We love to have a jolly old time here at Pocket Tactics, especially around the holidays, but not everyone’s experience of the festive season is merry and bright. At a time of year so heavily focused on family connection, it can be pretty rough, both emotionally and literally, for people whose family lives are more complicated than most.
I’m specifically talking about experiencing Christmas and the winter period as a queer person. Although my personal experience has improved over the years, I used to dread the holiday season because it meant spending extended periods of time with family members who either didn’t know I was queer or refused to accept it. And so, like many other people of our generation, I found solace in videogames.
The ultimate Christmas hideaway game, or rather franchise, for me will always be Animal Crossing. Wild World for the DS specifically took over my life for several years and, much to my family’s annoyance, I managed to pass the excitement over to my younger cousins as well. My parents look back on this time as the ‘Animal Crossing this’ and ‘Animal Crossing that’ era, suggesting that it was all me and my cousins could talk about. I mean, rightly so! That game was and still is pretty incredible.
My years with Wild World were happy, and I’d boot up my DS on Christmas to wish my fellow villagers happy holidays and then move on with my day. I was only eight years old when the game released in Europe, so Christmas hadn’t started causing me many problems yet. I didn’t understand the rude or offensive jokes my relatives were making enough to get sad about them. I’m glad that even during my more naive Christmasses I was able to start this Animal Crossing tradition because I was going to need it in my teen years.
By the time Animal Crossing New Leaf launched on the Nintendo 3DS, I was well into my teenage years, with a strong sense of social justice and a newfound queer identity that I was hiding from my family. Christmas filled me with dread – I was already the black sheep of the family going through my emo phase, I found everyone too loud (probably thanks to my undiagnosed ADHD), I was hiding my growing depression from everyone, and the only jokes my family members seemed to be able to make were ones at the expense of people of color, disabled people, or LGBTQ+ people.
So, once I’d eaten my meal and spent enough time engaging in the forced festive pleasantries, I would retreat to the sofa or, if I was lucky enough, my bedroom to visit Isabelle and the rest of my villagers. They always had nice things to say to me and appreciated who I was as a person. New Leaf gave me a place to go that ran parallel with the real world, but where everything wasn’t quite so bad, and it was most likely snowing.
Animal Crossing New Leaf had the added benefit of online play as well. I could FaceTime my real friends and visit their islands or find people on Tumblr whose islands were open to experience new places and meet new people, either village mayors or their villager friends. With my furry friends by my side, it was much easier to bat away accusations of being obsessed with my technology or drown out the distasteful jokes I didn’t have the emotional energy to tackle head-on.
New Leaf and a handful of other 3DS games did some heavy lifting for my wellbeing during my high school and college years, always being there for me when I needed an escape. Between then and the eventual release of Animal Crossing New Horizons in 2020, a lot has changed between me and my family. I’m much more self-aware and self-assured, able to combat hatred with my own arguments. Plus, some members of my family have also learned and grown to be more accepting of my queer identity and new life away from home.
That’s not to say that New Horizons didn’t also play a part in keeping me sane through the festive season. Everyone remembers 2020, the year of lockdowns and, for Switch gamers, the year of a new Animal Crossing title. I didn’t have my own Switch at launch, but I was so determined to play that I bought a copy of the game to play on my flatmate’s console and transferred my island when I eventually bought my own. I’m so glad that I had the game to myself by Christmas 2020, because I needed it.
Thanks to local lockdowns and money issues, 2020 was the first time that I spent Christmas away from my relatives. It was just me, my partner, and our cat in a tiny, one-bed apartment that was nowhere near big enough for our little family. We made the best of it, cooking a full spread, watching movies, and calling my parents on Zoom. It was nice, but it still felt a little odd.
I think that’s why 2020 was the first year I broke my personal rule of never time-skipping in Animal Crossing. For New Year’s that year, the UK had rules in place that let a bubble of six people meet outside while social distancing. Myself, my partner, and four of our friends went out onto the suspension bridge over Salford Quays, where we were living at the time, to experience the countdown together and wave sparklers about. It even started snowing! But when we returned to the flat, I felt like I was missing something.
I booted up my Switch and did the unthinkable – I set the system clock back by an hour. As lovely as my socially distanced New Year’s had been, I needed to see in 2021 with the animals that had kept me sane through starting my first full-time job, working from home, and several national lockdowns. Time-skipping back to see in the new year with my villagers was my way of saying thank you for everything. Not just for what they gave me during 2020, but to thank all the villagers that came before them in Wild World and New Leaf.
Animal Crossing saw me through some of my darkest winters, and I will forever be grateful for that.
If you’re looking to forge your own lifelong memories with this franchise, check out our Animal Crossing history lesson, Animal Crossing: New Horizons fish list, or our list of the best games like Animal Crossing.