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First Published Thursday, 12 February 2009

Animal Crossing

By Sandi Busch and Ben Markle

Animal Crossing is a game for the Nintendo GameCube but it can also be played on the Wii. There’s also a version for the Nintendo DS (Animal Crossing: Wild World) and a new game for the Wii (Animal Crossing: City Folk). Find more information at http://animal-crossing.com. There’s even an online AC community: www.AnimalCrossingCommunity.com.

Autism Asperger’s Digest (bimonthly magazine on Autism Spectrum Disorders)

Every day just about every parent of a child on the autism spectrum questions: “Am I doing enough for my child? If only there was more time …” With overflowing schedules, therapy appointments, managing behavioural supports, and meetings at school, parents can feel constantly pressured to be “in teaching mode” every precious minute.

With the time constraints we all feel, combined with an almost perseveration-like focus on therapy that would make any spectrum child proud, it’s easy to overlook a critical step along our journey through autism: establishing a true relationship with our child. A warm, supportive, fun, engaged relationship. This too requires work, but not always hard work or time spent with a child in rebellion. In fact, a pathway to the relationship of our dreams can actually be found right under our proverbial noses. Unfortunately, the suggestion I’m about to make has a high probability of being an activity you’ve been told to significantly reduce or even extinguish from your child’s life … special interests. To be more specific, video games.

Many parents share a concern for their child’s passion with video games, the computer or TV/DVDs. And, just as many emerging studies are touting the negative outcomes of allowing our kids to engage in such activities. Yet so many spectrum children have a special interest that involves electronic media. Might there be another perspective? I believe there is. And, I say this because in our house, we’ve made video games work to our advantage. Imagine combining a fabulously fun time with oodles of teaching opportunities while simultaneously creating strong emotional connections. Imagine doing that while playing video games. Shocked? Don’t be. It is possible. My son, Ben, and I have a story to tell that is especially important if you’ve seldom spent time playing video games and believe it’s one special interest that should be abolished. Keep reading.

My son’s special passion is and always has been video games. Over the years I’ve found that sharing this interest with him has built a bridge between us, one that facilitates trust, interaction and communication. Even though it is typical for us to play video games together, I was taken by surprise one weekend when we sat down to play a game we had just purchased., called Animal Crossing (Game Cube). I was amazed by the multitude of chances this game presented to teach critical life skills and lessons to my son with autism. It opened my eyes to the fresh experiences waiting to be found in the toys, games and electronic gadgets that define our children’s unique interests!

Playing Animal Crossing is like putting shredded zucchini into brownies … your child gets all the nutrition without the fuss. The “teaching” is all a part of playing the game. Ben and I have had so much fun playing Animal Crossing that we are excited to have this chance to share it with you. Ben is providing the inside scoop – describing what the game is about. That leaves me with the “boring” part – highlighting the opportunities to teach communication, emotions, letter writing and living skills while playing this extraordinary game. Let’s get started! Ben is up first.

Welcome to Animal Crossing

Have you heard about Animal Crossing? I’ve played it a lot and it’s a different kind of video game than most of the others you find on the store shelves. In Animal Crossing your character is a cartoon-like person but all the other characters are animals. You live in a town that operates in real time, so the seasons change, and holidays and even your birthday are celebrated. You can decorate your own house, plant trees and flowers, talk to the animals, and participate in a bunch of different town activities.

When the game starts you’re riding in a train but you don’t know where it’s going. A cat named Rover sits down and asks, “What’s your name?” and “Where are you going?” You type in a name for your character and create a name for your town. Rover also asks questions to verify your gender. Be warned though, Rover is clever. He doesn’t ask if you’re a girl or boy. When you tell Rover your name a box appears with three choices and the answer you pick determines if your character is a boy or girl. Rover makes a phone call to a friend – Tom Nook – to be sure you’ll have a place to live in your new town.

Tom Nook

Tom Nook, a raccoon who runs the local store and conveniently happens to sell houses, meets you at the train station and lets you choose from four homes. The houses are rubbish to start with but hey, he lets you buy it with the little money you happen to be carrying and then he tells you to work at his store to begin paying your mortgage.

Working for Tom Nook helps pay for your house but it is also training that teaches the game basics. Your training doesn’t last long and when it’s over you’re free to start exploring the town, talking to the animals, decorating your house and buying stuff from Nook’s store. (P.S. Every time you buy furniture or clothing he gives you a raffle ticket. At the end of every month he holds a lottery and you can win stuff for your house.)

Just remember that during training you only pay off a small part of your mortgage so you have to earn and save money. The fun part is that once you pay off the loan, Tom Nook will upgrade your house in stages. Hint: You want to upgrade right away! If you get all the upgrades and you’re the first to finish paying off your house, he puts a gold statue of your character in front of the train station!

Speaking of the train station, you can build other towns on additional memory cards and travel to them by train. Every time you ride the train you’ll talk to either Rover or a mysterious character named Blanca who sometimes appears. She is a cat that doesn’t have a face. She asks you to draw one for her and then you get to have fun drawing a face. She always suggests you should not tell anyone about her … she’s just an average traveler. (How many average cats do you know with no face?)

Decorate your House

Your House

There are many ways to get items to use to decorate your house. Tom Nook sells them in his store, you can help the townspeople and they will reward you with items, and you can find things buried in the ground. A camel named Sahara comes to town bringing rare carpeting to trade. Wendell, the Wandering Hungry Walrus, also stops by and if you feed him a fish (which you have to catch yourself in the stream or ocean) he will give you a rare wallpaper. And then there’s Crazy Redd … buyer beware! Crazy Redd is a sly fox who sometimes brings his Black market to town. He sometimes (not always) offers rare items for sale that you can only get from Crazy Redd. If they fit your theme then you’ll probably want them, even if they are way too expensive!

You can create really cool themes in your home. My favorites are space (the carpet looks like the surface of the moon, the wallpaper is all stars and you can get items like a space shuttle and a meteor) and the “kiddie” theme (it looks like a playroom). There’s also a “lovely” theme (lots of pink, hearts, a vanity and even a pink kitchen sink) and you can even turn your house into a beach or a desert if you like!

Town Screen Shot

Your Town

Just like a real town, there is a police station, a post office (where you can pay your debt and mail letters) and a museum. You can donate items you collect – paintings, dinosaur bones, bugs and fish – to Blathers the Owl who runs the museum. There is a special clothing store run by two porcupines where you can design your own clothes! You can put the patterns you design on display and eventually the animals will begin wearing clothes with your patterns on them!

The townspeople all have unique personalities. Just like in real life, many are friendly but some are a bit gruff. Another interesting thing about the townspeople is that you can go into their houses to see how they have decorated – they have endless ideas for your own house.

Winter's Night Screen Shot


Many holidays are celebrated in Animal Crossing. It’s a fun time, when unique characters and the town’s mayor – a tortoise named Tortimer – appear and you can get special items. Franklin the Turkey comes to town on Thanksgiving. You can save him from being eaten by bringing him the silverware from the town’s picnic table. (You have to find him first!) And on Halloween a character named Jack lurks around. If you give him candy he gives you Halloween themed furniture. Beware though, if you run into the townspeople they will TRICK you!

Fun Stuff

Fun Stuff

Well, the whole game is fun! There’s way too much to tell you everything so I’ll just let you discover the rest on your own.

Letter, Animal Crossing

Mom here again. This is truly an interactive game with an emphasis on communication and so many chances to learn. Here’s just some:

The townspeople will remind you that they love to receive letters – some will even get an attitude if you haven’t written to them. When you choose to write a letter, the screen changes to represent a keyboard, which can be arranged like a typewriter or you can put the letters in alphabetical order. Talk about opportunities to teach spelling, grammar, or simply learn the alphabet if the child is young. If the child is older, it’s a great way to talk about social thinking, people’s feelings and perspective taking.

Ben Recommends

There’s no sense buying a system for just one game, so if you like Animal Crossing you’ll also like: The Mario, Donkey Kong Country, and Kirby series, Smash Brothers Brawl, Wario Land Shake It, and the Sonic Mega Collection. And older audiences, while they will enjoy those, might also like: The Legend of Zelda and the Mega Man series.

Games to avoid:
Resident Evil, Mortal Kombat, Wario Master of Disguise (Wario’s other games are great but not this one).

Sandi Busch is a freelance writer and single mom who home-schools her son.  Ben is a 15 year old who is learning to build on the strengths of Asperger’s Syndrome and who looks forward to a vocation saving animals.

Reprinted with permission from the January-February 2009 issue of the Autism Asperger’s Digest, a bimonthly magazine on autism spectrum disorders.  http://www.autismdigest.com/

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