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A medical mask in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Sofia Lillo

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Medical masks are one of Animal Crossing’s hottest looks

A digital accessory that has become a worldwide symbol

The public narrative around Animal Crossing: New Horizons is that the slice-of-life game couldn’t come at a better time. With folks cooped up inside to avoid COVID-19, and the trashfire state of the world, having a calming game is more than an escape. It’s a godsend.

And sure, Animal Crossing does appear to be breaking sales records right now, as people flock to an island where hard work always pays off and kindness is the rule of the land. But despite New Horizons’ reputation as a reprieve, one of the most popular trends sees players wearing medical masks, a curious reminder of the borders beyond the Nintendo Switch game. On social media, medical masks are perhaps the most common piece of attire you’ll see in shared screenshots. Even at Polygon, several staffers also have characters wearing medical masks.

For some, like Sofia Lillo, it is partially a fashion statement — indeed, before the coronavirus pandemic, face masks were already popular in Asia and often sported by celebrities like Billie Eilish. Some luxury brands are even starting to manufacture face masks amid shortages in places like the U.S.

“I’m a huuuuuuge fan of Japanese street fashion,” Lillo, who has been wearing a black face mask in-game since release, told Polygon via email. Clothes are a huge part of Animal Crossing’s culture, and fans often compose multiple outfits depending on the occasion. There’s even an in-game wand that, with a swish, sparks a magical transformation between different character looks.

But for Lillo, it’s not just about composing a killer outfit.

“It’s a reflection of a life that I’d love to live right now,” Lillo continued. “Be able to run around outside; do things with friends and wear cute clothes while doing it!”

K.K. Slider performs in front of a large audience Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

Within the idyllic Animal Crossing grounds, acquiring a face mask is as simple as pressing a button. The price is meaningless; simply catching and selling a couple of fish will cover it. The same cannot be said of real life.

“I can’t find any masks unfortunately,” Kyrie Page, who has been self-isolating through the pandemic, told Polygon over email. Instead, Page is wearing a digital face mask with nearly in-game every outfit.

“The mask is more of a symbol,” Page explained. “[It] helps me think clean in these troubled times. The fact no villagers comment on it also reminds me of when I lived in Japan, where wearing masks when you were sick was the norm and no one gave you funny looks.”

A character wearing a medical mask in Animal Crossing. Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

Animal Crossing’s face mask also acts as an optimistic symbol for players like Greg LeClair, who have jobs where they are in constant contact with other human beings.

“There’s a certain positive feeling invoked by the sight of [medical masks], as a person out working in the thick of it, I can’t really not be thinking about it constantly,” LeClair told Polygon on Twitter. “So when I see someone wearing one I know they’re at least aware of the role they can play in this mess.”

Face masks aren’t the only way that 2020 has infiltrated Nintendo’s supposed vacation. Fans also like to set up signs “instructing” villagers to wash their hands, or they share media where they’ve constructed washing stations for the pretend purpose of eradicating viruses. Player Cat Law, who asks all island visitors to wash their digital hands for 20 seconds, tells Polygon they’ve even taken it upon themselves to distribute face masks to other players.

Law also lives in Hong Kong, where people wear face masks in public, and, in turn, is in a country that has successfully suppressed the virus.

“That and social distancing seem to have been pretty successful in curbing the spread of [COVID-19], so I kind of wanted to encourage more people to think about mask[ing] up, if supply is available in their area,” Law said.

But roleplaying things like quarantine areas in Animal Crossing takes more time and energy than simply wearing a mask, which might explain why the accessory has become so prevalent within the community.

“While I acknowledge it’s a little dissonant to want to keep a medical mask on in a game which I am using as an escape from the stress of the pandemic, for me it’s feeling helpful to project some extra safety and care into my little world,” New Horizons player Nick Hahneman told Polygon. “I just feels nice to be safe and considerate even if it doesn’t matter in the virtual world.”

“There’s also an element of making light of it all,” he added.

Perhaps video games provide a safe outlet to laugh about something that is otherwise terrible. In this, New Horizons is not unique. Fallout 76 players, for example, have started hoarding digital toilet paper, sometimes even hiking up the prices to thousands of caps, the in-game currency. Elsewhere, in medieval mayhem game Mordhau, some fans don yellow protective gear resembling hazmat suits while pretending to test other denizens.

Joking about coronavirus, which has outright become a meme, can give some players a sense of relief and comfort during a period when such feelings are scarce. Well, most of the time. Sofia Lillo notes that, in her adventures with friends, the medical masks come up in conversation.

“I’ve actually had friends of mine point it out and tell me that it’s giving them anxiety!” Lillo said. “I know consciously [to] take it off when I visit a friend’s island or they visit me, because I don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable while they’re actively escaping like me.”

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