Joe Biden’s presidential campaign built a propaganda island in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. It’s really lovely except when it’s not.
I’ve been dreading November ever since it became clear that Biden was going to be the Democratic nominee for this year’s presidential election. The party largely coalesced around the former vice president in March, banking on a heavy dose of Barack Obama nostalgia and oblique centrist politics meant to pull undecided voters and the mythical never-Trump Republicans leftward. This Animal Crossing stunt is the perfect encapsulation of an ephemeral campaign banking entirely on “not being the other guy” to win one of the most important elections in American history.
Animal Crossing players can visit Biden’s island by going to sleep in-game and dreaming up a world—now depicted, thanks to the wonders of technology, as an island in New Horizons—where his brand of aw-shucks political theater is enough to defeat fascism. Apple trees line the avenues. Everyone is happy instead of being stuck in a constant cycle of uncertainty and fear. Neighbors can hold conversations without spending the next two weeks worrying about every cough. Biden himself can even be found strolling through the neighborhood. If you talk to him, he screams, “No malarkey!” in your face before wandering off. Thanks to the restrictions of the game, that’s all he has to say, but it’s not too far off from Biden’s actual campaign style.
Much like Biden’s presidential platform, there’s very little substance here. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful island, even by the high standards of the creative Animal Crossing community. The main draw is a complex, multi-room headquarters, but the island is full of neat little nooks and crannies to explore, some of which have nothing to do with Biden at all. The unpaid intern the campaign tapped to spend hours getting this ready obviously has some experience. I especially enjoy the way they dedicated a large chunk of the island to miniature houses and roadways, which make the explorable area seem as if it sits above a bustling metropolis.
But it’s all so hollow.
It’s difficult to get complicated concepts like planks of a political platform across with the relatively limited tools present in Animal Crossing, so Biden’s island is built around voting as the ultimate goal. There’s even a little area made up to look like a polling station, though obviously bereft of the jackboots Trump is enlisting to intimidate voters. A large graphic links to a website dedicated to helping folks with voter registration and finding locations to drop off ballots. It’s all very standardized and sanitized in a way that’s meant to be inoffensive but still irks me as someone who has to live in the real world, where the government does everything it can to make voting a horrendous, time-consuming experience, the antithesis of what’s depicted on this video-game tropical island.
I’m tired most days. Exhausted, really. The ostensible opposition party constantly drills into our heads that the government is on the verge of a fascist takedown with no plan to stop it other than cajoling us into voting. A leading voice in Trump’s impeachment ended hearings for his latest Supreme Court pick by praising and hugging one of his most loyal lapdogs. It’s a tug-of-war of instilling in us terrifying visions of the future, while still cozying up to the supposed cause of the coming apocalypse. In the event that Biden loses, the Democrats are setting up regular people to be the fall guys—usually those who demand more of their politicians than dancing with Ellen and holding a milkshake upside-down—rather than Biden himself, or the corrupt, failing party infrastructure that all but bought his nomination.
This is the Biden campaign’s “Pokémon Go to the polls” moment, an effort at engendering a parasocial relationship between Biden and the people he’s supposed to serve. No one is going to see that Biden has an island in Animal Crossing and think, “Gee whiz, I should really vote for this guy!” It’s built for folks who are already in the bag for Biden, a product of the stan culture that elevates him and his running mate Kamala Harris to celebrity status simply for having a D by their names. But it will still be applauded as a monumental attempt at reaching out to younger voters instead of being recognized for what it is: Another cynical way for those in power to ignore overwhelmingly popular demands for universal healthcare, canceling student loans, and establishing environmental policies that could actually ensure there will be a livable planet for future generations.
I’m more than willing to concede that Trump is an existential danger; I only wish the Democrats had a real plan to deal with the system that put him in power before the next fascist arrives. A candidate that mocked a generation of impoverished millennials and told rich donors that nothing would fundamentally change for them if he’s president isn’t going to cut it, no matter how nice his Animal Crossing island is.
I’m really just so fucking tired.