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What is 'Animal Crossing,' and is it a good game for my kids to play?

What is this game, and why is everyone in my house suddenly playing it?

The timing could not have been better: Beloved Nintendo game "Animal Crossing" — a game that existed in GameCube and 3DS formats, among others, for over a decade — released its "New Horizons" version for the Nintendo Switch on March 20, 2020, just as the world shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Suddenly, kids of all ages and, yes, many of their parents are playing "Animal Crossing." In fact, the first weekend it was available, the game sold 1.88 million copies in Japan — a record for the fastest selling game in that country ever. So what exactly is this version of the game, and is it safe for your kids to play?

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Is 'Animal Crossing good for kids'?

"Animal Crossing: New Horizons" is a simulation game that places a player on a deserted island of their own. It retails for $59.99 and is rated "E" for everyone. The game's players can enhance their island and build their own "paradise," as the game's website describes, by using the natural resources on the island.

"You can hunt down insects at the crack of dawn, decorate your paradise throughout the day, or enjoy sunset on the beach while fishing in the ocean," the website explains. "The time of day and season match real life, so each day on your island is a chance to check in and find new surprises all year round."

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In this version of the game, players are given a "NookPhone," which is like a virtual smartphone that they have to figure out how to use. The NookPhone has features like its own camera and even a "creaturepedia" guide to animals on the island.

The game asks kids to be creative and resourceful as they create their island world and solve problems or challenges in their daily lives there. Reviewers have mentioned the escapism of the game as one of the positives of playing it; they praise the sense of peace that comes from the simple rhythms of days on the island.

Your kids are probably playing Animal Crossing. What's the deal with this popular game?
Your kids are probably playing Animal Crossing. What's the deal with this popular game?

The game can be played alone, with up to four people on the same system, or with up to eight players either over local wireless or online. Players can set a code for their island and share it with others so they can "visit," and players can visit others' islands in return.

Where parents would want to be careful, as with any game on an online platform, it would be difficult for a stranger to interact with a child in the game because on the private-island setup.

My resident 16-year-old expert assured me that it is "one of the most wholesome, innocent games out there" — and he is the one who will not let my 7-year-old daughter near Tik Tok — because the child would have to share their island's code with a stranger in order for the stranger to enter their game.

CNET senior editor and dad Scott Stein, who reviewed the game for the site, told TODAY Parents that he has only played it in online mode a little bit so far, but from what he has seen, my teenager is right. "A lot of Nintendo’s gameplay involves friend codes which are specific friend invites, which helps a lot," he said.

One concern he sees occurred when he tried to open his island for visitors. "While in-game chat is limited, Nintendo’s phone app enables voice chat if you accept an invite from a stranger," Stein explained.

Parents can, Stein suggested, set their children's game account so that voice chat is disabled in those instances. "You can use the Nintendo Switch parental controls app to get more monitoring controls," he said.

In this time of stress and uncertainty, Stein wrote on CNET that "Animal Crossing: New Horizons" has provided some therapeutic benefits to his household.

"My kids' schools are closed, now. We stocked up on more groceries. We're all home. We're all together. We're all playing 'Animal Crossing,'" he wrote. "These little moments of island escape, right now, are welcome. We're not going on vacation any time soon. We're not going on a plane.

"You may not be, either. 'Animal Crossing' has never felt much like a game; it's felt like a comforting place, a cozy blanket to wrap yourself in. And it's never felt more like that than now."