I conducted a virtual applied ethnography with a team of three others in my Applied Ethnography course. I completed 14 hours of observation, moderated four of six interviews, analyzed our findings, contributed to the ethnographic report.
In the Summer of 2020, amid the circumstances of COVID-19, students pitched ideas for a field to conduct an applied ethnography on. I was one of several with an interest in studying Animal Crossing due to its popularity amid quarantine. Our area of inquiry was the emotional impact of Animal Crossing: New Horizons (ACNH). We posed a research question:
What does Animal Crossing mean to its users?
Ethnography is a qualitative anthropological research method used to understand the social phenomenon within people’s everyday lives. This is achieved through close exploration of the subject(s) in a field setting. While it cannot provide future predictions, it can provide insight into data and generate or validate assumptions.
When an ethnography is done on a small scale and within the context of a business or product, it is called applied ethnography. Because it had to be completed within the duration of the summer semester, applied ethnography was the best fit for our project. Since classes were moved online due to COVID-19, we adjusted our methods by performing a virtual ethnography, a research approach for exploring the social interactions that take place in virtual environments.
Our ethnographic study and analysis led us to an understanding of how ACNH users create their culture and define community:
This examination and ethnographic study of the latest installment of the Animal Crossing game and its users identified the significance of the community in ACNH. Players continue to return to the game because of the socialization opportunities it allows, the outlet of escape it provides, the ability to express themselves, and the instantaneous self-gratification. Each participant observed for this study has expressed the significance of the ACNH game in their lives and the reason why. Animal Crossing is, at the core of itself, a community.
Players find ways for self-gratification and control in the game in a variety of ways.
Players of the ACNH community use the ACNH game as a form of escapism from the pressures of life, specifically, life during a global pandemic.
Players are able to use the ACNH game as a form of self-expression and find joy and fulfillment from mirroring their reality in the game.
Players establish attitudes, values, and norms that create a culture within the ACNH community.
Field observation was an opportunity to observe AC users in natural virtual settings. For us, that often meant Discord servers where trades and conversation take place. I completed 14 hours of observation across three different Discord servers, making notes of actions and their complexities (also known as jottings) as I observed and interacted, then completed field notes, condensing those jottings into the key findings and looking for patterns or potential points of discovery.
Across the board, my observations saw positive people trying to support their community. From giving advice to hosting giveaways to posting memes, the chat channels always had an upbeat energy to them. The most common concept observed throughout each of our observations was that of escapism. Seldom is it mentioned explicitly, but one might expect to regularly find a user discussing how the game has put them in a better mental state than they were before it. Mentions of eased anxiety, relaxation, and being able to “escape from reality” and all point to Animal Crossing having a therapeutic on its user base. This, compounded with the COVID-19 pandemic, has likely driven users to delve deeper within the community and to play the game and with far greater frequency. Users have been seen mentioning total playtimes surpassing 800 hours, with many saying that they would not have invested as much time in the game were it not for their quarantine.
Of course among this is the implicit importance of community. These conversations, trades, and celebrations could not take place without the structure that supports them.
Interviews with participants that we encountered in the field allowed us to gather their firsthand experiences with Animal Crossing. We had the opportunity to interview six individuals who play Animal Crossing. Reid was a member of a sizable ACNH server, and Bonnie we found through the AC subreddit. We met Mara and Noah through a Discord server that partially focused on the hacking underground of Animal Crossing, both of whom served as moderators or server supporters. Bailey and Olivia were contacted through a smaller Discord server of only 50 members that Bailey created after Dodo Code sharing often on the social media platform Tumblr.
I moderated four of the six interviews. The more I looked, the more it seemed like community was a significant factor for players. Participants, such as Noah and Mara, seemed to be invested in the community aspect of the game just as much as the game itself, if not more.
The first step of analyzing our data was to reduce it through employing reduction techniques such as summarizing by capturing the main points made by participants during observations and interviews, as well as developing a cohering metaphor to summarize complex ideas encountered in our research. A cohering metaphor acts as an explanatory network to expound on symbolic and cultural meaning of the social phenomenon being researched. We then visualized the data by using conceptually clustered matrices to organize recurring themes we came across. This allowed us to parse through our data by categorizing it based how participants interacted with or answered questions during our interviews. Finally, we looked for patterns and outliers and drew conclusions from the data. Several conclusions were drawn and discussed in the report, but I have elected to emphasize our primary finding here:
Through reviewing our data from contextual research, observations, and interviews, we came to our most significant conclusion: Animal Crossing, at the heart of things, is a community. Time and time again we saw mentions that though the game itself was a positive presence in users’ lives, they would not have had the same experience without the socializing aspects in and out of the game. For users like Olivia and Bailey, the community heightened their enjoyment in a way that kept them engaged and promoted positivity in their interactions. For others like Mara, the community was so incredibly significant that it meant more to them than the game did, continuing to participate long after the game had been turned off for the last time.
This sense of community was more significant in its impact due to COVID-19, which put many individuals around the world into quarantine. Socializing within the game provided a form of escapism from a reality in which socializing in-person was not common anymore. We believe the context of the pandemic is what drove Nintendo Switch and ACNH sales so high, to the point where the Nintendo Switch console was impossible to find in early summer between high demand and COVID-related shortages. This aligns with what we heard from interview subjects: in a world that is currently restricted to the indoors and no large gatherings, a game about island living and widespread socializing could not have come at a better time.
In fact, COVID-19 led to higher occurrences of certain types of interactions than would have normally occurred. Events such as birthday parties and graduation ceremonies have commonly been celebrated on ACNH as a replacement for in-person gatherings, and one of our researchers had her own birthday party on the game in early April. Beyond that, COVID-19 has brought waves of grief as well, as many are mourning for lost family members and are unable to gather to mourn together. Though we did not see evidence of this in our observation sessions, likely due to its rarity, our contextual research showed that some have even taken to building gravesites or hosting funerals to mourn a friend's or family member's death. So while Animal Crossing is indeed a community, that community can present itself in many different ways and for very different purposes.
To successfully share our findings with interested parties, we condensed our observations, interviews, and analysis into a 22-page ethnographic report. Each of us wrote pieces of the report after meeting with each other numerous times, and I personally wrote a third of the report, specifically the interview and analysis portions. We made it thematically relevant to the subject by modeling it after the Animal Crossing: New Horizons Official Companion Guide, showing the data gathered in bright colors over fun but minimalistic patterns. Graphs and photos were placed to help readers visualize the data.
Through our research, we have identified several meanings Animal Crossing users have ascribed to the game. We recognize that many look to the game as a chance to indulge in escapism. Because the game was released at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, it quickly became a vital part of the self-care routines of some users. It provided users with a diversion from the realities of living through a global pandemic. Further, it became an outlet of self-expression where they could self-actualize. Above all, we found that community was the most important aspect of Animal Crossing to its users. While some of the users had other goals, most participants of our study sought solace and comfort in playing AC with their family, real life friends, and acquaintances they have met in-game and in its related communities. For some users, ACNH was returning home after a long journey. To others, it was an opportunity to make new friends and broaden their horizons.