BlatherCade postmortem — thoughts on running a game festival in Animal Crossing’s museum

Chris Totten
15 min readMay 11, 2020
An image of the event organizer’s Animal Crossing avatar in front of a bunch of artworks of indie games.
BlatherCade just before opening on its first day

I teach game development and animation at Kent State University in Ohio, which like so many schools shut down in-person instruction due to COVID-19. For years, our program has integrated online courses into our overall curriculum, so while suddenly transitioning to online was a challenge, it was not a total culture shock. Our biggest challenge though, as with many came in transitioning the largely exhibition-based nature of our final projects to the online format.

Over the past several weeks, I realized that I was not alone. Curators and arts faculty around the world have been grappling with the question of how best to make festivals, exhibitions, and collections available online. This is something that I’m very interested in beyond the classroom: from 2013–2015 I was the chair of the Washington, DC chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) and used online resources to coordinate community events. In 2014 I co-founded, along with staff from the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), the SAAM Arcade — a yearly 2-day showcase of games by independent artists that attracts over 10,000 visitors daily. In 2019, I also helped organize the Open World Arcade, a similar showcase of indie games to accompany the Akron Art Museum’s exhibition Open World: Video Games & Contemporary Art. (I’m happy to report that this arcade is also becoming a yearly event called GameFest Akron which, at the time of this writing, has OPEN SUBMISSIONS!) “Suddenly-online” is a phrase that hangs over events like this as well: whether to cancel or adapt should the crisis continue.

SAAM Arcade at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Image shows a large crowd socializing and playing video games.
SAAM Arcade at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Photo credit: Bruce Guthrie, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Around the time that we were transitioning to online, I was also building an island paradise inside the insanely popular Nintendo Switch game/quarantine pastime, Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The game became not only a way to relax, but also for family members, friends, and I to hang out digitally using the game’s online features. The game also has an in-game museum, to which you can donate the fossils, bugs, fish, and artworks you find as you explore. These allow the museum’s erudite curator, an owl named Blathers, to create Smithsonian-esque exhibits. I joked to my wife one evening, “hey this island has a pretty cool museum, I wonder if they’ll let me put an arcade in it!”

But over time, it became not-entirely a joke. Eventually I started thinking that Blather’s museum could be the answer to my lack of an end-of-semester showcase and a fun tool for running games-in-museum events.

Could I have an indie arcade for my students’ games inside Animal Crossing? Could I get people to come? What lessons for my students could I “bake” into running an event like this? Well…

Facebook post announcing the BlatherCade.
My Facebook post announcing the event, mimicking the style of island overlord Tom Nook’s daily announcements.

It turns out: I did, I could, and quite a few, actually. This article provides a postmortem of the event I ran, the BlatherCade, and explores how showcase-based pedagogy can be adapted for online environments. It also explores whether Animal Crossing: New Horizons deserves a place on the ever-growing list of online tools for showing interactive artworks.

Before BlatherCade: indie game community resources for online-only teaching

While this article is about BlatherCade, how I arrived at “make an arcade in Animal Crossing” has a few twists and turns before my “collaboration” with our bug-hating owl friend. BlatherCade was actually a social media-friendly packaging for efforts that I took in the days between classes going online and the actual release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

The program in which I teach emphasizes coursework that mimics real-world artistic and development contexts: for my courses, for example, students develop games as though they are indie developers and their classmates are members of a local game meetup. On non-lecture days, class time is used for showing and testing each other’s work so they can find bugs in their code and learn how to make their games play better. Students are also asked to prepare press kits — collections of text, images, and video of their games that can be sent to journalists — and web pages for their games on indie game social media sites such as itch.io or GameJolt.

When I’ve run online classes, I change the requirements to lean less-heavily on in-person game testing and instead ask students to keep developer blogs on sites like the ones mentioned above. To allow for FERPA compliance, I allow students to keep their pages private except for people with a link (I have to be given a link for grading) if they wish. Students in all of my classes are also taught how game developers develop an online presence and use social media to promote their games, such as Twitter posts with the popular#indiegame, #gamedev, and #screenshotsaturday tags.

In most other semesters, both online and in-person, I reserve table space in our student center and have students show their games during their final exam period. This event is played up as a convention: the table they are assigned to is their “booth space” and they have to show their game to one another and random passers-by.

A student game booth from my Fall 2019 Games for Education class. These students decorated their booth thematically, and included concept art and artifacts from their research.

These events are modest and attract a crowd of only a few dozen at best. The point, however, is to give students both a cathartic end of the semester and practice showing at a booth in a non-threatening environment. These events let students try the “booth management best practices” that we discuss in class before doing the real thing, as some have done at GDEX, a Midwestern US-regional professional game conference, and at the Akron Art Museum.

Game booths set up in the lobby of the Akron Art Museum with members of the public roaming the event.
Open World Arcade (now renamed GameFest Akron) in December 2019. Some of my students entered games and were chosen (I recused myself from judging or commenting on theirs during the selection.)

With Kent State’s suspension of in-person instruction, we could not move forward with a similar event for the Spring 2020 semester. Immediately, I pulled from my own experiences with online event management and set up a remote Game Jam for each class using GameJolt’s organization tools. Game Jams are events where games are created in a limited amount of time (determined by the organizer, but usually only a few days) and based on a topic. Online game jams typically run over the course of several weeks, with the organizer setting up a page where developers can get information on the jam topic and see a countdown clock to the jam’s end date. Game jams also have a nice “ending” where someone can go to the site on the due date and play all of the submitted games — cathartic community sharing after the stress of the jam, like a semester showcase! Game Jolt’s tools allow jam organizers to do all of this and an easy way for entrants to submit their games for the jam by adding the jam’s hashtag to their game’s description.

The use of “game jam” here is, of course, stretching the definition of the term. I was ultimately using a game jam system to consolidate information about my students’ games into one place and give us a way to share info about their projects. I also set up communication channels for my classes on an online chat app, Discord, popular for gaming and game development, and sent links to the jam page there and via e-mail and Blackboard announcements. On Blackboard, I edited the grading system for the classes so they had new assignments to support this system: they had to create their GameJolt pages soon after the remote period began and show weekly progress through blog posts.

A list of games on the GameJolt website from my classes.
Student projects from my Game Prototyping class listed on the GameJolt jam page. Their project was to make games based on the system specs of randomly chosen retro consoles.

This step went well overall — pages were posted quickly and GameJolt ended up being a simple and flexible system for letting me track the projects through one portal instead of a bunch of separate bookmarks. These pages still exist and can be found here for my Game Prototyping class and here for my Senior Capstone class. I have received several questions on why I chose GameJolt over itch.io, which offers many of the same functions but is perhaps a more widely known site. The answer is that I’ve used itch in the past but some students felt that it did not have the easiest interface. For the sake of trying something new, I decided to switch to GameJolt for the Spring 2020 semester — the differences are negligible though and I’d enthusiastically recommend either. One mark in GameJolt’s favor is discoverability: one of our student groups from this year’s Global Game Jam posted their game, The Skate Escape, to both GameJolt and Itch and garnered more views on GameJolt.

Twitter post from the GameJolt account promoting BlatherCade.

Another feather in GameJolt’s cap happened after I decided to show the outcomes of these “jams” in Animal Crossing. Once they saw that the student games that would make up BlatherCade were posted on their site, GameJolt’s staff reached out in support of the event and ultimately promoted it on their social media channels! Working with their site was a great experience and I would greatly consider using the jam model in other classes, even once we return to in-person teaching as it made it easy to track students’ progress.

Teaching online marketing skills: enter the BlatherCade

I used to use a “gamified” syllabus for classes, based on a model from the book The Multliplayer Classroom by Lee Sheldon. Students in my class would start, just like a character in a role-playing video game, with 0 experience points and have to, by doing “quests” (assignments), work their way up to their desired letter grade. I was amazed at how much more high-quality work students did, as the system was designed to let them practice and repeat tasks until they had mastered them. I found out several years in, though, that teaching this way didn’t make the class any more fun for the students (for some it even made them more stressed), so I modified it into the playful-but-less-stressful system that I use today. The jam idea gave me the same worry: that I’d created a system that made my life easier but wouldn’t give the students the upbeat ending the semester that showing in person did. The games were all there to play on GameJolt, sure, but it was still like submitting into a black box as though I’d just used Blackboard to collect assignments. What could I do to make the last week more exciting?!

This is where Animal Crossing and my games-in-museums events came in. Again, I received questions on why this and not, say, a Twitch stream-a-thon? Part of it may have honestly been a little quarantine cabin-fever, but I still saw a few advantages with Animal Crossing. First of all, while I have an account on Twitch, the website that lets users stream video games and other computer programs for people to watch, my audience there is very small. I was worried about that translating to the games themselves receiving little traction. If I was going to have an online event, I’d want it to be something that we could promote such that a big audience could see the students’ games. I wanted to let them see that they made something that wasn’t just homework, but artworks that people could get excited about.

This is also a reason why I opted to not use the really amazing selection of tools that have either been created during or adapted during the crisis for doing online game showcases.

Occupy White Walls, for example, is a free massively-multiplayer-online game on Steam that lets you build 3D gallery spaces that other people can visit. It’s visually impressive and the construction tools are simple to use. Sansar, a VR world by the makers of Second Life is another tool that lets users build their own spaces and invite others. The latter was even used by Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute to run their yearly student exhibition. In this case, the organizers highlighted the ability to show video directly in the app as a benefit. Both are really excellent platforms and I’d consider using them in other applications.

These platforms were not where the folks that I wanted to reach with the event were hanging out though. In its first 11 days on the market, Animal Crossing: New Horizons sold 11.7 million units, making it the best-selling game of 2020 so far. The game has also been hailed in news outlets, with the New York Times’ Imad Khan calling it the “game for the coronavirus moment” and “a conveniently timed piece of whimsy.” Organizations such as the Monterrey Bay Aquarium were using the game as a way to reach their audience during the crisis, holding tours of the aquariums Blathers’ museum with their staff commenting on the species found within. Artists were interpreting works within it. Most importantly, game developers, many who are aspirational figures to my students, were using it as a place to hang out or even turn their islands into art projects.

Going back to pedagogy, this was also an opportunity to have students see firsthand how a social media campaign works. While not all of them had a Switch with Animal Crossing, all of them could take part in promoting BlatherCade. The plan was simple: the game allows users to make 32 x 32 pixel artworks that can be applied to shirts, dresses, the ground, and most importantly, canvases. To be a part of BlatherCade, students had to submit one of these artworks. Using an online tool that lets you convert images to QR codes for use in Animal Crossing and the Nintendo Switch iOS/Android app that lets you transfer these QR codes into your game, I brought the students art into the game so it could be placed around the museum.

Animal Crossing screenshot of the museum prepped for BlatherCade.
Setting up for BlatherCade by putting up custom-made signage and arcade machine items from the game.

Then, we opened the “gates” (i.e. activated my Switch’s online function so people could visit my island), which generated a travel code, known as a “Dodo Code.” These codes let anyone with them to visit your island with limited interaction capability: they can walk around and pick fruit from trees, but can’t do destructive things like take your furniture or dig holes. Dodo Codes would be posted to the GameJolt Jam pages for each class: to visit the event, which would be promoted on social media with heavy use of popular Animal Crossing hashtags, people would have to go to the pages with students’ games.

So how did it go?

BlatherCade was open from 10 am to 2 pm EDT for 4 days (May 4th-7th) then between 5 pm to 7 pm EDT on May 8th for an evening “BlatherCade Happy Hour.” While that’s a lot of time for a single event, these hours were necessary to overcome a limitation of the way Nintendo handles visits to Animal Crossing islands: only 8 visitors can come at a time. Overall, the event attracted 73 visitors over this period ranging from completely random people, to game developers, academics, and students’ friends. We had industry support before the event, with the aforementioned promotion help from GameJolt, as well as in-game props for the event donated by game developer Liz England, and an arcade machine prop donated by GDEX/Multivarious Games (who also tweeted about the event.)

Animal Crossing screenshot of Chris and his students at BlatherCade
Me with some of the students from my class, hanging out at BlatherCade
Screenshot of people hanging out around arcade machines in Animal Crossing
While the canvases weren’t interactive, the interactive arcade machine props (they make sounds and play animations when you interact with them) added a fun atmosphere to the event.

Many people who saw the posts (the most popular of my #BlatherCade tweets had 8,097 impressions and 678 interactions) and visited the event were good natured: going over to the event first and seeing the student artwork. Some, however, went purely because someone was offering Dodo Codes to their online island and wanted to see what resources they could get. I adapted to this in my marketing, highlighting the vendor (non-player character who sells different types of items) that was there that day and including which rare bugs or fish I had found that day. At one visitor’s suggestion, we also offered made in-game t-shirts that could be purchased at the in-game clothing store.

An Animal Crossing screenshot of BlatherCade — bugs were used to promote the event.
My island had a lot of rare banded dragonflies on it during BlatherCade, which players can sell at the in-game shop for 4500 Bells, the game’s currency. I leaned into this to convince more players to come to the event.
Custom BlatherCade merchandise on display outside of the Able Sisters shop, an in-game shop where players can buy outfits for their characters.

Another tool for promotion was to leave giveaway items near the arcade for visitors to take. While some of these things were items taking up space in my inventory, many of them were crafted or bought from the in-game shop specifically to give away during the event. For visitors not interested in the arcade itself, this was a good extrinsic motivator to get people to visit the arcade and not just run around the island.

An Animal Crossing screenshot of BlatherCade-items were given away to increase interest.
Freebies at BlatherCade

Throughout the week, a lot of people who found the event randomly did stop and ask what the event was. While the game offers a chat option, the Nintendo Switch mobile app lets you type from your phone into the game, so I was able to play tour guide in these situations using it. These interactions got very positive responses, giving the event an educational vibe. We also had lots of visitors who came specifically to support the students’ work. Many of these folks shared their own pictures of the event on social media(some are shared here with permission), further helping spread the word. We even had a fan who came to the arcade every day!

Here are some images from throughout the week:

An Animal Crossing screenshot of BlatherCade
A BlatherCade visitor gets excited about the students’ games
An Animal Crossing screenshot of BlatherCade
A game developer friend stops by to cheer on the Senior Capstone students
An Animal Crossing screenshot of BlatherCade
One of our graduating seniors stopping by
An Animal Crossing screenshot of BlatherCade
Some visitors came to enjoy the island but stayed to cheer on the students.

Overall, the event and the GameJolt integration was a success and I thought it worked very well for an event of this size. Folks had a fun and accessible way to visit the students games and some networking did happen during the event between students and developers! I don’t think I would, however, use it for larger events like online versions of SAAM Arcade or GameFest Akron. There are a few reasons for this:

  1. The limit to the number of people that can visit your island is just too small (8 at a time) to sustain a larger event like those. During the first day, there was a digital line to get onto the island and the system couldn’t handle the traffic. I had to re-open the gates at least once a day (which generates a new code: i just released these on Twitter to get things going again) for this reason, with one day requiring 2 or 3 re-opens.
  2. While random visitors can’t really do anything to your island, you’re still opening something potentially personal up to random users. Readers’ comfort levels with this might vary but for my family, it was weird seeing a random person run into the house we set up for my daughters, not knowing the person’s intentions.
  3. On that same note, people doing this MUST make sure that any resources they don’t want to make “up for grabs” are removed before visitors arrive. I’m generally lax about picking the fruit on my island, so after the first day of BlatherCade I was amazed to see all of my trees (including ones that I keep as purely ornamental) picked clean. While that’s not SO bad, someone did make off with an umbrella I had left as an in-game present for my daughter in front of her house (far away from the arcade) — so that sucks.
  4. This should be apparent from the overall article, but since you can’t put other media into the game beyond small artworks, Animal Crossing is not the most effiencent way to show games. It is a great space to hang out in when partnered with another tool (such as our using GameJolt), but is far from an all-in-one solution. The closest thing I’ve found for this is Paolo Pedercini’s LikeLike Online, which was used to give the LikeLike gallery an online presence during COVID. This tool uses node.js to embed an interactive gallery directly into a browser that can be customized with different visual art styles. It also lets people have user names and chat with one another. Game pages can be directly linked from the gallery so users can click a link then return right to the gallery tab to see another.

Takeaways

Despite these challenges, BlatherCade was an amazing way to show off student games and cap off an otherwise terrifying year with a bit of silliness. While far from an all-in-one solution (that doesn’t really exist), pairing an Animal Crossing meetup with social media pages for student games was a success! From a teaching standpoint, students could see in real-time how a social media campaign was conducted and see how one might take advantage of the current zeitgeist to build an audience. This worked well enough that immediately following the arcade, one of the seniors’ games was even streamed by a horror YouTuber!

Will this work for every event? No way: Nintendo’s approach to online certainly makes it difficult for anything more than a intimate hang-out. Trying to overcome this via extended hours was an absolute slog and I was as exhausted by the end of every day as I am after real-world events. Helping students get an audience for their work was absolutely worth it though, and I’d recommend it as a way to run class celebrations, if even just as a way to tell them that they did a good job. Just make sure to pick all of your peaches before inviting people over.

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