them call in via Discord, and represented them physically by in-game objects of their choice: a star-shaped cloud-maker for Salma and a giant Sphinx statue for Annie.

If you're curious about digital humanities and tired of Zoom talks, join us for our upcoming events! This Wednesday, October 27th at 9:30 AM Pacific, we'll go on a "field trip" to visit Hannah Gunderman's island for a "data management horror story". On November 12th at 9:30 AM Pacific, Ravynn K. Stringfield will present on "Thinking like a Black Feminist" in the DH hangout space. You can watch on our Twitch stream or sign up for an "in-person" slot on our webpage. We'll be posting more events as they're scheduled on that page as well, so stay tuned for future events or follow the talk series' Twitter account at @acndighum.


Quinn Dombrowski

Quinn Dombrowski

Academic Technology Specialist for DLCL