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In common with many other parents during the recent collapse of the British educational system, I find myself unexpectedly plunged into the challenges of home-schooling. And while, in theory, one might admire the impulse to pass on one’s knowledge to one’s children, the practice is quite another thing (maths in particular appears to have changed beyond recognition since my own school days).

And then there’s quarantine itself. Erstwhile home-schoolers could leave the house for educational trips to the countryside or a city museum. No such luxury now. Some relief is at hand, however, in Animal Crossing, a game I first mentioned a couple of weeks ago. In Japan, the latest entry in the life-simulation series in which players emigrate to a sunny island to start a bucolic life in a community of anthropomorphic animals has become the bestselling video game for the Switch, a console that was already home to numerous multimillion-sellers. For those on lockdown, the fantasy of escaping to a reality in which shops are open and fraternising with one’s neighbours is encouraged has been irresistibly alluring.

Life on the island transpires in real time. Much of that time is spent pootling about fishing, catching bugs, chopping trees, planting flowers and, because this is a metaphor for existence that reflects the capitalist context in which it was conceived and made, selling the fruits of all this labour to service a mortgage. It’s a reassuring mix of the pastoral and the industrial that, for millions of players, has brought a heaven-sent sense of normality to our uprooted lives.

In the context of quarantine-enforced home-schooling, however, the game has another peculiarly apt gift. The island houses an extravagantly designed local museum, curated by a tubby, verbose owl named Blathers. Blathers will accept as a donation any fish, insect, fossil that is not currently on display in the museum, offering some brisk educational information about the item in return.

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The museum is separated into three wings: a gallery of dinosaur and reptile fossils that you and your co-inhabitants excavate from the island, an aquarium of panoramic tanks filled with locally caught species of fish, and an insectarium that fills up with spiders, centipedes, bees and a florist’s bouquet of butterflies. As the days wheel by, the museum transforms from a forsaken hollow into a bountiful accumulation, with dynamically posed dinosaurs, and tanks and ponds that sparkle with silvery flashes. Each exhibit is labelled with the name of the specimen, the name of its donor and the date of acquisition. In this way, the building tells the story not only of the local fauna through historical eras, but also of your own story through the game.

The Animal Crossing series (which debuted in 1999 as a way for its designer, Katsuya Eguchi, to play games with his children across their asynchronous schedules) has always included a digital museum that has functioned along similar lines, but this latest iteration has been designed with a previously unseen degree of attention and finesse. It is obviously the work of a team who adore these public spaces and want to celebrate them for both their aesthetic and educational potential. The virtual displays link in clever, revealing ways, especially the fossil area, which charts the evolution of life with a clarity and coherence worthy of the Natural History Museum. It is a grounding joy, then, in a time of confusion that, as with all dramas born of the adult world, affects children in profound ways.

Also recommended

Stardew Valley
(ConcernedApe; PS4, Xbox One, PC and Nintendo Switch)
Animal Crossing
is the leading light in a genre sometimes referred to as “tend and befriend” – two verbs currently in much need of exercise. The series is often criticised, however, for its materialistic emphasis (although Nintendo is at pains to point out that the game’s economy is also educational). Stardew Valley also fits the “tend and befriend” description neatly, but here your job as a newbie farmer is to reinvest your profits into the rundown local town in order to fend off the corporations vying to take over the community. In this game the work is more gruelling than in Animal Crossing (you have limited energy each day, and a surplus of jobs) but just as rewarding. The risk, however, is that, as you industrialise your farm, automating tasks with expensive machinery, you begin to lose sight of why you ever started in the first place. If Animal Crossing is a rehearsal for, or reimagining of, adult life, Stardew Valley is its cautionary tale.

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