ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

Motivating Learning by Playing Animal Crossing New Horizons: A trending game during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Xi Lin, Shu Su / November 2020

Print Email
Comments Instapaper

Images from Animal Crossing are owned by Nintendo

Games are not only entertaining, they can promote learning, engagement, and mastery of developmental tasks [1, 2]. While playing games, learners are able to practice and explore within the confines of a safe environment where they can acquire a variety of skills associated with strategy, power, and decision-making [3]. The video game, an electronic game based on a story, involves the interaction with audiovisual apparatus [4], has been developed and used for educational or training purposes [5]. Further, playing video games has the potential to motivate informal learning of various skills and subjects among players of all ages [6. 7]. For instance, Whitton stated playing video games has “the potential to transform how students learn, and motivate and engage a new generation of learners in a way that traditional education does not” [8]. Therefore, presented here is a motivational learning framework for game-based learning and a discussion on how a recent popular video game stimulates learning according to this framework.

Motivational Learning Framework

Malone and Lepper’s taxonomy of intrinsic motivations for learning and games [9] has been used in research on game-based learning [6,10,11]. Malone and Lepper stated motivation is the key pre-condition for learner involvement in any learning activity, and this significant factor also impacts how effectively students learn [9]. The motivational learning framework consists of two aspects: internal motivations and interpersonal motivations. These two types of motivations elucidate how a video game can effectively engage learning and lead to learning outcomes.

Internal motivations involve challenge, curiosity, control, and fantasy [9]. First, learners will be motivated if they experience an appropriate level of challenge when playing a game. The goal of the task should be clearly stated with a good balance between the level of challenge required by the activity and the skills of the individual engaged in it during the learning process. To engage learners, the goal must be meaningful and personalized. Feedback on performance should also be provided so that learners can track their own progress. Curiosity often engages learners by motivating their desires to explore and receive new information in a learning environment [9]. In video games, a player’s curiosity can be aroused in a learning environment that uses multimedia including sound, video, graphics, and text. Players will also experience sustained engagement when they feel the learning environment helps them become more productive, informative, and creative.

Control refers to learners’ capability of controlling their learning experience [9]. In other words, players would be engaged in the learning environment if they can make their own choices, and their decisions are linked to meaningful outcomes when playing. This factor usually provides learners with a feeling of flexibility, self-direction, and autonomy. Lastly, a fantasy environment refers to “one that evokes mental images of physical or social situations not present” [9]. An optimal learning environment may be the one in which learners can create their fantasies, such as characters, locations, objects [12], which would further address learners’ emotional needs related to the game outcomes [6,9].

Interpersonal motivations consist of cooperation, competition, and recognition. Cooperation refers to collaboration and support, which requires social competence, and may help build high-quality relationships among players. Learners would be highly encouraged to complete independent tasks with the efforts of group members. Cordie and colleagues [6] furthermore indicated assistance from other players in video games often leads to greater effort by learners to achieve, and also promote greater productivity. Competition means achieving the goal and attain a feeling of completion. Effective management of this innately human quality would enhance players’ interest in competing against others and one’s self. Finally, recognition is the idea of appreciating and recognizing players’ efforts with visible outcomes. These outcomes could be a final visible product, a score that can be shared, a certificate of completion, or other forms of such reward [9].

On the Horizon

Animal Crossing: New Horizons (New Horizons) is a life simulation video game developed by Nintendo in 2020 for the Nintendo Switch. In New Horizons, the player will create and customize a character who moves to a deserted island. The player then explores the island by completing different challenges such as gathering and crafting items, collecting insects, catching fish, then developing the island into a community of anthropomorphic animals. The player uses a NookPhone, a smartphone in New Horizons, as a guide to begin the adventure on the island. The NookPhone has various similar functions as a real smartphone, including a camera, map, and chat log [13]. 

Additionally, this game supports both local and online cooperative gameplay, with up to four players locally and eight players online in one of the players’ islands [14]. After it was released in all regions on March 20th of this year 13.41 million copies were sold by May 8th [15]. Because this game was released during the COVID-19 pandemic, New Horizons creates a fascinating world for people to seek escapism from the pandemic but also bridges the gap created by COVID-19 social distancing [2,16]. In addition to entertaining players, New Horizons also promotes their learning during the play.

Applying Motivational Learning Framework to New Horizons

Challenge. There are multiple daily tasks as well as long-term tasks that players need to complete. The daily tasks usually consist of talking to the villagers, collecting fossils, catching plenty of fish or insects, catching a certain kind of fish or an insect, etc. The long-term task includes donating collections (e.g., fossils, insects, fish, or artworks) to a museum. The challenge of multiple tasks motivates learning. For example, when catching a certain fish, players do not just throw the fishing rod into the water and wait for the fish. They have to consult the “Critterpedia” (similar to an encyclopedia), presented as an app in the NookPhone. The Critterpedia provides details on the specific critter. For instance, if the player needs to catch a giant snakehead, he or she will find the related information in the Critterpedia, including a picture of the giant snakehead, the location to find the fish (i.e., pond), the time it appears (i.e., from 9 am to 4 pm during the day), and its active period (i.e., June to August in Northern hemisphere, or December to February in the Southern hemisphere).

Another challenge comes from purchasing artwork. Players determine whether or not a painting or sculpture is a forgery by visual inspection. Some areas of the artwork will have a noticeable difference from the genuine painting. The majority of the artwork is well-known such as “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer, “Vitruvian Man” by Leonardo Da Vinci, and “Venus De Milo” by Alexandros of Antioch. Therefore, before deciding to buy the artwork, players will need to examine it carefully. The player needs to find the genuine artwork and compare the real masterpiece with the one in the game.

The goals of catching creatures and examining artwork are clearly stated to make players feel these tasks are attainable. The process also encourages players to search for related information, understand and memorize the new knowledge, build on past knowledge, and then apply it in the game or even in real life. Thus, this process is essential for an individual’s cognitive learning. 

Curiosity. One feature of the Critterpedia is that it only unlocks the encyclopedia page of creatures that were caught by players. In other words, players need to keep collecting insects or fish to unlock other creatures’ pages in the Critterpedia. Some creatures are only available in certain locations and at certain times during a specific month. Therefore, players will always have opportunities to search for new fish and insects. Additionally, the museum in New Horizons plays a significant role in satisfying the players’ curiosity. When donating to the museum, Blathers, an owl who is the director of the museum, will ask players if they are interested in learning more about this creature. If the response is yes, Blathers will introduce various notable characteristics of the creature (e.g., forms, living environment, and habits). Additionally, players can gain knowledge about fossils. For instance, they can dig up four fossils each day on their island and take them to Blathers. Blathers will first assess the fossils, then explain the features of these extinct animals. Players can also donate artwork to the museum. However, only genuine artwork will be accepted. Blathers will also briefly introduce the history of the artwork, such as in what environment the artist created this masterpiece. 

Control. New Horizons grants control to its players and offers great autonomy. Players can explore the island in a nonlinear fashion. In other words, challenges in New Horizons can be completed in several different sequences. There is no time limit to complete a mission and players can choose to do any task whenever they want. Additionally, when donating an item to the museum, players can decline Blathers’s offer to learn more about it. However, at any time players can take any item to Blathers and learn or review the information about the item. This feature supports a feeling of flexibility, self-direction, and autonomy for players as they choose to receive knowledge. 

Fantasy. One of the optimal features of New Horizons is the “real-time” feature. The game syncs to real-world times and dates; thus, a minute spent in the game is a minute in the real world. The game changes day-to-day and seasonally, with new fish and insects appearing in the game according to when they would appear in real life (e.g., fireflies only appear in the game during actual summer months). Players are attracted to the view of the island and the museum, with its Bug Exhibit, the Aquarium, Fossil Gallery, and Art Gallery. As players give more donations, the sections of each wing where items are displayed will be enhanced with additional, non-donation displays or decorative scenery [17]. Players can take a tour of the museum at any time and participate in interesting events to celebrate certain festivals or meaningful days. For example, the New Horizon’s International Museum Day event is May 18–31. In honor of the event and museums around the world, players participate in a fun Stamp Rally during this period. Similarly, there are special events on the island all the time, such as a specific constellation meteor shower each month. This event is a good way for players to know about the zodiac sign for every month. Therefore, this optimal learning environment motivates the players’ learning by using an entertaining and engaging fantasy setting.

Cooperation. Collaborating with other players to complete one’s own tasks is another notable feature of New Horizons. Each player has their own island, yet New Horizons allows for travel and adventure among friends and even strangers. Players can get almost everything from another player, included tools, bells (the currency in the game), items, and fossils, etc. If a beginner receives assistance from a relatively advanced player, their progress is dramatically enhanced. Furthermore, New Horizons involves real-life stock trading, buying turnips on Sunday morning, and selling it for the rest of the week, with a fluctuated price. This task encourages players to consult each other for the price of the turnip in their local islands and find the highest price to sell together. In New Horizons, players can also breed hybrid flowers by watering them. It provides the player a base chance of 5 percent to breed new flowers, but if a friend comes to visit and waters these flowers, the production rate increases up to a total of 80 percent chance of success. When tasks are completed via collaboration, players are greatly engaged because individuals would be highly motivated if the success of independent tasks is dependent on the efforts of group members [9].

Competition. In New Horizons, players experience growth every day: the blossoming of flowers, fruits from trees, upgraded houses, the Critterpedia collection, and museum exhibitions. Individuals can also compete with other players to accumulate items, as well as the ratings of their island.

Recognition. Finally, the visible outcomes include the scenic island, the museum with famous exhibitions and collections, and the cozy houses with customized furniture. Players will even receive a trophy and certificate for decoration based on the overall rating of the houses, the museum, and the island. Players can also share or show off their recognitions with their friends and/or on social media.

In addition to bringing multiple benefits to its players, New Horizons also leads to players’ incidental learning, which usually takes place in one’s experiences such as mistakes, success, and interactions with others [18]. Incidental learning describes how players learn in video games [19]. Specifically, while playing New Horizons, players learn the characteristics of fish and bugs, the history of any artwork, and the traditions of various festivals. The various in-game topics furthermore motivate tangential learning [20]. Turkay and Adnolf stated, “players learn by becoming interested in an in-game topic, and expand their knowledge on this topic by studying outside resources without obligatory reinforcement” [19]. Thus, the self-directed learning process is likely if players are introduced to a topic that piques their interest. For example, players may become interested in interior design while decorating their houses in New Horizons. 


As the world experiences the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have yearned for an escape. New Horizons provides them a fantasy island paradise. A place where the bedroom is adorned with a spacious clamshell bed, where bags of bells (money) hang from trees and the moon is made of shooting star fragments. Players around the world are given a break from reality and an engaging environment to stimulate their incidental and tangential learning. New Horizons accomplishes this by providing knowledge from various areas such as biology, gardening, construction, interior design, art, and history.

As discussed earlier, New Horizons sets an excellent example in motiving players’ learning based on the motivational learning framework [9]. As more players are engaged in playing New Horizons, Nintendo game designers should take the opportunity to balance entertainment and educational factors by developing more learning-promoting activities. For instance, the game designers may consider designing events to promote incidental and tangential learning, such as knowledge competitions for fish, bugs, or artworks. Additionally, this analysis has proven the fit of using the motivational learning framework in analyzing game-based learning, thus, it might be beneficial for educational game developers to refer to this framework while designing games. New Horizons not only provides a paradise for people to escape from reality but it also potentially motivates informal learning for players of all ages.



[1] Malaby, T. M. Beyond play: A new approach to games. Games and Culture 2, 2 (2007), 95–113. 

[2] Willingham, A. J. Animal Crossing is letting people live out their wildest fantasy: normalcy. CNN. (March 30, 2020).

[3] Koster, R. A grammar of gameplay. [Presentation] Game Developers Conference 2005: Futurevision. 2005

[4] Esposito, N. A short and simple definition of what a video game is. In Proceedings of DiGRA 2005 Conference: Changing Views - Worlds in Play. Vancouver, 2005.

[5] Ledoux, T. et. al. An educational video game for nutrition of young people: theory and design. Simulation & Gaming 47, 4 (2016), 490–­516.

[6] Cordie, L., Lin, X., and Whitton, N. Utilizing digital educational games to enhance adult learning. In Handbook of Research on Program Development and Assessment Methodologies in K-20 Education. IGI Global, Hershey, PA, 2018, 171-196 

[7] Osmanovic, S., and Pecchioni, L. Beyond entertainment: motivations and outcomes of video game playing by older adults and their younger family members. Games and Culture 11, 1-2 (2016), 130–149. 

[8] Whitton, N. Motivation and computer game based learning. In  ICT: Providing choices for learners and learning. Proceedings ASCILITE Singapore 2007, eds. Atkinson, R.J., McBeath, C., Soong, S. K. A. and Cheers, C. Centre for Educational Development, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, 2007.

[9] Malone, T. W. and Lepper, M. R. Making learning fun: A taxonomy of intrinsic motivations for learning. In Aptitude, Learning and Instruction III: Conative and Affective Process Analyses, eds. R.E. Snow and M.J. Farr. Erlbaum, Hillsdale, N.J., 1987, 223–253. 

[10] Kirriemuir, J., and Mcfarlane, A. Literature Review in Games and Learning. Futurelab Series. Report 8. NESTA Futurelab, 2004. 

[11] Whitton, N. Theories of motivation for adults learning with games. In Handbook of Research on Improving Learning and Motivation Through Educational Games: Multidisciplinary approachesVolume 1, ed. P. Felicia. Information Science Reference, Hershey, PA, 2011, 352–369.

[12] Rees, D. A taxonomy of motivation and game design. Instructional Design Fusions. (August 20, 2011).

[13] Naudus, K. Is the NookPhone good or bad for your Animal Crossing island? Engadget. (April 2, 2020). 

[14] Grayson, N. Animal Crossing: New Horizons will let you decorate the whole world. Kotaku. (June 11, 2019).

[15] Satam, S. Animal Crossing New Horizons breaks huge record. Essentially Sports. (May 8, 2020). 

[16] King, R. How Animal Crossing is bridging the gap created by coronavirus social distancing. (March 31, 2020). 

[17] Fandom. Animal Crossing wiki: museum. Fandom

[18] Marsick, V.J. and Watkins, K. Informal and Incidental Learning in the Workplace., Routledge, New York, 1990.

[19] Turkay, S., and Adinolf, S. What do players (think they) learn in games? Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences 46 (2012), 3345–3349. 

[20] Floyd, D. and Portnow, J. Video games and learning. YouTube. 2008.

About the Authors

Xi Lin, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the College of Education at East Carolina University. Her research focuses on online and distance learning as well as game-based learning. She also explores cross-cultural experience especially the adaptation of international students and faculty in U.S. institutions.

Shu Su, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Teacher's College at Ball State University. Her research takes a multidisciplinary approach towards understanding parenting in youth social development at different life stages. She also examines families and youth development in different cultural contexts, with a special focus on diversity.

Copyright © ACM 2020. 1535-394X/2020/12-3425166 $15.00


  • There are no comments at this time.