I have invested what must now amount to months of my life in different video games, but I’ve never really considered myself a bona fide gamer.
Then “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” came out for the Nintendo Switch as the global coronavirus pandemic escalated, like a swan emerging from a thick, black fog
I’ve since clocked close to 400 hours on the game and have not only earned my gamer stripes but also understand why this particular Nintendo Switch game has become so popular.
“Animal Crossing” is more than just a video game: It’s a deeply therapeutic form of escape in a time when we need it most.
Prior to the pandemic, I traveled constantly for work. As an enthusiastic extrovert, I always enjoyed this aspect of my career. Sure, I spent more time in airplane seats than on my own sprawling couch, but I was meeting new people every day, learning new things, exploring new cities and marathoning “Ghost Adventures” in various fancy hotel rooms across the country.
Needless to say, the abrupt switch from my chaotic, vagabond lifestyle to one of near-complete isolation did a number on my mental health. I missed my friends. I missed traveling, and I missed feeling in control of my life on any level.
“I missed my friends. I missed traveling, and I missed feeling in control of my life on any level.”
For the uninitiated, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” is a social simulation video game that deposits a player on a lush, deserted island and gives her free rein to create and customize her island as she sees fit. Along the way, a player collects a variety of cute animal characters to populate her village and befriend her avatar. Think “Sim City” with an adorable twist.
I was not an early adopter of “Animal Crossing,” nor did I grow up playing the earlier versions and develop a particular nostalgia for it. But I became jealous as I watched friends get into the newly released Nintendo Switch version of the game in late March 2020.
They posted screenshots with their exotic fish and made “Animal Crossing” memes with inside jokes. I didn’t even own a Switch at this point, but I Googled every reference so I could laugh along and began obsessively watching YouTube videos of childlike “Animal Crossing” avatars running through idyllic island vistas, each unique. I started listening to the music while I worked and posting sad Instagram stories about not being able to find a Nintendo Switch or a Switch Lite online.
Is a Nintendo Switch worth it? Check out our guide to the difference between a Nintendo Switch and a Switch Lite before you buy.
I eventually found a Switch Lite online at Best Buy, and when a former coworker invited me to join him, his wife and a few friends from around the world on Discord, my entire quarantine experience was transformed.
I’m not sure where my reluctance to embrace the gamer identity came from. Maybe it’s buried trauma from spending hours after school watching my high school boyfriend play “FIFA 08” when he could have been making out with me. Maybe it’s internalized sexism from all the times my best friend’s older brother belittled my (albeit pathetic) “Mario Kart” skills.
Or maybe it’s because of how deeply uncool were the games in which I found myself immersed over the years.
While other kids were playing “Pokemon,” “Mario” and “Zelda” games on their Game Boy Colors, I was running around the unclaimed wilderness of 65 million B.C. as a Nanosaur, jumping on watermelons in the little-known PlayStation 1 game “Pandemonium!” and training to be a hero in the PlayStation game adaptation of Disney’s “Hercules” movie.
Like many gamer-adjacent girls, I did go through an intense and somewhat disturbing “Sims” phase, trapping my pathetic Sims into rooms with no walls or windows for days until they died of loneliness and filth. (A girl’s got to get ghosts for her graveyard somehow!)
As an adult, I fell victim to popular phone games and Flash browser games. From “FarmVille” and “Crazy Taxi” to “DragonVale” and “Temple Run,” I don’t think I went a week without some form of digital entertainment at my fingertips.
Aside from “The Sims,” most of those games didn’t seem to speak to any cultural moment. They’re just a cringe combination of deeply basic and deeply weird — nothing I could Tweet about without heavy sarcasm.
Then the coronavirus happened. And “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” took over the internet as people such as myself began looking for something in their lives they could control.
I think it was that lack of control that drew me and many gamer-adjacent people to embrace “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” in this turbulent moment in history.
Unlike the outside world, where a deadly virus continues to rage alongside institutional oppression of all flavors, every starter “Animal Crossing” island is devoid of drama and strife. It’s untouched, wild and ready to be molded into a paradise of your choosing. All you have to do is put in the work.
“Unlike the outside world, where a deadly virus continues to rage alongside institutional oppression of all flavors, every starter “Animal Crossing” island is devoid of drama and strife.”
It turns out the work is incredibly therapeutic. By mid-May, my once manageable anxiety had spiraled out of control, so I threw myself into “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” when it arrived in the mail from Best Buy.
The first few weeks of the game are labor intensive. But the process of picking weeds, crafting furniture, breeding new flowers and finding new animal friends to join me on Kjære Dyr — what I named my island: It means “Dear Animal” in Norwegian — helped me calm down and focus on something other than the world crumbling around me.
I visited the islands of my new friends from the Discord channel as well. Each was unique and so thoughtfully crafted that it felt like I was taking a “Locke & Key”-style walk around the inside of their brains.
When we weren’t taking Dodo Airlines flights to shop, exchange items or participate in bug-catching tournaments on each other’s islands, we were happily chatting away on Discord and sending each other little notes and tokens in the game. We talked about everything: “Animal Crossing,” to be sure, but also intimate details of our lives, from mental health to our professional wins and stressors.
My Discord crew hailed from every corner of the world, from New York to Australia, and it was interesting to hear how each was coping with the new normal.
Meeting up in the game with this intrepid group felt like a passable stand-in for IRL hangouts with friends, as there was always something new to see, do or buy on other people’s islands.
I watched as they put together their rock gardens, created “Animal Crossing” replicas of the Las Vegas Strip and cozy, down-home diners. Every time I left a friend’s island, I was inspired to do more to mine. And any time I spent immersed in the world of Kjære Dyr was time I wasn’t spending panicking, crying or numbly scrolling Twitter.
The folks in my Discord channel would agree: It’s not uncommon to view “Animal Crossing” as therapy.
“ACNH has been an utter lifesaver during quarantine,” said MzHyde, a Discord friend who lives in Las Vegas with her fiance. “I suffer from diagnosed depression and anxiety, and the games help me calm down or get my emotions out in ways I never could before. Just booting up is soothing to me — and once the game is on, I can mindlessly fish or catch bugs while focusing on the sounds in the game, like the ocean waves or the different sound your feet make when running over different kinds of pavement.”
In the space of a few months, I built up my island from grassy wasteland to a quaint, five-star village, and I’m still finding joy in the process of beautifying it. My little pink-haired character, Rosalinde, is a treat to dress up in “Animal Crossing’s” ever-expanding collections of clothing from top fashion houses as well. I am usually an IRL fashion hound, but my wardrobe these past few months has devolved into matching sweatsuits on my best days, so it’s nice to have a world in which I can wear elaborate outfits and use my Able Sisters store to shop for custom designs made by “Animal Crossing” players around the world.
I don’t think I’m going to get bored with “Animal Crossing” any time soon, and I can always follow in the footsteps of several of my Discord friends who have completely reset their elaborate, luxe islands and started from scratch.
For now, I’m going to keep running around my island with the good friends I made around the world. Maybe one day I can visit them for real.
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