Since Animal Crossing: New Horizons released on Switch around a week or so ago, playing it has become a part of my daily routine. In a world where I can’t currently leave the house or visit my real world friends for fear of spreading disease, logging into this happy little virtual world once per day has offered some much needed positivity, a space where I can go about my daily tasks, organizing to my heart’s content, while making friends and decorating a space that’s all my own.
However, over the past few days, my favorite thing to do in Animal Crossing has in fact been maintaining a little communal item garden near my airport for visitors. Nothing has any set price, just bring something you don’t need, and take something you do need. We have a little “take one, leave one” sign next to a fenced off section of my island, one area for clothing, furniture, and items, and another for the various fruits and plants a player might need for their island. Both work on an honor system, and both have become key parts of inviting others to my island as visitors.
I have basically attempted to turn my island’s key visitor attraction into a showcase for the idea that you should not hoard what you don’t need, should share what you can spare, and that it doesn’t matter what you contribute, so long as you give what you can before taking what you want or need. So long as you don’t rock up, take fifteen peaches when you only needed one to plant in your garden, and leave nothing in return, the system works.
So, how has this little experiment been going? Well, better than I could have hoped for really. An overwhelmingly positive success in theory, even if not always in practice.
Let’s start with the first time I opened my gates to visitors once the garden was set up. I created two 4 x 4 gardens, and populated both out of my own pocket. I included items that require native fruit to craft, such as Orange Tables and Clocks, added some daily shop items from days past, some clothing I found in balloons, and other items I thought might be useful or desirable to those visiting, as well as a fairly even split across all the game’s various types of fruit. I opened the flood gates, and stood by watching everything unfold.
Honestly, that first time I opened up the island to visitors, I watched closely every person who came and went. I was paranoid bad faith actors would visit my island, pick up every item in the garden, and head off home to their islands. There’s honestly nothing I can do to stop a player if they decide to do that, and my initial fear was that if left unsupervised, the temptation might be too strong to bear. Watching wasn’t going to prevent it happening, but it for some reason felt like a necessary step in testing out the garden.
In fact, quite the opposite happened. The first time I let people in to explore, I found that the average user was leaving more items than they were taking. Within minutes, donations were piled up outside the fence, new items people wanted to contribute, and I ended up having to expand both gardens considerably to make up for the generosity of those coming to visit.
Over the next few visits, I slowly went more and more hands off, leaving the garden out of sight and getting on with chores nearby. Once again the same outcome, players even when not being watched were being generous, leaving more contributions than they took, and respecting the rules laid out. People were being well behaved, and thoughtful, and it was honestly beautiful to watch. To give you a sense of how much I came to trust the strangers visiting my town, I actually wrote this article with my island open to random Twitter users. It was constantly busy the whole time I was writing, and I never had to do anything to keep people playing fair. Everyone just contributed and took respectfully.
Beyond the obvious, people being able to fill slots in their collection with items they didn’t yet own, another positive eventually came to show itself. Players could add items to their shop back home without having to take them entirely from the island, which resulted in some players using the communal garden to browse without taking.
To explain in a little bit more detail, visitors to the island discovered that by picking items up from the garden to inspect, but then putting them back down, they were able to then purchase that item on their own island. Each Animal Crossing island features a machine that looks a lot like an ATM, where players can purchase “any item they’ve previously had in their inventory” for next day delivery to their mailbox. The end result? Players could pick up and put down items, not take them away, and still but them the next day for themselves.
Obviously, the above isn’t a replacement for taking and leaving items, doing so helps the items in the garden cycle for future visitors, but it did lead to a couple of lovely experiences where players would load their pockets full of cool things, drop them on the beach for me to pick up and drop, before going home. It really encouraged the communal sharing feel of the island, and was another display of users trusting each other to be respectful.
I’ve had to spend a little bit of time here and there occasionally removing basic starter items from the garden that nobody is likely to need, mainly to make spare for more rare or valuable finds, but the level of respect shown has been delightful. People have left really rare or expensive items from time to time, and the sense of wholesome community spirit it has created has really warmed my heart.
However, Opening this garden has also highlighted one of the biggest weaknesses in New Horizons design, the way the game handles online multiplayer.
Right, let’s start on the positives. I Love the idea of Dodo codes, single use codes that Animal Crossing: NH generates that allow strangers not on your friends list to visit your island temporarily. These codes don’t allow visiting strangers to damage your town, no chopping down trees or digging up plants, meaning there is very little these visitors can do while you’re not looking to ruin your wider game experience. It’s such a great way to let people you do not know explore what you’ve created, but the issue is in how those visitors being added to your island is mechanically executed.
Every time someone new comes to your island, the game freezes both for the host, and anyone currently visiting. A minute or more long cutscene then plays, showing the player slowly fly over to the island, during which time players are unable to explore. This may not seem like a big issue, it certainly isn’t if you’re only inviting a couple of IRL friends to visit at a time, but if you’re opening the doors to the wider internet, like I wanted to with this garden, it falls apart fast.
At any one time, players of AC:NH can have up to seven visitors on their island. If, like me, posting your code online for visitors creates a near instant queue to visit, whoever gets onto the island first has to basically wait nearly ten minutes for people to slowly load in behind them, stopping every couple of steps because someone new arrived. If someone tries to leave the island too, that adds even more loading time to watch through. As the host, it’s equally frustrating, because even if you do decide to close the gate early, physically walking back to the NPC that can stem the tide of visitors isn’t always possible. Sometimes new people arrive before you have time to take a step towards closing the gates.
That said, the fact some wonky Nintendo online is my biggest complaint about my experience playing says a lot. it really sums up what makes Animal Crossing such a lovely game to play that my honor system garden frequently requires expansion and trimming down, because so many people are giving more than they take. In a world where I am currently stuck inside away from other human beings, it’s nice to run a little slice of a video game world in which people share, care, and look after each other in such a wholesome manner.