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Lovely Wedding, Nonpareil

What I Learned About Comfort Ships After Officiating a Wedding in Animal Crossing

What I Learned About Comfort Ships After Officiating a Wedding in Animal Crossing

A few weeks ago, I got a message from a friend of mine telling me that they were engaged and were getting married in a small wedding over the weekend. They and their partner agreed that they would like me to be the officiant. Honored, I quickly said yes and asked them for more details.

The details, of course, were that this wedding wasn’t just a normal wedding. No, this was a wedding taking place on an island in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. And they were not getting married themselves, but instead planned to roleplay the marriage of Levi Ackerman and Erwin Smith, two characters from the anime series Attack on Titan. My friend really wanted Levi and Erwin to enter into a romantic relationship, a yearning I soon found out is so common in fandoms that it has its own term: “shipping,” or having a “ship.”

Undeterred, I settled into the idea that what I was bearing witness to was not just the holy union of two fictional characters, but also two real-life people making their ship official (well, official in the eyes of Animal Crossing boss Tom Nook, at least). But I really wanted to know: Why does shipping mean so much to certain people that they’ll plan an elaborate virtual wedding to live out their dreams? Now that the vows have been uttered and my friend’s marriage is “official,” I know all about the joys (and sorrows) of shipping.

Ships Ahoy!

If you’ve ever considered yourself part of a fandom at any point in your life, chances are you may have had an encounter with a ship. To some people, this is serious stuff. In this case, a ship is not a maritime vessel, but rather a fandom practice, one that involves making up relationships between fictional characters from shows, movies, or any other work of fiction. And in some cases, those shipped might even be real-life public figures. Ships range from canon relationships (ones that appear in the work) to alternate universe scenarios that would be highly unlikely to ever occur in the normal storyline.

And it’s by no means a new phenomenon, either. Perhaps the first modern example dates back to the 1990’s and can be traced to The X-Files message boards, thought to be the first internet fanbase(Opens in a new window) by many. It’s here where many early internet users debated the physical and metaphysical relationship between the show’s protagonists, Mulder and Scully. But there’s evidence that shipping dates back even further back. In 1913, Sybil Brinton, a wealthy Englishwoman in her forties and a rabid fan of Jane Austen’s romance novels, published a whole book(Opens in a new window) called Old Friends, New Fancies, centered around Austen’s characters.

Shipping in fandoms is the fuel that keeps fanboys and girls alive, whether that’s bickering in Twitter threads, yearning in dedicated subreddits, and of course, the treasure trove of fan fiction and fan art in just about every corner of the internet. Sometimes the ships are the driving force of the fiction, and sometimes it keeps the show alive well after the credits have rolled on the final episode.

Attack on Titan on Animal Crossing

Attack on Titan is no different. While the dystopian anime is still ongoing (the final episodes are set to air sometime in 2023, while the manga it’s based on wrapped last year) it is by no means free of potential ships. War, terror, destruction—all progenitors of love, right? Learning about my friend’s imagined coupling, I instantly thought of that scene from Metal Gear Solid, where Otacon muses, “Do you think love can bloom on the battlefield?” to which Solid Snake replies “Yeah. I do. I think at any time, any place, people can fall in love with each other.” This is especially true when the battlefield consists of giant titans with an insatiable hunger for humans.

I was a fan of Attack on Titan when the anime first premiered back in 2013. That first season was unique in that it conveyed a sort of hopelessness and despair that, in my opinion, is missing from many Shonen anime. I lost interest after numerous delays caused the second season to not arrive until 2017, and then there’s the issue of the series’ fascist, anti-Semitic, and imperialist subtext(Opens in a new window) that started to boil to the surface as the series inched towards its conclusion. Without getting into spoiler territory, the latter half of the manga begins to delve into uncomfortable themes that parallel author Hajime Isayama’s own personal politics, though whether it is truly an imperialist text remains an ongoing debate among fans.

Still, there’s no denying that Attack on Titan takes up a cultural space with teens and young adults and will likely stand alongside other anime that have maintained worldwide appeal, such as Dragon Ball, Naruto, and One Piece. And like those anime, it lends itself well to a good old-fashioned ship.

In the case of the wedding I was about to officiate, the ship is between one Erwin Smith, the 13th commander of the Survey Corps, and Levi Ackerman, squad captain of the Special Operations Squad. Nicknamed EruRi by the community, they are the third-most popular imaginary coupling in the show among fans worldwide, according to Google search data(Opens in a new window), trailing behind EreRi (Eren Yeager and Levi Ackerman) and EreMika (Eren Yeager and Mikasa Ackerman). The gay pairing has struck a chord with a predominantly female and queer fan base, though the relationship is never explicitly explored in the show.

I was, of course, briefed on all this as part of my officiating duties. In a Discord call with the two excited grooms, they both detailed their desires, which ranged beyond the actual ceremony to include roleplaying Levi and Erwin as they planned their wedding. And what better venue than the virtual dollhouse of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, indisputably one of the biggest games of the decade and one of the viral darlings of the pandemic-induced lockdowns?

A close up of a wedding in Animal Crossing

Video game weddings aren’t that odd, mind you. From Second Life to The Sims to World of Warcraft, people have been tying the knot in virtual worlds, guiding their avatars down the aisle in a way that they sometimes cannot in real life. And then there’s the metaverse and virtual reality worlds, in which weddings are sure to feature prominently.

I’ve known my friend, who is currently transitioning genders and asked for privacy reasons to go by their artist’s name, Nebs(Opens in a new window), for almost five years now, working closely together on various projects while meeting frequently for various tabletop games and the occasional Victory Royale in Fortnite. To Nebs, the wedding was to be a symbolic gesture, not only because it allows the two characters to enjoy a life that they canonically never had, but because it was a way to connect with other like-minded fans over the last few years of isolation.

In the vast space of the internet, there are a great many things that we are bombarded with daily that make us feel sad, annoyed, depressed, meaningless and small. But there are just as many great things that spark joy, such as spending an afternoon roleplaying an anime wedding on your Nintendo Switch.

It’s no secret that the pandemic has changed the way we communicate with one another, as people left the bustle of communal spaces for the isolation of their homes. Everyone reacted differently. Some find solitude pleasing, while others are starved for human contact. For Nebs, finding the EruRi community changed that, as they suddenly had a home of individuals with one thing in common—their comfort ship.

Real Comfort

What makes someone so drawn to a specific coupling of two or more fictional characters? In Nebs’ case, it was their own loneliness.  When they packed up and moved across the country for a dream job, they never expected the isolation to take such a toll. But working remotely in a completely new part of the country proved tougher than expected for the self-proclaimed extrovert, and they slunk into a depression. Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, they started watching Attack on Titan and discovered just how comforting having a ship can be.

Animal Crossing Wedding Vows

In fact, there’s a whole subgenre of comfort ships. A comfort ship is a relationship that you can turn to when you’re down, depressed, and seeking comfort. The would-be relationship between Levi and Erwin became a safe space for Nebs, and as it turns out, they weren’t alone. A comfort ship, no matter who or what, will always provide for its fans.

But why the coupling of these specific characters? On a Discord server, I found plenty of answers. For one EruRi shipper, a college student who goes by the name Meenoush, the fictional relationship helped her create rich relationships in her own life. Another shipper, who goes by the handle LovesLaunch, said the emotional maturity of the coupling helped her become more aware of her own emotions in relationships. And some, like Cat, a tattoo artist from Germany, just find comfort in the pairing. For these reasons and more, the community became a safe space for people to make friends and communicate with fans all across the globe.

Recommended by Our Editors

All of which leads us back to Nebs’ island in Animal Crossing, an immaculately detailed venue for fans to act out their fiction. After agreeing to officiate, I had dressed my character as Hange Zoë, the excitable squad leader and leading Attack on Titan expert, and pulled an officiant script off of the internet. I made the lore-specific adjustments and traveled to the island as guests began to arrive. On a Discord call with seven other people, I walked the island residents over to the wedding site as they presented gifts to the couple, and led the proceedings as best I could. The vows were transcribed over in-game text by both Levi and Erwin.

Animal Crossing wedding vows

Handling (and Healing) Hate

As Nebs mentioned, part of the wedding’s purpose was to give the characters a happy ending, something that doesn’t happen in the show (spoiler alert: Erwin is killed in season three). Still, while the community is a safe space, a gay ship on the internet is sometimes anything but safe. Despite the ship being one of the more popular in the fandom, fans are still subject to constant attacks from internet denizens who cannot stomach two animated men holding hands.

The Kiss

But the worst attacks come from the fans themselves, whose entitlement oftentimes turns toxic, and in turn, could have real-world ramifications. Finn and Poe Dameron from the 2019 film Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker became a popular ship, even though both characters have female love interests. When asked about a potential Finn-Poe romance, actor Oscar Isaac, who portrays Poe, told IGN(Opens in a new window), “Disney overlords were not ready to do that.” In 2016, Steven Universe storyboard artist and writer Lauren Zuke deleted her Twitter account(Opens in a new window) after dealing with harassment by fans because of her perceived support for Lapis Lazuli and Peridot over other ships. And of course, One Direction fans will know how Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson shippers are blamed for ruining a “deep friendship”(Opens in a new window) between Harry and Louis while also harassing Tomlinson’s long-term girlfriend.

But Nebs insists that their Attack on Titan ship is wholesome, at least in their neck of the fandom. Their zine, Captain and the Commander(Opens in a new window), depicts asexual, romantic, and often humorous exploits between the two characters. At the end of the day, Nebs sees the content as gratitude, not entitlement. And if the comics, the art, or the roleplaying brings joy to someone’s day, then that’s a good thing. As Nebs put it to me, “Mental health[care] is expensive. This is free.”

Cartoon depicting Attack on Titan character shipping romance

(Image: Nebs)

Perhaps there’s something to be said for its therapeutic quality. When talking with Fandom.com(Opens in a new window) on the topic of shipping, psychologist Dr. Lynn Zubernis says, “It’s all about identity exploration. We’re all going around looking for depictions of our own romantic, sexual, and emotional fantasies. Shipping is a self-narrative therapy.” Shipping helps up play out our own fantasies in a positive way, no matter who or what is being shipped.

You May Now Ship the Groom

As the happy couple wrapped up their vows, I finally pronounced them husband and husband, and they kissed as best as Animal Crossing emotes would let them. The crowd cheered, and even a few of the island inhabitants wandered in to see what was going on, much to the joy of the attendees. We raised virtual glasses, posed for pictures, and congratulated the couple. I smiled at the absurdity of it all, but it was a scene sweet enough to put a big goofy grin on my face.

In the vast space of the internet, there are a great many things that we are bombarded with daily that make us feel sad, annoyed, depressed, meaningless and small. But there are just as many great things that spark joy, such as spending an afternoon roleplaying an anime wedding on your Nintendo Switch.

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