Social distancing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown all of us for a loop and for those of us with underlying mental health issues, the sudden change in schedule and breaking down of barriers between home and work have made some of our once managed issues flare-up. For me, since the shelter-in-place orders were set for my city, I had been struggling to get back to what helped keep my severe anxiety disorder at bay: a schedule. I know it sounds weird, but being able to have spaces dedicated to work, home, and times of day, reinforced by my employer’s cafeteria, all help ground me on bad days. A rigid schedule let me plot out time for myself, my writing, and my fun. But when all of it fell away it was a struggle to ground myself again, especially after suffering a debilitating back injury right before. Then, I got Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
For those who don’t know about the game that has taken over memes, social media, and has sold the most digital copies of a game ever, Animal Crossing is an open-world social simulation game where you’re put on a deserted island and tasked with building a village and just living. The beautiful thing about this game is that there are no clear set rules. You can choose to pursue bells and pay off your loans to get the largest house or you can spend your bells and grand decorations for your island, plat orchards, annoy villagers, fish, garden, and all of it is up to you.
Now, I’m not used to these kinds of games – although I’m more familiar with survival games like RUST and ARK. The resource farming element of them is soothing. Log on, hit trees, collect wood. Hit rocks, collect stone, clay, and iron. Hit – you get the idea. As an avid MMO player, this is also something I’m used to, and it’s extended into the fishing and small daily tasks that earn you Nook miles, another in-game currency that functions a lot like daily quests.
However, Animal Crossing offers something that other game types don’t, full and total control. You control your island, what you do, who can come to it, and who can interact with your island by digging holes and more. While this was a given, I was blown away by how peaceful running across my island, building things, catching bugs, and earning bells could be. Instead of spiraling because of lack of control in my daily life I could turn on my Nintendo Switch, jump into my island, change my outfit, and get to building my island the way I want to. It helped ground me in those moments and by extension, each small benchmark of island growth worked as a small goal for me to reach by whatever day I chose.
My first full day outside of the initial island set-up, my goal was to pay off my home loan before I turned off my console for the night. I did, and the pure joy I felt was the first piece of accomplishment I felt while in isolation. After that, I took every loan from Tom Nook and request for materials as a new challenge, a quest to complete, and as I made my way through them, I felt more and more at ease.
Now, on days where the 1.2 million bell loan was out of reach, I used the Nook+ Miles program in the game to tick off tasks and accomplish small things across my island. Things like plant three flower seeds and chop 10 wood are small tasks but when you’re struggling to get back into a routine and successful pattern, those small pieces of an infinite puzzle would fall in place. And even when I cycled through the tasks on particularly bad days, as they began to repeat themselves, they still offered the same support.
But even with all the control you have in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, there are strict time gates that limit what you can do and when. Instead of allowing you to move multiple buildings, you have to choose one per day, and the same goes for constructing new infrastructure items like bridges and ramps. Additionally, when the game is synced to your timezone and the day/night cycles last a full 24 hours with many of the island timers restarting at 5 am your time. The sense of time in Animal Crossing: New Horizons helps me understand where I am in my own time. Especially when I have projects I’m working on or when I want to sell items in my store which closes at 10 pm. This helps me keep my schedule and even on days when I’m not waking up to workout, I wake up to check my turnip prices or buy some depending on the day.
While all of these features in the game help me to manage my severe anxiety, it’s the community factor that has helped me even when I didn’t know I needed it to. I am a self-proclaimed introvert, or at least I thought I was until self-isolation happened. While I do live with my husband, we function as a unit and that means interaction with humans other than him has been something I didn’t know I needed. Everyone plays games for different reasons, and for me, my reason is community. While I’m always down for a single-player game, there is something beautiful about working with others to achieve a common goal – even if that goal is really just making sure everyone in our Discord server gets the best turnip prices. For me, the community has become more important than ever.
By the nature of the game, you don’t arrive at Animal Crossing: New Horizons knowing everything about it. The times that fish can be caught and the circumstances needed for them are only revealed after you catch them, turnip prices vary from island to island, and fruit that is not native to your island sells for more bells but are rare to find. Additionally, everything in the game is based on RNG, which means the DIY recipes you collect to build furniture, the items in your store, and color variants of Nook Mile items are all randomly generated. Each of these things pushes you to communicate with the Animal Crossing community or start your own.
Need help catching a fish? Head to YouTube or ask a friend. Need different fruit? Ask in a Discord server to have someone help you build your own fruit trees. Are your turnip prices the lowest you’ve ever seen? Ask a friend if their island is having a better day. Looking for a specific item to complete your house’s aesthetic? Ask a friend to let you catalog it or even make it for you. There are so many different elements in the game that help facilitate community if you want it to. You can play solo or you can use the game to connect to players and pursue your island dreams at the same time.
Times are hard. The world is burning. But Animal Crossing: New Horizons has been the most useful way to manage my panic attacks throughout the day, to help connect me to others, and to just make the world not look so bleak. It may just be a game, it’s a vital example of how video games can work to help mental health. While not everyone may have this experience, I’m glad I have been able to manage my mental health while managing my island.
Now, if only I could get Plucky to move away….
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.