In March of 2021, I found myself scrambling online for one of the exclusive Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ Sanrio crossover “amiibo” cards that were immediately sold out and only available through scalpers selling three or four times the original price ($6.99 CAD/$5.99 USD). The Nintendo partnership with Sanrio featured six characters and a variety of clothing and décor items inspired by classic and beloved Sanrio figures, like Hello Kitty and My Melody. After spending a delightful year at home building the island of my dreams (New Horizons was released in March 2020 amidst COVID-19), I was determined to get my hands on these cards and invite the Sanrio-inspired characters to move to my island.
Launched in 2014, Amiibo is a “toys-to-life” platform licensed by Nintendo through which players can use physical figurines or cards to interact within the digital game. Amiibo also appeared in earlier versions of the Animal Crossing series, like New Leaf (2012) and spin-off games like Happy Home Designer (2015) and Amiibo Festival (2015). Amiibo use near field communication (NFC) technology and connect with platforms like the New Wii U (2012), Nintendo 3DS (2014), and Nintendo Switch (2017). Likely drawing on French, Nintendo of America revealed that “amii” in “amiibo” can mean “friend” or “buddy” and encouraged players to “think of them all as your little buddies” in a launch Q&A on Twitter (2014). In New Horizons, players can invite these physical little friends into digital worlds to hang out in their islands coffee shops or to embark on vacations.
“Media mix” is a term that describes Japanese media convergence, namely the “cross-media serialization and circulation of entertainment franchises” (Steinberg 2012, viii). Although the media mix emerged with industries of manga and anime in the early 1960s, the amiibo cards and figures discussed above and the Animal Crossing franchise in general fit into this strategy of media convergence. By creating tangible products of in-game characters, Nintendo makes the image of the video game and its characters more omnipresent to consumers by bringing it into player’s physical spaces. The physicality is also transcendent as it is designed to connect back to the digital spaces of ephemeral texts. So while the physical objects of amiibo take up residence in our homes and personal spaces as objects of marketing in perpetuity, they also bridge the physical to digital divide by offering complimentary features to the gameplay experience.
Apart from official releases from Nintendo, fan communities also enter and perhaps disrupt the media mix with their own creations of amiibo cards and figures. Motives for participation vary, ranging from small business or individual creators offering personalized figures for profit to individuals edging legal parameters and fighting against scalpers with DIY solutions. Regardless of why they are created, fan creations of amiibo allow the player to connect a tangible object to their in-game experiences, to build connections with family and friends who also participate in the game. Such exchange contrasts Nintendo’s commercial interest and investments of characters and allow participants (creators and users) to reclaim characters in off-market, non-official capacity creatively and therefore support alternative modes of connections and community building in game and in reality.
Like many others chasing after the Sanrio crossover cards, the idea of choosing who gets to occupy my in-game island was appealing. As the designer of my tropical fantasy, I want agency and control over who gets to inhabit this virtual space under my ownership. Yet this commodified representation of characters occupies more than just digital islands—the physical manifestation of the characters in the forms of cards and figurines also occupy our homes by being on our shelves and drawers. In this way, we invite the characters to more than just the virtual spaces of our tropical getaways when we purchase the products (official or fan-made), we also invite them into the physical space in which we reside. The presences of amiibo, virtually in game and physically in our homes, shows that the commodification of media allows characters to travel in between reals of virtual and reality with their presences and media origins. In doing so, the physicality and the representation of amiibo remind us again of the reach of the media mix.
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Martinez, Phillip. 2020. “‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ Amiibo: How they work and where to buy them online.” Newsweek, February 20, 2020. https://www.newsweek.com/animal-crossing-new-horizons-amiibo-figures-cards-how-buy-1488317
McClure, Deven. “Animal Crossing player uses amiibo to bring back classic villager.” Screenrant, November 29, 2021. https://screenrant.com/animal-crossing-amiibo-classic-villagers-npc-nintendo-update/.
Nintendo of America (@NintendoAmerica). 2014. “A16: The amii in #amiibo can mean friend or buddy in Japan.” Twitter, November 20, 2014, 9:46AM. https://twitter.com/NintendoAmerica/status/535489272842035200.
Steinberg, Marc. 2012. Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press.
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