Animal Crossing Is More Than a Game. It’s Therapy

Animal Crossing: New Horizons on Nintendo Switch
photo by Adam Ponce

Self-isolation and social distancing have become the norm, but Jesus Gonzalez has been able to cope with the global pandemic in his own personal virtual world. 

There are no rules preventing players from interacting in the peaceful open world of Animal Crossing, which might be the escape players are looking for. With its emphasis on life simulation, players take the lead of a lone human on a task to develop a deserted island into a thriving town filled with houses, shops, and anthropomorphic animals.

The world of Animal Crossing has no violence and no real-world consequences, the type of comfort individuals need at the moment. 

“I like how it is an escape from the real world, it is a way for me to unwind. I get home from work and I just want to separate myself into my own virtual world.” Jesus Gonzalez, a student from Santa Ana College said, “The characters are colorful, fun, and not depressing. They put me in a good mood.” 

“Doubutsu No Mori” is a video game series developed by Nintendo that has been around since the early 2000s. Making its first debut on the Nintendo 64 in Japan and eventually getting ported to the Gamecube and officially being named Animal Crossing. The series continued on the Nintendo DS, Wii, Nintendo 3DS, and Nintendo Switch.

On March 20, 2020, the latest installment to the Animal Crossing series was released for the Nintendo Switch under the name “Animal Crossing: New Horizons.” Despite being on previous consoles, New Horizons is the first console release built from the ground up in 19 years. Introducing new features that have never before been seen in previous titles, such as the ability to terraform hills and create rivers. 

Gonzalez isn’t the only one to find a way to cope with the pandemic  in their own slice of virtual island paradise.

“It helps me unwind after a long day, and gives me something to look forward to. Having that as a ‘goal post’ of sorts each day, helps keep some of my anxieties and stress at bay when the stay at home order was in full swing,” said Ky Parker, known as Captindangerous on Instagram and  a Nintendo of America affiliate.

A quirky but interesting feature of the game is that it runs off a clock system meaning a day in the game is a day in real life. The game encourages players to return back to their island to complete simple tasks, in return for in-game money referred to as bells. Those can be spent at the in-game shop for decorations to make the island your own unique space.

“Animal Crossing takes a different route to connection–players engage in everyday actions (such as arranging their home or gathering fruits) that could even be characterized as meditative”. Katherine Isbister, professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Author of How Games Move Us said, “In addition, the AC world is fun and light-hearted, something that is a balm to the uncertainty and fear that many feel right now.” 

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New Horizons provides players with a compelling in-game experience, but the community that surrounds it on Facebook,  Reddit, Twitter, and Discord have built their own micro-communities. Giving players an outlet to express their love of the game with others and a way to share their creations a safe distance from each other.

The game has somewhat of a player-driven economy. With websites such as Nookazon providing players with a way to sell their items for in-game bells or just to trade for other items.

 “I’ve had a lot of positive interactions with people online, but whether it be like a Facebook meme page, in a discord trading or randomly on Reddit. I think it brings a lot of positive energy sort of into the mix, especially in the time when everything is sort of anxiety-driven all the time this is what I like the most about the game,” said Reginald Thomas Gardner, a student from the University of California Irvine working on his Ph.D. in informatics. 

Though the release date was decided long before the pandemic hit, it couldn’t have landed at a better time for the company. New Horizons proved to be a smash hit for Nintendo making it one of the brand’s fastest-selling video games in the first 6 weeks of its release. According to the company’s fiscal year ending in March 2020, New Horizons sold 11.77 million copies worldwide. 

As a result, Nintendo sales remained strong during a time when most businesses are facing financial crises. Nintendo also reported a 33% increase in net profit and a 9% in net revenue for March 2020.  

“it’s a combination of a number of factors; for one thing, the Switch is hugely successful in a broader demographic than even the Wii, which was tailored for the casual market (almost) exclusively.” Alex Olney,  a content creator and video producer for the YouTube channel Nintendo Life said, “We also can’t ignore the remarkable timing of its release so soon after the lockdown was initiated due to COVID-19.”

Although New Horizons is a Nintendo Switch exclusive, players can still experience the world of Animal Crossing through the Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp app. Pocket Camp is a stripped-down version of the mainline series that still offers players a charming experience in a world filled with anthropological animals. The app can be downloaded through both Apple and Google.

The global pandemic has affected the lives of millions but despite the hardship reality we are facing right now, individuals have found a way to cope with it through a virtual world. 


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