Animal Crossing: An Escape From Reality

Video games are a great way to pass the time and entertain yourself when you’re bored, and that’s something that a lot of us especially welcome while everything is shut down due to the pandemic. Regardless of what genre of games you enjoy, there’s usually a new game to look forward to in the not-too-distant future, and when you can’t go out with your friends or hit the gym or (in the case of some people) work, having something to play can help maintain your sanity.

“… I’m not getting any walks for the next month, am I?”

In March this year, Nintendo released Animal Crossing: New Horizons (ACNH) for their Switch console. Animal Crossing is a fairly popular franchise to begin with, so – like Mario, Zelda and Pokemon – it was always going to be a much sought-after game anyway. But it couldn’t have been released at a better time; it’s a peaceful, relaxing game, and that’s something a lot of people really need at the moment. I know several people who have never previously shown any interest in Animal Crossing games, yet have become invested in their island worlds, and at my retail job, we kept selling out of the game within a day or two of receiving a shipment.

Until recently, I was also someone who didn’t get the appeal of a game that has no real end goal. I tried playing the 3DS game, Animal Crossing: New Leaf about 5 years ago, and got bored with it after about 5 hours because “nothing really happens”. But with my health issues and academic setbacks, and the way those things have torpedoed my mental health, I decided to give it another go, picking up a cheap copy of the game in January and starting a new file. I actually quite enjoyed it, so as the release date for New Horizons drew closer, I was as excited for it as long-time fans of the series.

I guess I should apologise in advance if this post gets a bit rambly. It’s not intended to be a review of ACNH. I just wanted to talk about how it’s helped me – and continues to help –  during a pretty crappy time.

Since early this year, I’ve often found myself staring vacantly off into space or just faffing around mindlessly on the internet, because I lack the energy or focus to do anything creative or productive. It isn’t so bad during the semester, but even so, unless I have a specific task that needs to be done (like running a class or marking assignments), I end up just wasting my days doing nothing but feeling depressed and anxious and not knowing how to pull myself out of it. It was especially challenging when we were put into stage 3 lockdown in March because of the pandemic, as I couldn’t even go out to the gym or visit my Nan.

When I first got ACNH on release day (March 20), I started off playing it in small bursts, picking it up for 20 minutes or so and then ignoring it until the following day. But as I unlocked the ability to explore and later change the layout of my island, I became more and more invested in it, especially as we were in lockdown so I had little else to keep me entertained. Some days I could still only spend about 20 minutes in it – because I had classes to teach and assignments to mark – so I’d spend that time running around my island, catching fish and bugs for the museum and gathering any resources, as well as checking in with my slowly growing community of cute animal villagers before saving and quitting for the day. In a world where weeks had started to blur together, it gave me a sense of purpose and helped to add structure to my days.

But when I had more spare time, I’d sink several hours into it, landscaping my island, rearranging the villagers’ houses to create a residential area and decorating my house and island, as well as continuing to upgrade the shops and expand and customise my house once I’d finally paid off the loan to Tom Nook.

The only world in which I’ll ever own a house.

As I discovered more varieties of furniture to collect and DIY recipes to craft, the possibilities started to seem endless. I still wasn’t being all that productive in the real world, but the time I spent in the game was time I didn’t spend being worried and sad. I became absorbed with thinking of new areas I could design and develop for my island.

No Karens allowed.

Also getting up to a bit of mischief.

Even in Animal Crossing, I am nerd trash.

Animal Crossing is a bit of an odd game. As I mentioned above, it doesn’t really have any goals or conditions for ‘beating’ the game. Other than paying off your home loan and getting KK Slider (a guitar-playing dog) to agree to perform on your island (both of which occur fairly early into the game), you can basically do as much or as little as you want. Earlier games used to punish players if you neglected the game for weeks or months by having your town become overrun with weeds or animal villagers up and leave town (I’m almost afraid to fire up my ACNL game as I haven’t touched it since ACNH came out, and I’m afraid I’ll find nothing but tumbleweeds blowing through a deserted town and a Pelican skeleton on the beach).

Thankfully, New Horizons seems to have eased up a bit; you’ll still end up with weeds everywhere if you don’t play for a while, but at least animals now will not move out unless you specifically give them permission, which makes it a lot less stressful for people who have favourite villagers but don’t always have the energy to play regularly. It’s also a game where nothing bad can really happen to you (aside from wasps, scorpions and tarantulas), so it’s good for those who want to play a game but get stressed about needing fast reflexes or having to defeat enemies. Even my Nan likes to keep up to date with what’s happening in the game; she asks if I’ve got any new animals on my island or any new flowers, so I email her pictures of my villagers in my newly designed areas or my botanical garden or fruit orchard. Although it has led to some awkward conversations, where she’ll ask how my garden is going and explain in detail how I’ve been colour coding my hybrid flowers, only to have her reply, “No, I mean your real garden. The outside one.”

ANCH also had another unexpected but positive side effect: it helped me make more friends. And I don’t just mean the animal villagers within the game (though they’re so cute and varied that I already have a few favourites who I will never allow to leave my island).

This was the only birthday party I got this year.

I know some people only think people you socialise with in real life count as friends, and that internet friends aren’t real. But aside from a very small number of people, I generally struggle to socialise in real world settings; I’m much happier spending time with one or two close friends than going to a large party where I only know one person. Even before the pandemic began, I rarely spent in-person time with any of my friends, largely because I or they or both of us were too busy with work or family or studies or live too far away or just drifted through lack of any real common interests. A lot of my online friendships also started to fade away, partially because of everyone’s general malaise (I guess) and probably also because of my lack of energy to maintain regular communication with more than a handful of online friends I’ve known for many years.

When a gaming forum I’m a member of started a dedicated sub-forum for ACNH, I became more active, adding other users of the forum as Switch friends and visiting their islands, as well as sometimes having them visit mine. It was a lot of fun to see the variety of designs people had created for their islands, from nightclubs to meth labs and outdoor gyms to libraries.

This is not what I imagined parties in my 30s would be like.

For the most part, the ACNH community has been friendly and very generous. People are happy to donate any fruit you don’t have on your island, or go and water one another’s flowers to help with breeding hybrids or even deliver spare flowers to those who are seeking a particular colour or variety. There’s nearly always someone who is willing to open their island and let you come and visit if you need good turnip prices or want to visit a particular NPC selling interesting wares.

The game has a lot of different furniture in different colours/varieties to collect, as well as DIY recipes to craft, some of which can be hard to find. However in the Animal Crossing community (at least in the forum I’m in), if you say you’re looking for a particular item, there’s always someone who’s happy to trade you one or even give you one, or at least craft you one if you give them the raw materials. This generosity means that collecting everything you need for a particular area you want to design is fun and achievable relatively quickly rather than being intimidating or taking forever.

Within the forum, a few of us formed more close-knit groups, and we’d often visit one another’s islands just to hang out and explore to see what people had done with their designs. We also started just mucking around, seeing who could spin around in circles the fastest, hitting each other with nets (seriously, we’d spend 10 minutes just running around assaulting each other with our bug-catching gear) and, on one occasion, taking turns to fire our slingshots at the the statue of David’s private parts (because apparently we’re all 12 years old). Having people visit my island or being able to hang out on other people’s island helped to give me something to do in the evenings and made me feel less isolated.

I have to admit I did step away from the game for a little while after the lockdown restrictions were lifted in June or whenever it was (time has mostly ceased to have any meaning this year, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who struggles to tell what day it is sometimes). Partially because I was able to go back to the gym and go out a bit more, and partially because I got another casual job at uni that lasted a few weeks. But in July, the number of COVID-19 cases in my state began to surge, and we were put back into stage 3 lockdown, only to have it upgraded to stage 4 not long afterwards. I’ve been trying to do more painting and drawing, but that requires a lot of energy that I just don’t have most of the time, so I’ve been poking my nose back into the world of Animal Crossing once again. Now that winter is almost at an end, there will soon be lots of new bugs and fish to catch (the in-game seasons match with the seasons in the real world), and I still have ideas for some new areas I want to design and build for my island. Nintendo have also been releasing patches with new content for the game every few months to help keep it interesting, so there’s usually a reason for me to go back to it, even if I haven’t played for a while.

I may not be able to go to a cafe in the real world, but my Zen Cafe in Animal Crossing is always open.

I think it’s going to be a long road ahead for all of us. Case numbers in my state are beginning to drop again, but we can’t afford to be complacent, as it only takes one infected person doing the wrong thing and being selfish to set off another cluster. I expect we’ll be under some form of restrictions until at least Christmas, though I suppose we’re lucky it isn’t as bad here in Australia as it is in some other countries, where the death toll is in the tens or hundreds of thousands and who knows how many more have been left with permanent chronic health issues after surviving the virus.

Animal Crossing isn’t going to fix the pandemic, but it might help to make it a little easier for some of us to get through it.

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