I’m a bit late to the Animal Crossing: New Horizons party, but our students seemed very excited about the insect collecting element and the fact that your character’s smartphone (“Nook phone”) comes complete with an iNaturalist-like app called “Critterpedia”.
If you haven’t seen this game yet how do I describe it…? It’s a simulated world, where you live a relatively normal life – making friends, building furniture, decorating your house, selling things, traveling, etc. The game is exceedingly popular right now, perhaps because the world is homebound (thanks, COVID-19) but also because the game is cute, simple yet complex, and quite dynamic. The world really grows around you every time you check in, and there is a social element that I haven’t explored, where you can visit friends and vice versa.
One feature of the game is that your character can craft his or her own aerial net and use it to collect insects and other kinds of arthropods – and there are lots of different kinds, all fairly accurately represented. Use your Critterpedia app to learn about each species you catch, including their phenology. This aspect of Animal Crossing is awesome. I mean, what other games have a comparable entomological component?! Maybe some, but probably none has reached this level of popularity.
At some point, an owl character named Blathers shows up to start a museum. You can donate the critters you catch to his budding natural history exhibits, and the museum eventually grows into a world class facility. I mean it’s gorgeous, with aquaria, a butterfly house, a phylogeny on the floor that guides you through the exhibits – pretty much what I hope the Frost Museum can be some day. But Blathers hates insects. Every new specimen you give him is referred to as “wretched”, or something he “detests”, or the “bane of [his] existence”. Ugh …
There is a lot for us museum professionals to criticize, regarding Blathers’ questionable practices – accepting specimens of unknown provenance, for example. His reaction to insects is what really bothers me, though. First, this story element is preposterous. Anyone who knows as much about the natural history of these insects as Blathers, who also professes to to be fascinated by the island’s ecology more generally, would be infatuated by insects! But, more importantly, insects need our help right now! There is a steady stream new analyses and meta-analyses (check the latest) revealing profoundly negative impacts of global warming, pollution, intensive agriculture, habitat loss, etc. on insect diversity and biomass. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a video game that millions of people are playing worldwide. It has real but so far unrealized potential to enlighten people about insect biology, the relevance of natural history museums and biodiversity research, and to highlight challenges faced by biodiversity worldwide.
I’m skeptical that a game like this would actually draw people into nature, to interact face-to-face with wild insects, but maybe? I am convinced that a game with this reach can do a lot to change peoples’ negative attitudes towards organisms they don’t understand. In this regard, I think the developers missed a huge opportunity – so far, at least.
I get that there is some backstory about his fear of insects, but don’t
people’s owls’ opinions evolve with new information? What if, hear me out, Blathers inches every day towards some kind of arthropod enlightenment? He has now set up countless natural history museums that focus, in part, on insects. He’s also handled millions of insects. Shouldn’t his reactions to donated insects and requests for insect facts begin to reflect the change in heart that comes with knowledge and experience? Doesn’t he want to get over his entomophobia? Wouldn’t it be healthy to show that people’s minds can change?
Who’s with me?