This afternoon, Floyd Shockley, entomology collections manager at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, is set to join Emily Simpson and Patrick Webster of the Monterey Bay Aquarium for an unconventional online adventure. Airing on the aquarium’s Twitch channel at 4 p.m. EST, the “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” collaboration will find the trio tracking down virtual wildlife while discussing these digital denizens’ real-life counterparts.
“As soon as I started playing the game, I realized that it was such a great natural history museum simulator,” says Simpson. “So many of the animals [in] the game, especially the fish, have stories that relate immediately back to the aquarium.”
Simpson and Webster bring their own science backgrounds—in ecology and marine biology, respectively—to the online expeditions. Previously, the aquarium has hosted livestreams featuring such experts as Emily Graslie, the Chicago Field Museum’s “chief curiosity correspondent,” and entomologist Ryan Gott.
In “New Horizons,” different flora and fauna appear each season. At the beginning of May, when the northern hemisphere entered mid-spring, new beetle species began appearing on players’ islands. To provide context on these critters, the aquarium reached out to Shockley, who goes by the fitting Twitter handle of @Beetle_Guy.
“I don’t own a Switch, so I hadn’t really heard of ‘Animal Crossing’” before the event was organized, Shockley says. “It’s actually fairly impressive. … The game does a pretty good job of representing at least two of the major orders [of insects] in terms of diversity: Coleoptera and Lepidoptera. I’m a coleopterist by training, and there’s a significant amount of beetles in this game.”
Shockley notes that the game’s insects are rendered accurately down to specific details. A diving beetle, for instance, retains its characteristic teardrop shape, coloring and swimming-ready legs. The game even mimics the real-life balance of beetles versus other insects: About 35 percent of its insects are beetles—close to the actual measure of 40 percent.
The fact that specific animals only appear during certain seasons or times of day also mirrors real animal cycles. Still, “Animal Crossing” isn’t perfect: According to Shockley, the game refers to all of its collectible arthropods as “bugs,” but in entomology, only some species, like cicadas and water striders, are “true bugs.” (Per Encyclopedia Britannica, features including a hardened gula, or underside of the head, and mouths adapted to pierce tissue, differentiate these insects from others.)
I can say from personal experience that building a museum is a little bit harder in real life than they make it look in Animal Crossing. Nonetheless, I’m happy to see Smithsonian experts connecting with the public where they are. Even on digital islands with talking animals. https://t.co/dTXp7RqH1K— Lonnie G. Bunch III (@SmithsonianSec) May 2, 2020
Viewers will be able to ask Shockley, Simpson and Webster questions in real time. During the event, the group will collect insects for donation to “Animal Crossing”’s in-game museum, which is run by a discerning owl named Blathers.
“It’s teaching them a little bit of natural history, a little bit of biology, and allows a chance to sort of interact with things that they might not actually do much in the real world for fear or just for not knowing where to look,” says Shockley. “And anything that helps us sort of move people past their fear of insects, or their disgust of insects, it’s great.”
The event will be livestreamed on Twitch, an Amazon-owned platform used by gamers to share commentary and foster community interaction. Because Shockley doesn’t own the Nintendo Switch game console required to play “New Horizons,” he won’t have an onscreen avatar. But he will be watching live, and his commentary will be shared via video with those tuning in to the expedition.
The aquarium’s Twitch audience “is the most unique community that I, in the time that I’ve been managing social media channels, [have] ever encountered,” Simpson says. “They’re really engaged, they’re really intelligent, they love asking questions and they love being enthusiastic.”
The livestream is free to watch, but premium subscriptions with added features like no ads and special emoticons are available for purchase. Some of the money raised through subscriptions will go toward the aquarium, which, like many institutions, is losing revenue amid COVID-19 shutdowns.
“Even though we’re using this as a natural history museum and aquarium simulator right now, nothing beats the real thing of having people at the aquarium and seeing the delight on their faces as they discover something new,” adds Simpson. “It’s definitely a big part of our lives that’s missing right now while we’re closed, so we’re excited to have people joining us, watching these ‘Animal Crossing’ streams so we can hopefully bring a little bit of that same wonder and joy and inspiration as they would get if they were actually at the aquarium.”
The “New Horizons” museum accepts one of every critter, including fossils, fish and insects. But Blathers, the virtual institution’s curator, has a definite dislike of bugs: Donate one, and he’ll tell you, “[T]hough bugs are the bane of my existence, rest assured the wretched thing will get the best of care here.” While his fear may be disappointing to fans of insects, as well as other in-game creatures like spiders, pill bugs and moths, Blathers always promises to take care of any donation entrusted to him.
The game’s message of caring for our many-legged neighbors will hopefully resonate with a world facing sharp declines in insect populations.
“Without insects, you lose everything else,” Shockley says. “I’m going to use the vernacular: This is a bug planet, not a human planet.”