This past weekend I started playing Animal Crossing (GameCube) with my kids. I found it addictive and unexpectedly provocative.
Animal Crossing might be described as a "small town sim" where kids (adults!) adopt strangely fascinating animal persona and run around in Our Town, Some Where (a few typical 2002 reviews: ,  ). My weekend was spent picking pears, running errands for neighbors, and accumulating and swapping clothing aquired from the town trash dump... If recollection serves me, trash is picked up on 6am Thurdays. This brings us to the first distinctive feature: time in the game world tracks real world time.
Sure, there are other worlds that do this, but more weakly. Eve-Online, for instance, uses real-time skill learning (e.g. takes a month to learn a skill - real time). The difference here, however, is that... Well, let me put it this way - I'm having problems of late talking to Tom Nook 'cause I tend to play later at night, and well, his shop is only open from 9am - 10pm.
I feel like my kids and I are weirdly engaged simultaneously in the same world. Yet we are not, at least not by this baseline sense of a "virtual world."
Each town (1 per memory cartridge) only supports 1-4 players and players play alternatively. Towns can be shared via memory card. Our Town is thus established "asynchronously" - players take turns and never any two are there at the same time. I am reminded of Ian Bogost's paper at the Other Players conference ("Asynchronous Multiplay: Futures for Casual Multiplayer Experience").
Animal Crossing's use of world persistence is bewitching, Our Town communicates a compelling illusion of a broader social presence as well as place, yet it does so through what is effectively solitary play...
I go to the post office and send mail to my kids (when they play later). I leave notes on bulletin boards, I leave smart greetings with my "gyroid" (a sort of permanent proxy character that sits at my house doorstep). I found a string of pears that my son left from earlier pickings - when he overflowed his pockets. I'm thinking about a town moniker by the train tracks, via pear trees I will plant (I need though to get to Tom Nook's place to buy a spade - when its open, grrr). When I'm not playing, my kids have dropped in on my house and gawked at my furniture (Dad must be power-playing again!)...
This review labeled the illusion well: "Call it an online game without actually being online. "
Places such as these speak to a world where solitary (or small group) experiences can be successfully blended into a world-sense of place. It suggests that places are experiences and journeys, not just destinations; it also suggests to me, that manageable worlds and autumn experiences are possible.