You land on an uninhabited island, the only human among a group of cute animal characters, who serve as your companions. Gradually you build a home and grow your village, accumulating money and possessions that drop from the trees or fall from balloons in the sky. The island’s pace of life is slow, and its tone gentle. Its pleasures arise primarily from the adorableness of small details, such as the way your footsteps sound just slightly different depending on what type of shoes you’re wearing and what type of surface you’re walking on.
When the COVID-19 pandemic reached the US in 2020 and the first wave of lockdowns began, the Japanese video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons became an especially prominent example of how digitally mediated cuteness helped to soothe the anxiety, loneliness, and loss wrought by the pandemic. The game’s impact has been significant: it has sold over 34 million copies globally since its release in March 2020,1 with The New York Times declaring it the “Game for the Coronavirus Moment.”2
Although I played this game almost compulsively through the summer of 2020, I have to admit that it gave me mixed feelings. Personally, I am obsessed with the culture of kawaii (可愛い)—the Japanese word for “cute”—and Animal Crossing’s idyllic island aligned perfectly with my love for all things adorable. However, despite the personal attachments I feel toward kawaii as a half-Japanese woman, my academic research looks critically at how cute aesthetics and affects have mediated race relations between Japan and the US from the 19th century to the present day. I quickly recognized in the game elements of this more troubling history.
Japan’s culture of cuteness, which blossomed after World War II, worked to sublimate the traumas of the war and postwar occupation, embodying the nation’s forced acceptance of its subordination to the US. But kawaii culture was not simply an embrace of the feminine and infantile in place of masculine military power; it also arose out of a nostalgic longing for the imperial imaginaries crushed in Japan’s wartime defeat. These imperial imaginaries linger today in the “Cool Japan” campaign, which transforms kawaii into a form of Japan’s “soft power,” the power a nation gains through its cultural appeal rather than overt force. Kawaii conceals this history beneath its docile surface.
Aware of this fact, I perceived the violence underlying Animal Crossing’s whimsical staging of an island’s colonization. The game embodies what Christopher B. Patterson calls an “open world empire,” a virtual space of purported “openness and new frontiers.”3 Comparably, Tara Fickle argues that Pokémon GO, a kawaii gaming phenomenon that presaged Animal Crossing in 2016, “played explicitly on [the] idea of a ‘New World’ in which players served as the digital pioneers of twenty-first-century manifest destiny.”4
Nevertheless, when I needed a break from the stresses of the news cycle, I pulled out my Nintendo Switch and participated in many of the rituals of empire: I chopped down trees, paved the roads, and worked to improve the village infrastructure. Like a Victorian imperial explorer, I collected and categorized fish, bugs, and fossils to fill a vast museum.
As I lost myself in Animal Crossing’s dream world, I began to wonder whether cuteness might hold more political promise than my research initially theorized. As Sianne Ngai influentially claims, cuteness has “played an ongoing role in the commodification of social difference,” furthering the objectification of children, women, people of color, disabled people, and other subordinated groups.5 However, if the ambivalence of cuteness has the negative effect of enabling domination to appear harmless, it also carries the potential for expressing genuine tenderness and care.
In my own experience with the game, I found an opportunity to revive—some 25 years later, and in virtual form—a relationship to kawaii that took me back to my childhood trading strawberry-shaped erasers on the school playground. When I played Animal Crossing with two of my friends, both of them Asian American women, we exchanged cute items and short messages across our islands long after dark on quarantine nights. We dressed our avatars in kimono, áo dài, and hanbok and decorated our homes with kawaii objects that reminded us of the small mementos we carry with us as diasporic subjects. These tiny comforts helped me carry on as I watched the death toll climb and grew fearful about the rise in anti-Asian violence.
The moments we spent together in Animal Crossing were entirely private and virtually mediated. Even so, they felt like small political acts in which we were able to dream of a different world, one built around our collective need for safety and care.
At the risk of conforming to a stereotype, I have always had a special attachment to cute things. For me, toys, accessories, and stationery goods decorated with characters like Hello Kitty carry nostalgic memories of family and home. They also recall the connections I once made to other Asian American girls through exchanging Sanrio and other kawaii products on the school playground.
I grew up in a predominately Asian American community in Silicon Valley, amid the 1990s tech boom. One of the few small pleasures we were allotted was cute trinkets. Although many of my classmates’ parents worked for the big tech companies, like Apple and Oracle, they tended to be first-generation immigrants and lower-to-mid-level employees. We lived in nearly identical beige apartments or small condos. We were latchkey kids who were expected to be good and study. To motivate us, our parents bought us Sanrio pencil boxes and erasers. These kawaii items sparkled in my imagination, adding brightness to my mundane life.
In the early months of social distancing, I observed these dimensions of my past—cuteness and technologization—come together and explode across American culture. People increasingly turned to cuteness in search of digital forms of connection and intimacy. “Please send pictures of cute animals,” they wrote on social media, as if sending out distress signals, and their friends and followers obliged with threads of images of baby sloths and disgruntled kittens.
Cuteness and technology, it seemed, weren’t a distant memory from my childhood anymore. Instead, their intersection seemed to point to something bigger about the importance of small comforts, especially when the world feels at its harshest and most alienating.
When I needed a break from the stresses of the news cycle, I pulled out my Nintendo Switch and participated in many of the rituals of empire.
Animal Crossing presents a fantasy of a world without harm, a world in which everything heals. In the game, friendships are pure and easily formed. When you pull fruit from the trees, it quickly grows back. You are forced to borrow money from a tanuki (狸), a Japanese raccoon dog, to build your home, but you encounter little pressure to pay back your debts. With no antagonists and no predetermined objective or story line, you are at leisure to spend your time doing whatever you please: gardening, fishing, catching bugs, or talking with your animal neighbors. Because the game runs in real time, you are encouraged to play at a measured pace, appreciating the changing seasons and watching sunrises, sunsets, and shooting stars.
These calming, peaceful qualities of the game draw from the iyashi (癒し), or “healing,” phenomenon that arose in Japan after the ’90s recession. When the first iteration of Animal Crossing was released in 2001, iyashi-style media, products, and services were gaining popularity for their soothing effects, which promised to help relieve the pressures of living in a late capitalist society. While Animal Crossing represents a key example of this style, iyashi also encompasses such things as plush toys, therapeutic robots, animal cafes, and anime and manga set in idyllic natural landscapes.
Kawaii is often considered integral to iyashi style, with the softness of cute objects serving to help alleviate psychic stress. It provides a means of escape—if only fleeting and partial—from the loneliness and anxiety of living in a hyperconnected world that constantly extracts our labor and energy.
Accordingly, Animal Crossing’s producer, Katsuya Eguchi, hoped to design a game that would stimulate relaxation and inspire interpersonal connection. The game carves out a space for people to “become close again with intimate companions … and play fondly together.”6 To this end, it invites you to exchange letters and gifts with your real-world friends or travel virtually to visit them on their islands.
In quarantine, many players took advantage of these networking capabilities to connect with people from whom they were forced to be physically distant. They held birthday parties, weddings, funerals, and graduation parties on their Animal Crossing islands. Thanks to the game’s collection of adorable costumes and props, these social interactions remained more or less circumscribed by the tenderness of the kawaii aesthetic. In Animal Crossing, you are limited to communicating in short lines of text or through simple and sweet emotional “reactions,” such as expressing joy by swaying back and forth as flowers bloom around your head. Your interactions tend to be more emotional than intellectual, relying on an affective economy.
According to Naomi Clark, this affective economy is evident in the game’s forgiving system of debt. Clark argues that Animal Crossing reflects nostalgia for the 18th-century concept of the furusato (故郷), “old home” or “birthplace,” a rural Japanese village in which people were imagined to have led simpler, more intimate lives prior to the forces of industrialization and modernization catalyzed by Commodore Matthew Perry’s arrival in the 19th century.7 In the context of the furusato, debt did not require repayment but instead functioned as a means of strengthening the bonds of the community, symbolizing the ways residents remained interconnected.
Of course, Animal Crossing still cannot be fully extracted from the racist and imperialist imaginaries that gave rise to it, nor from the capitalist structures in which it is entangled. Cuteness, according to Ngai, falsely promises a return to a time of unalienated labor, to “a simpler, sensuous world of domestic use and consumption … a pastoral fantasy.”8
Such fantasies are often simultaneously fantasies of imperial innocence, perpetuated through the illusion of distance from empire’s harms or through settler colonial ideologies of individualism and independence. Animal Crossing resonated with many Americans in the early months of the pandemic partly for this reason: many people with the privilege to work from home suddenly saw themselves as lonely voyagers experiencing a strange new world, and thus turned to activities like baking, crafting, and gardening, fashioning domestic comforts on their own imaginary islands.
And kawaii, for the general American public, has for decades been incorporated into techno-Orientalist discourses that project fears of loneliness and alienation onto the image of Japan as a high-tech dystopia. Sherry Turkle’s theory of being “alone together” in our digital interactions was sparked in part by the sight of Paro, a Japanese therapeutic robot that resembles a baby seal, being regarded as a genuine companion by residents in an American nursing home.9
While I understand the cautions that Turkle and other critics raise concerning the displacement of care work onto robots, cute technologies have for me never been separate from my sense of self or my feelings of interconnectedness with other human and nonhuman creatures.
Similarly, Animal Crossing came to matter in ways that can’t be reduced to narratives of imperial conquest. The game was used as an activist tool in the Free Hong Kong and Black Lives Matter protests. And it afforded smaller, more mundane moments of intimacy and rest to its many players during times of heightened stress and precarity.
Technology alone will not heal us—if indeed we want to be healed—but it is still necessary to acknowledge the ways it assists our survival. Although disability activists have been arguing similar things for a long time now, grasping this idea remains urgent for how we approach mental health and our prosthetic relations to everyday technologies.
One night, while giving my friend a tour of my Animal Crossing island, I stopped in front of a pink vending machine and typed into the tiny keyboard, “it makes me miss japan.” Vending machines were once common symbols of Japan’s techno-Orientalist strangeness, signifying alienated feelings of capitalist consumerism without human contact. Therefore, a vending machine might seem like an odd item to cherish within a pastoral fantasy. However, because they enchanted me during visits to Japan as a child, with their plastic windows revealing magically moving arms, I felt a certain fondness for mine and assigned it a special place next to the village general store.
I have not returned to my island for many months now. Still, I know that the vending machine continues to sit there in virtual space, a machine identical to so many others but emotionally important in its own way. It comforts me to know it is enjoyed by my virtual animal friends.
This article was commissioned by Mona Sloane.
- Nintendo Company, “Consolidated Financial Highlights,” earnings release, November 4, 2021, https://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/pdf/2021/211104e.pdf. ↩
- Imad Khan, “Why Animal Crossing Is the Game for the Coronavirus Moment,” New York Times, April 7, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/07/arts/animal-crossing-covid-coronavirus-popularity-millennials.html. ↩
- Christopher B. Patterson, Open World Empire: Race, Erotics, and the Global Rise of Video Games (NYU Press, 2020), 3. ↩
- Tara Fickle, The Race Card: From Gaming Technologies to Model Minorities (NYU Press, 2019), 161. ↩
- Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Harvard University Press, 2012), 60. ↩
- “「おいでよ どうぶつの森」開発スタッフインタビュー,” Nintendo Online Magazine, November 2005, https://www.nintendo.co.jp/nom/0511/12/index.html. ↩
- “Naomi Clark: Why Tom Nook symbolizes village debt in 18th century Japan,” NYU Game Center, March 26, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BgEnbXPZX4s. ↩
- Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, 66. ↩
- Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Harvard University Press, 2012), xxxiii. ↩