No More Animal Crossing For Chinese Museums?
By Ophelia Lai
Nintendo’s social-simulation multiplayer game Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020), set on an idyllic island with animal characters, has become a global sensation among homebound consumers during the Covid-19 pandemic, even prompting Beijing’s private M Woods Museum to launch a virtual exhibition space in the game. However, Animal Crossing has been pulled from China’s major e-commerce platforms Taobao and Pinduoduo after politically sensitive imagery referencing Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests began circulating in the game.
Animal Crossing allows players to create objects and buildings, as well as to interact with other users. Video games, like other media, are subject to censorship in China, but can fall into a gray area. According to Reuters, “players in China can only access multiplayer connections for games such as Animal Crossing via foreign editions available on the grey market,” on platforms like Taobao.
Reuters reported on April 10 that Taobao and Pinduoduo delisted the game shortly after Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong tweeted an image of his Animal Crossing island featuring a black banner with the Chinese slogan, “Free Hong Kong / revolution of our times.” The picture, shared on April 2, refers to a catchphrase of the ongoing social movement that took off in the Special Administrative Region in mid-2019 over a now-shelved extradition bill. Hong Kong users have held virtual protests and shared other anti-government displays in the game, as referenced in a separate tweet by Wong. It is unclear if the e-commerce platforms removed Animal Crossing of their own accord or in response to a government directive. The Chinese government has yet to comment on the legal status of the game.
On April 8, M Woods announced its Animal Crossing “virtual museum” on Instagram—which is officially blocked in China and only accessible with a VPN. According to the post, the virtual space was due to launch on April 10, accompanied by tutorials on the Chinese video-sharing website Bilibili how to play the game and experience the exhibition. On display were renderings of works previously shown at the institution by Lu Yang, David Hockney, Richard Tuttle, and Andy Warhol, among others. The controversy over the game does not appear to have affected M Woods’ online exhibition. An Instagram post dated April 11 thanked “everyone who joined our first opening event in our virtual museum,” adding, “Our open spaces filled up quickly, so we will schedule some more events in the near future!” A week later, the institution uploaded a promotional video about its Animal Crossing venture on Bilibili. M Woods could not be reached for comment.
Animal Crossing has been used by others as a platform for art. Los Angeles-based cartoonist and installation artist Shing Yin Khor recently spoke to Artnet about her video-game recreations of works including Marina Abramović’s participatory performance The Artist is Present (2010), as well as Robert Smithson’s earthwork sculpture Spiral Jetty (1970).
Ophelia Lai is ArtAsiaPacific’s associate editor.
To read more of ArtAsiaPacific’s articles, visit our Digital Library.