“Animal Crossing” helps players find comfort in virtual worlds

Nintendo’s latest game is dominating the video game market. But it’s also helping players cope with coronavirus-related woes — and signaling possible futures for positive video gaming.

By Ysa C.

SANTA BARBARA, CA — Every day after work, 23-year-old programmer Evan Chang commutes to his other home. Peaceful music plays as Chang chops wood, picks fruit and waters his flower garden. He changes his hair color and outfit in a split-second. Talking animals give him presents, and bags of money grow on trees.

All of this happens, of course, in the virtual world of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the latest release from Japanese gaming giant Nintendo. Created for the Nintendo Switch console, Animal Crossing tasks players with transforming a deserted island into their own personal paradise. There are no boss battles, no puzzles — not even a plot. For Chang, this low-stakes premise makes the game the perfect de-stressor.

“It’s something I look forward to at the end of the day,” Chang said. “When I’m playing the game, I feel relaxed. I’m so excited and happy whenever I see new things on my island. It makes you feel like you’re doing something great.”

Chang is not alone. In the weeks since its release — which coincided with the start of stay-at-home provisions in the United States — millions have purchased Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and many of them are using the game as a respite from coronavirus-related anxieties.

It’s a cultural phenomenon that reveals positive, healthy potentials for video gaming — a far cry from popular video game discourse of past decades that focused on addiction, violence, and social isolation.

Animal Crossing’s Rise to Fame

The first Animal Crossing game was released in Japan in 2001, and it was inspired by creator Katsuya Eguchi’s own loneliness upon moving away from his family and friends.

“I realized that being close to them — being able to spend time with them, talk to them, play with them — was such a great, important thing,” Eguchi told Edge Magazine in 2008. “I wondered for a long time if there would be a way to recreate that feeling, and that was the impetus behind the original Animal Crossing.”

And so Animal Crossing was born. The basic premise of the game has stayed the same over 20 years and four sequels: the player moves to a new locale, befriends cartoonish talking animals, and works hard to develop and decorate their new community.

The game was the first of its kind. After its initial release, it was clear that Animal Crossing had attracted a new demographic to gaming — namely, girls and young adult women.

These peculiarities made Animal Crossing a success from the start. But with Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the series’ popularity has exploded. Within 12 days of the game’s March 20 release, Nintendo sold over 11 million copies worldwide — a feat Nintendo called the “best start” for any Switch title in its yearly financial report.

The video game market as a whole is facing a spike in demand since people are now stuck indoors, according to Nielsen’s SuperData, which analyzes gaming trends. But no other game has dominated public attention in the coronavirus era the way Animal Crossing: New Horizons has. And nearly every review of the game mentions its relaxing — even therapeutic — qualities, a feat few other games have accomplished.

Making ‘Another Home’ During Global Pandemic

Shortly after the game’s release, a meme began to circulate social media. It was an image of the New Horizons title card, but with a new title: “Basically Therapy.”

The meme’s creator, illustrator Bryant Almonte, intended for the image to be light-hearted. But while the game is certainly no replacement for professional therapy, it has had real impacts on its players’ well-beings. In a survey of 92 New Horizons players, nearly 95 percent said playing the game improved their mental well-being. Around 96 percent said they usually “feel happy” while playing.

A number of aspects make the game fun or relaxing to players. Since the game has no set plot or strict objectives — besides the loose goal of improving the island — players can spend most of their time doing anything they want: decorating the landscape, creating custom designs for clothes, cross-breeding flowers, and more. For an extra few dollars per month, they can even connect to the internet to visit other people’s islands.

Almost universal, though, is the praise for the game’s aesthetic. Over 90 percent of the survey-takers said the game’s design — which is colorful, cartoonish, and full of soft edges — has a “positive effect” on their mood.

“I enjoy all the tiny details that I discover as I play the game, like multi-colored night skies, with clouds that move over and past the moon,” wrote one survey respondent, a 31-year-old woman from Alabama.

To skeptics, these game mechanics and details may sound inconsequential. But many Animal Crossing fans say the game is an important part of their coping processes — including 31-year-old Kayla K. from Illinois, who has clinical depression.

“Ever since I started playing [Animal Crossing], my mood has improved pretty drastically,” she wrote. “It’s not like I’m cured, but playing for a while every day has been making it easier for me to get through my day.”

The game even helps players escape the day-to-day woes of the coronavirus outbreak. In lieu of in-person gatherings, for example, players hold virtual wedding and graduation ceremonies in the Animal Crossing world.

Jesse M., a 30-year-old from Virginia, recently lost her job. She wrote that playing Animal Crossing helps her cope through the uncertainty, providing her with relaxation, a new creative outlet, and a way to stay connected with friends and family.

“I have created another home for myself that I needed, because the world right now doesn’t feel like it used to,” Jesse wrote.

While players like Jesse use the game’s online features to spend time with loved ones, others have used Animal Crossing to foster new friendships. A Facebook group dedicated to the game has nearly 250,000 members. In it, players share screenshots, tips, decoration ideas, and codes that allow others to visit their islands.

“I have created another home for myself that I needed, because the world right now doesn’t feel like it used to.”

Mhira Zambrano, a fourth year at UC Santa Barbara, said Animal Crossing even allowed her to go on a virtual first date with a man she met through a dating app.

“We took pictures of both of our little avatars looking at the beach together,” Zambrano said, referencing the game’s camera app. “He’s a photographer too, so he knew how to deal with the filters.”

And even without online functionality — which costs an extra few dollars per month — players can befriend their animal villagers, too.

“It’s about being a steward for a community of people who support you,” wrote Madison Moore from Washington. “That’s not something you can easily find or achieve nowadays.”

Mental Health in Virtual Reality

Everything that happens in Animal Crossing — and most traditional video games — exists solely in the virtual world as pixels or audio files. But that doesn’t make the impacts of gameplay any less real or significant, experts say.

“We don’t stop being human when we’re in a media world,” said Dr. Debra Lieberman, who taught interactive media theory at UC Santa Barbara before retiring in 2016. “You suspend disbelief and you believe it’s real.”

“Hey, well, my life is a mess, but at least I can play this game well.”

Lieberman said games like Animal Crossing have the potential to “create a sense of empowerment and hopefulness” — especially in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

“[Games] can be calming and give you a sense of efficacy — that, ‘Hey, well, my life is a mess, but at least I can play this game well,’” Lieberman said.

Given its premise, Animal Crossing was also designed to foster emotional attachment. The player’s goals line up with the villagers’ goals, which also line up with the goals of the entire village, wrote Dr. Aki Järvinen, who teaches game design at Sheffield Hallem University in England.

“These design solutions support a community spirit, a caring about the common concerns and the ‘feelings’ of the animal characters,” Järvinen wrote in The Video Game Theory Reader 2.

The animals often talk to and about the player and other characters, adding to the sense of realness, Järvinen wrote.

The ability of video games to simulate realness — even in cartoon-like worlds — opens up real possibilities for mental health treatment, researchers say. More therapists are incorporating video games into their sessions — and seeing results.

“Games are here and growing,” wrote clinical psychologist Alexander Kriss in his 2020 book The Gaming Mind, which discusses the intersection of video games and therapy. “They are a way for us to learn more about who we are or make contact with parts of ourselves we didn’t know existed.”

Researchers in 2009 found that smartphone games improved mood in anxiety patients. A British study in 2012 highlighted the positive effects of a fantasy video game designed specifically for depressed teenagers — and the teens only had to play the game to see significant results.

“Games are here and growing. They are a way for us to learn more about who we are or make contact with parts of ourselves we didn’t know existed.”

Even outside of a treatment setting, playing casual video games like Animal Crossing can be “very powerful” by itself, Lieberman said.

The potential for video game addiction still worries some parents. In 2018, the World Health Organization recently designated “gaming disorder” as a disease. But the risk of actual addiction is relatively low, Lieberman said.

“A person has to have some existing problems and conditions that would lead them to addictive behaviors,” Lieberman said. “Most people can handle it very well. If they’re media savvy, they know that there’s a place in your life for video games, but it shouldn’t take over everything.”

Moderation can be difficult during stay-at-home orders, when the temptation to spend hours playing video games might be stronger. One survey respondent said they set a timer to limit their Animal Crossing time.

Others admit that Animal Crossing is solely a coronavirus pastime. Mhira Zambrano said she has little interest in other video games and might sell her console once stay-at-home orders get lifted.

The future may be uncertain — for the video game industry, for the virus, for everyone — but for the time being, while much of the world is put on pause, the game offers a respite they might not otherwise have.

“The whole theme of the game is a getaway island,” said programmer Evan Chang. “People can live their life how they want it to be.” ♦

(1684 words)

Dana Ysabel Dela Cruz is a senior at UC Santa Barbara graduating with a degree in Asian American Studies and a Professional Journalism Certificate. They are a multimedia journalist, essayist, and creative writer.

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