Saved by the Bells“Animal Crossing: New Horizons” Helps Us Cope with Our Mental Health

Two players on Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Photo credit: Nintendo/Rachel Charlene Lewis)

After being developed by Katsuya Eguchi in 2001, Animal Crossing quickly became one of the most beloved video games, with the series selling more than 30 million units around the world. The original title and its spinoffs were made for a number of game systems, including the Nintendo 64, GameCube, Wii, and Nintendo DS, while the most recent game, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, was made for the Nintendo Switch.

The concept of Animal Crossing is simple: You inhabit a town filled with animals and, slowly, day after day, the town grows and changes and becomes more fruitful—literally. You build friendships with your new neighbors; collect fruit, fish, and bugs; offer donations to the museum; and customize clothing at the tailor. While it sounds like it might be too simple, the game has become a lifeline for people who are looking for not just an escape but a calm one. “I suffer from anxiety and depression, and like everyone else have good and bad days,” Thuy Ong wrote in a 2017 article for The Verge. “For years I’ve also turned to video games as an escape, and most notably the Animal Crossing series.” In a recent piece for Autostraddle, Heather Hogan wrote that Animal Crossing: New Horizons is “the game we need right now as we muddle through so much uncertainty and isolation,” while Craig Jenkins called the game an “anti-anxiety oasis” in a recent article for Vulture.

While many video games set up a hero-villain dichotomy or have users race against the clock, Animal Crossing functions in the exact opposite ways. The game’s internal clock keeps with our clocks IRL, with days passing as ours do, and there’s no goal that has to be completed on any given day. Instead, the player decides what to accomplish, if anything at all. There will always be another chance to catch that fish or plant those flowers. Plus, the music is pretty incredible too.

In honor of New Horizons, out this month, Bitch orchestrated a roundtable about our own histories with Animal Crossing and the outlet it provides to those of us who, sometimes, need a little help coping with our mental health, especially during the COVID-19 quarantine.

Tell me about your history with Animal Crossing. How did you discover it?

Rachel Charlene Lewis, senior editor: I started playing Animal Crossing because I saw it at Blockbuster (yes, really). As soon as my siblings and I played it, we begged our mom to let us rent it again, and then, eventually, we bought it for our GameCube. I became obsessed. I’d wake up early to play and then stay up late at night playing. And that obsession really didn’t lessen. I got Animal Crossing: Wild World for my Nintendo DS in middle school and then Animal Crossing: City Folk for my Wii in high school. Now, it’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons time.

Alison Vu, director of fundraising: Growing up, all of my friends played video games, so I’d watch them play Pokémon, Mario Kart, and Animal Crossing. I always knew the gameplay was different from other games, so that was soothing, and there was something about fruit? I’ve never actually owned a console myself, but when smartphones became more easily accessible, I got into phone games that were recommended to me, including Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp.

Marina Watanabe, senior social media editor: When I was a kid, I was a big Nintendo fan. I played every single Pokémon game that Game Freak released (and still do to this day) and had a ton of my aunt’s old Mario games for Super Nintendo. I vividly remember seeing the commercial for Animal Crossing on GameCube that featured the live-action characters. It was so odd and unlike anything I’d seen before, and I remember being really excited to get it for Christmas. During Christmas break, my mom had to limit my game time because [otherwise] I would play it all day for two weeks straight.

Roslyn Talusan, writer: I never had a GameCube, so the first Animal Crossing game I played was Wild World for the Nintendo DS. Like Marina, I’ve been and still am an avid Pokémon player, so the Animal Crossing aesthetic has always been appealing to me. What particularly drew me to the series as a teen was how laid back it was compared to the other games I’d played up until then. I remember exchanging friend codes with people through an Animal Crossing LiveJournal community and becoming obsessed with growing pink flowers all over my town.

How do you engage with Animal Crossing as a series?

RCL: I am a huge fan across the board. I’d say it’s my favorite video game. I played others when I was younger (Harvest Moon was my other favorite growing up), but AC is the only one I really stuck with. My siblings loved it too, especially my younger sister, so it became something we bonded over. I like to read what people have to say about Animal Crossing on Reddit, and I always get sucked in to different Tumblr and Twitter accounts. The photos are so pleasant, and it’s such a positive, warm community.

AV: I play Animal Crossing basically every day that I can. Originally, I tried to be stoic and not talk to other people about the game—I hate the element of phone games where the more friends you have, the easier the game is for you—but I broke down at some point because I wanted more grapes and lemons. That resulted in talking to my friends who play the game, as well as joining the Pocket Camp subreddit.

MW: I played the original GameCube game constantly. I missed City Folk and Wild World because they weren’t on my radar for some reason. When New Leaf came out in 2012, I got back into the series again. My partner was also really into Animal Crossing—so we would trade furniture and items and talk about whatever cool bugs or fish we caught on the island. I’m also enjoying seeing everyone talk about the new game and share memes on Twitter.

RT: Even though I bought New Leaf in 2013 and downloaded Pocket Camp when it came out, I never got into them the way I did Wild World. New Leaf came out when I was finishing undergrad, so I was definitely too busy working and studying—relaxation was unfortunately the last thing on my mind back then. The best part of New Horizons so far has been seeing the memes and TikToks all over social media, especially in a time where so many of us need lightheartedness and joy. I love seeing how people get creative in decorating their towns, but I’ve really enjoyed seeing the gorgeous fashion people have been designing for their characters.

A player joins a celebration on Animal Crossing New Horizons. (Photo credit: Nintendo/Rachel Charlene Lewis)

What is it about AC that uniquely positions it as a calming game that helps with mental health?

RCL: A lot of my anxiety is based in leaving the house, so Animal Crossing became a way for me to explore and do all the things I wish I [were] “brave” enough to do outdoors. I’m probably never going to fish or catch bugs or chat up townspeople, but in AC, I do.

AV: I don’t really like exploratory or story-driven games. I’m too type A, and [I] stress out too much about whether or not I’ve done everything correctly, so I can’t enjoy those games as much. I find it really soothing when a game lists out what I need to accomplish to move the game forward (and when those tasks are not violent [and] don’t hurt anyone in-game). The act of running around and shaking trees for virtual money is low stakes and is simple enough that I find myself unclenching from the day when I do it.

MW: When I’m feeling anxious, it helps to have an outlet to redirect my attention to. Everything about Animal Crossing—from the cute aesthetic to the wholesome music to the mundane tasks and lack of combat or high stakes—feels like it’s designed to keep me calm. It’s a very soothing game. I also like the routine of the game. It’s similar to The Sims (which a lot of mentally ill folks also play to chill out) in the sense that you’re literally playing as a person doing regular everyday tasks. When I think about the daily tasks I have to do in my own life, it can sometimes feel overwhelming, depending on where my mental health is. But for some reason, completing similarly mundane tasks in a wholesome game like Animal Crossing is relaxing—[probably] because there are zero real-life consequences.

RT: I spent a big chunk of last year playing Stardew Valley, which actually helped me regain my executive function after being diagnosed with C-PTSD in 2018. It’s pretty similar to Animal Crossing in that it’s a very open-ended game; the focus is on developing your farm (though you can go fight monsters if you want). These kinds of games let you set small goals for yourself in a very low stress setting, and I found that that translated into [my] building [a] capacity to write for a living again. Animal Crossing is even more low stakes, which is perfect in this particular moment. It provides the sweetest escape from everything going on, helping me feel grounded in myself amidst so much uncertainty and panic. My partner and I are long-distance with a closed international border between us; he’s in Texas, and I’m in Toronto. We’ve been doing Animal Crossing dates over FaceTime this week, and it’s helped me feel close to him while we’re so far apart.

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In a sentence, what makes Animal Crossing worth playing?

RCL: Imagine everything you hate about the world, get rid of it, and replace all of your neighbors with adorable animals who like to give you surprise presents and compliment you for finally catching that butterfly.

AV: Come play in the world of what capitalism should be: trading resources with your friends and never worrying about rent.

MW: You get to design your dream house, make friends with cute animals who give you gifts, and live on a chill island away from the worries of the rest of the world—what more could you want?

RT: Plant flowers and grow fruit without having to worry about getting dirty or paying bills!

What do you hope to gain from Animal Crossing: New Horizons (especially as an adult playing it in the wildness that is 2020)?

RCL: I bought a Switch the moment I realized quarantine was coming, and I picked up Animal Crossing the next day. It’s been the perfect distraction. I was also supposed to visit my sister, who lives several states away, this spring, which clearly isn’t happening; instead, I bought her Animal Crossing, too, and bought us Nintendo [Switch] Online passes so we can play together. It’s been hugely worth it, and we play almost every single day. I’m currently working on getting my mom to play.

AV: I don’t have a Nintendo Switch yet (Do I buy it just so I can play New Horizons? All signs point to yes), but I’m seeing online that it’s providing a lot of people an outlet for decompressing, which makes me happy. It’s a form of escapism that doesn’t hurt anyone, so I hope it’ll be a big help to others in this time.

MW: I purchased a Switch Lite for exactly this reason, and I have zero regrets. With all of the uncertainty and fear happening in the midst of COVID-19, it’s been really helpful to play New Horizons and have a calming distraction. Plus, with social distancing and stay-at-home orders, I’m in desperate need of activities I can do from the safety of my own home. Even though I’m socially isolated, like most people right now, I feel connected to fans who are also playing the game and sharing their experiences in real time (and visiting each other’s towns!). I saw a tweet that said this is “like the exact opposite of that Pokémon Go summer,” and I feel like Animal Crossing is the answer to that. Instead of everyone going outside and sharing the experience of playing the same game together, we’re staying indoors and virtually playing together.

RT: My Switch has been such a huge tool in managing my mental illness for the past couple of years. After fully completing my Pokédex in Pokémon Shield and playing through a couple of older games in that franchise, New Horizons is my latest coping mechanism. It has been a source of hope and positivity for me this week and also a wonderful creative outlet while I’ve been dealing with writer’s block.

Who’s your favorite character, and why?

RCL: When I rented Animal Crossing during those Blockbuster days, my very first neighbor was Ace, who is a bird and a jock. My goal is to get him back. I love the way you can find a new favorite neighbor in each version of the game or seek out ones you’ve loved in the past in the world of Animal Crossing.

AV: I am particularly fond of all the sheep, and my favorite is Stella. They’re all so kind to you in the game and provide you the opportunity to make fun [pieces of] furniture, like looms and spindles, that resonate with me IRL.

MW: When I played New Leaf, my favorite villager was Avery. He’s an eagle with the “cranky” personality type. Cranky villagers are notoriously difficult to get along with in the game, so when I finally befriended him, it felt like a big accomplishment. I just love the image of a grouchy, anthropomorphic eagle complaining about his neighbors constantly.

RT: The first villager I had in Wild World was Pippy the “peppy rabbit” (as she’s called on the Fandom wiki), and I hope I find her in New Horizons. She’s so annoying, and I love her and her lil bangs!

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by Rachel Charlene Lewis
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Rachel Charlene Lewis is the Senior Editor at Bitch. She has written about culture, identity, and the internet for publications including i-D, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Greatist, Glamour, Autostraddle, Ravishly, SELF, StyleCaster, The Frisky (RIP), The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. Her literary work, reviews, and interviews have been published in Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Publisher’s Weekly, The Offing, and in several other magazines. She is on Twitter and Instagram, always.

by Marina Watanabe
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Marina Watanabe is Bitch’s senior social media editor. Previously, she hosted a web series called Feminist Fridays. She’s also been called an “astrological nightmare.” You can find her on Twitter most days.

Roslyn Talusan
by Roslyn Talusan
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Roslyn Talusan is a Filipina Canadian anti-rape activist and feminist culture writer. Passionate about using her words to create a culture of empathy, she’s working on a memoir about her experience reporting sexual assault in the workplace. Follow her on Twitter (@rozzybox) or find more of her work at her website.