GamesAnimal Crossing as Therapy: A Misguided Approach to How We Play

Animal Crossing as Therapy: A Misguided Approach to How We Play

Gamers around the world are in love with Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Some are longtime fans who couldn’t wait for the franchise to hit the Switch. Others are newcomers, enthralled by the promise of creating/managing their own island paradise. Everyone seems to be having fun; images of newly designed interiors still flood social media. That said, I’d imagine that a lot of gamers, at least in the beginning, bought the game for a different reason.

That was certainly the case with me. While my initial interest in New Horizons was piqued by its cooperative elements – the thought of sharing an island with my wife and kids was intoxicating – the reason I ended up buying it was different. What I saw in Nintendo’s last Direct Video was a calming experience. New Horizons would be the means of dealing with my heightened anxiety and an overwhelming sense of dread—the lovely byproducts of a recently declared state of emergency.

It worked for a while. Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ repetitive activities that reflected real-life chores were relaxing. The ability to “visit” friends and family offered a sense of normalcy. Unfortunately, playing it almost nonstop since launch—for therapeutic reasons— eventually lead to two outcomes: the realization that Animal Crossing is a poor replacement for real intimacy and that the game’s mechanics weren’t meant to be experienced as frequently as possible.

Things didn’t start out that way, of course. As stated earlier, I was attracted to the game’s shared island experience. The charming aesthetics and simple to understand mechanics made New Horizons seem like a great family game; my wife would enjoy the classic Animal Crossing gameplay while my three daughters delighted themselves in decorating their houses. Most of this would be highlighted in Nintendo’s February Direct Video. In it, the company detailed the “island package”, showcase new customizable features, and basically sell the game to Switch owners.

The Oncoming Doom

covid 19

I already had a strong desire to purchase Animal Crossing: New Horizons at this time. It wasn’t until March though, that my want turned into a need. This change was months in the making. The Coronavirus hit Wuhan, China hard in December. Warnings came our way soon after. People debated whether or not it was a hoax, despite the WHO declaring a public health emergency at the end of January. A cruise ship is quarantined in February, right before the CDC reports the first cases of suspected US-based infections. The first US-based deaths are reported shortly thereafter.

Everything ramped up from there—including my anxiety. By March 13th, Trump had declared a U.S. national emergency. Days later, the CDC would warn against large gatherings. It didn’t matter though; by that time, the virus’ presence was felt in every state. Including my own; a declaration of a state of emergency was given for Virginia on March 12th. March 19th, Italy’s death toll surpasses China’s. Rumors of a statewide lockdown were in the air.

But on March 20, Animal Crossing: New Horizons shipped.

My Fortress of Solitude

animal crossing new horizons

Schools closed. Businesses shuttered. Social distancing became a thing. It’s safe to say that things got real. Ironically, I sought comfort from a fake reality. New Horizons. Though, I no longer thought of it as a great family game. It would still offer all of the things I mentioned before. But its purpose in my life would change. Instead of being a fun game that my family would occasionally play together, it became my fortress of solitude—a safe place to go to in the midst of a global pandemic.

What was odd was that I had felt that way days before purchasing New Horizons. In my mind, Nintendo’s adverts weren’t promoting a new Animal Crossing series; they were promoting a sort of care package for someone like me. Someone with a cocktail of mental issues, self-imposed or otherwise.

Being a father (or a parent in general) brings about its own set of insecurities. Having to care about someone other than yourself can be tough mentally. Not in a narcissistic sense; my anxiety isn’t derived from a need to be alone or carefree. It’s a reflection of my inability to relax whenever my kids – three girls and a baby boy – are near and a mixture of past experiences. Basically, I’m geared to be always ready for anything that could possibly happen when we’re out and about—Covid-19 included.

There are other factors at play—me being an introvert, for one. And, contrary to popular belief, isn’t a winning trait in these times.

While we certainly need some alone time to recharge after being social, we still need and want to be around people. The benefits of working from home, turning down an invite, or forgoing a night out are noticeably absent when you aren’t allowed to visit people.

In other words, I had issues before we went on lockdown. I had ways of dealing with it all though. Thanks to real therapy, I knew how to combat my anxiety. How to understand what was a real concern and what wasn’t. When to ask my wife for a compromise – allowing time for me to recharge before visiting the in-laws, for instance. Prayer. Music. Going to the movies.

My Island Getaway Was Anything But

animal crossing island

I had my coping mechanisms, and because of that, I should have known that I wouldn’t find what I was looking for in New Horizons. My island getaway was anything but.

Like I said, things were good at first. I enjoyed life on Kokomo (that’s the name of my island). Everything from picking my initial campsite to earning my first crafting recipes was great. Tom Nook didn’t seem like a crook yet. No seriously, why do I have to pay for extra plots? You’re the one selling these houses…ahem, anyways—things were fine.

All I did for the first few hours was collect and craft various items. Twigs, rocks, and peaches–I made sure to get familiar with the basics. It wasn’t until about mid-way through my second in-game day that I started my loop. I’d plant flowers, being sure to water them, chop wood to replace my broken tools, catch a few butterflies to sell, and fail to flee from wasps after shaking a tree. Then, I’d craft the needed medicine to lower the swelling after being stung. I’d find messages in bottles, run around aimlessly, and sit on a recently crafted bench to take a photo.

My wife eventually joined me. This was right before we started construction on the museum. I helped her with the basics as she went about setting up her campsite; she now has a house right beside mine. We’d explore the island together. The goings were a bit rough. We didn’t know how annoying it would be to trade leadership or how limiting the secondary player’s roles would be at the time. That said, we made the most of it and had a good time. We shared tools and crafting materials, planned where we’d place certain buildings or landmarks, and occasionally sat on a well-crafted bench to take a photo.

Opening the Gates

animal crossing airport

The good times continued when I finally opened my gates to guests. I was waiting until my island was “cool” enough to invite people over. Meaning, I wanted something to show besides a few crafted items and random set-pieces; I still don’t know what to do with that corner of a boxing ring I found in a balloon. My friends and I would run from one part of the map to the other, all while inspecting the differences between our islands. It was cool to see them. Given the situation, the only way we could hang out was in a game. Talking through Discord, we joked about still needing facemasks when visiting each other. One friend even purchased a few facemasks in-game and mailed them to us.

I made sure to visit Kokomo whenever I could. In between playing other games, writing articles, spending time with the kids, and deciding who’d venture out to get groceries (my wife is awesome by the way) I’d be playing New Horizons. Fishing with some of my friends was a highlight. Especially on one rainy day; surprisingly, the weather in VA mirrored that in the game. I went to visit a friend’s island – we’ll call him Andre – a place known for good fishing spots. Of course, there wasn’t anything particularly special about his island. We just got lucky there on several occasions, that day being one of them. Within an hour or so of fishing at various spots on his island, Andre ended up catching a Coelacanth – one of the rarest fish in the Animal Crossing series. We lost our minds. Only to do so again moments later when I caught an Oarfish. We took several photos. Most of which ended up on Twitter and such.

These are just some of the fond memories of my early days playing New Horizons. Things were peaceful; my only concern was not getting bit by a random spider at night. That’s not to say that my experience was all that healthy. At first maybe. Again, it was good spending time with people who I rarely got to see. And because I was playing from the comfort of my own home, I didn’t have to think about keeping anyone safe. We always washed our hands. But because we were at home, I didn’t have to scrutinize every aspect of said washing. Make sure to rub between your fingers and all that. I also wasn’t wary of strangers or anxious about being with them at a store. And thanks to a lack of real-world influences or pandemic themes – it wasn’t like playing The Division 2, for instance; I could successfully escape to my island whenever I wanted.

The Problems

new horizons island

There were several problems with this sort of thing. The first of which made itself known via my aversion to other activities. For a while after New Horizons’ launch, all I wanted to do was visit my island. I became obsessed with loading it up and getting on with my mundane tasks. I’d get there fast, just to take things slow. The monotony was welcomed, but it wasn’t fulfilling. I’m not sure when I realized this—maybe after building a park that I couldn’t play in. I spent a lot of time gathering materials for my makeshift fence, ordering a sandbox, positioning giant stuffed bears, and rocking horse only to do absolutely nothing with them afterward.

Don’t get me wrong; I marveled at my expanded house and the various nicknacks that adorned the walls. The park was cool to look at; I was pleased to get everything just right. My custom designs, garden, and the beachside lounge with bonfire accessory – all of it was void of life. Aside from some NPCs with repeating chat bubbles and the occasional family member, there was no one there to share these things with.

Being obsessed with a game, the way I was, isn’t healthy. This was especially true when I considered my real aim. Beyond wanting a safe place that didn’t remind me of the world’s current state, I also wanted a safe form of intimacy. Sure, I could hug my wife and kids—no problem. But, I couldn’t hug my friends who lost family members. I couldn’t hug my neighbor who may or may not be out of work. I can’t hug my parents. Being able to “visit” friends in Animal Crossing helped in that regard, at least until that early game magic wore off.

When we realized that the things we were creating could just barely be interacted with. In other words, my obsession didn’t yield any tangible results that could help my mental state after the first month. I spent a crazy amount of time building things, only to share them briefly with others before moving on. My kids didn’t enjoy the park. My wife didn’t enjoy sleeping in her race car bed. I no longer enjoyed my garden.

Another problem I had came from New Horizons’ gameplay mechanics. Not being able to fulfill my need for intimacy was one thing. Not being fun to play was another. The thing is, the game is entertaining when played properly. Something most of us failed to do. Because of this, some fans weren’t as receptive to certain elements – like having to wait actual days to open a shop – most of which were long staples of the franchise.

We’re Not Playing How Nintendo Expected Us to Play

animal crossing how to play

I don’t think Nintendo thought that people were going to spend large portions of their day in Animal Crossing. At least, not in the fashion made available during this pandemic. So, it probably was a shock to see a lot of players criticizing New Horizon’s “Bunny Day” update. There were valid concerns; some were annoyed with their normally found materials being replaced with eggs. Many more would feel disappointed that there weren’t enough sweeping changes to their islands. Not because the game didn’t have enough content. But because they were super invested in their islands. So much so, that they didn’t stop to think: maybe we’ve been playing a little too long.

My experience also took a negative hit after the April update. Aside from crafting Bunny Day recipes and getting the island in tip-top shape (for a future concert), there was nothing to do. And by that, I mean that it felt like I had nothing to do. I had played New Horizon’s so much that I had convinced myself that I did every noteworthy thing a person could do, despite not even unlocking some of the more interesting game tools – I’m still looking forward to being able to shape Kokomo’s rivers, roads, and more. It got to the point where I started disliking Tom Nook.

The slow process of unlocking new tools and/or advancing the “campaign” was no longer entertaining. Instead of relaxing while my virtual self-did mundane tasks, I’d be impatient. The same seemed to happen with my friends. The selfies in whacky getups and messages about new discoveries in Discord were replaced with Tom Nook slander and turnip prices. Playing New Horizons became a chore, something we did because we were (seemingly) invested. And none of it was the game’s fault, some questionable design choices notwithstanding.

I should have known better. New Horizons isn’t going to save me from my anxieties. It’ll certainly help when played in moderation; the charming aesthetics and simplistic gameplay still manages to bring a smile to my face. That said, expecting it or any simulation to ape real life in a meaningful way during this crisis is foolish. Not because games can’t be therapeutic. They can be. In a lot of cases, they are. But because they can’t be the only thing we lean on when facing the ills of our reality.

My reality includes corona. It includes my anxieties. It also includes my family and friends—people I can talk to when the going gets tough. And as much as I enjoy playing video games, I enjoy spending time with people more (regardless of what we’re doing). While I won’t be able to spend time with some of them in the manner I’d wish, all hope isn’t lost. Birthdays are celebrated socially via Facetime. My daughters take ballet and tap classes using Zoom. My parents can see their grandson learning to walk via shared videos. Life goes on. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is entertaining and I plan on returning to my island in the near future. Thankfully, I no longer need it to cope with the everyday struggles associated with these tough times.

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Kenneth Seward Jr.
Kenneth Seward Jr. is a writer, editor, and illustrator who covers games, comics, and movies (with words at IGN, UploadVR, Fanbyte, etc.). He enjoys punching blocks filled with magical mushrooms, blasting zombies, and playing footsie with strangers named Ryu.
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