“You’ve been gone a whole 10 months!” a small cartoon cat yells at my avatar. As Katt walks away, I direct my avatar to react with embarrassment and snap a screenshot to immortalize my shame. I, like many other Animal Crossing players, abandoned the game after a few months of play and my villagers aren’t shy about letting me know.
I played Animal Crossing avidly after its release. Animal Crossing: New Horizons dropped at the perfect time and was the ideal comfort game to help process the events of 2020. The game dropped near the end of March, when the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns had just begun, and the game served as a perfect way to spend time during quarantine. The control that players are able to exert over their environment was an antidote for the out-of-control circumstances of 2020.
But pandemic exhaustion quickly set in. Many of my friends abandoned the game after they binged it to completion in a matter of months. I took a slower approach, but still burned out on the game around October. I performed a couple of check-ins for holidays after that, but my Switch started to collect dust by Spring of 2021.
But in November, I saw Tiktok user Ashleyroboto playing new content for Animal Crossing, and it sent me back to my Switch to see what had become of my island. The new update, which rolled out a lot of new content at the same time as a DLC expansion, actually got me re-invested in the game again. I bought the DLC, and have been enjoying Happy Home Paradise since.
Bundling the new content releases together instead of trickling the updates was a smart move by Nintendo. I probably wouldn’t have noticed the new content if it hadn’t been released with as much fanfare and excitement, and would have missed the opportunity to reinvest in Animal Crossing.
I didn’t realize I was emotionally attached to my island and its inhabitants until they were nearly lost. I wiped a user from my console, forgetting that the user was the original purchaser of Animal Crossing. I lost access to the game, which caused a surprisingly emotional reaction. When the profile was restored, I was grateful to return to the island that had kept me company for those long months of 2020.
2021 has been just as turbulent as last year with navigating the return to in-person activities and still managing Zoom fatigue. I’ve found that Animal Crossing is the perfect calm break between or during meetings, and is a relaxing activity before bed (with a blue light filter on, of course). Returning to my island recalls a sense of calm and control, and has been an outlet for working on my mental health this winter.
I struggle with accepting change, so I challenged myself to make changes in-game to practice mentally letting go. Changing my outfit, rearranging my house, and moving outdoor landmarks were all part of working positively with change. I’ve developed more mental flexibility through this practice, and have been able to begin making changes IRL too.
Video Games have shown positive effects on cognitive and emotional skills, according to a study by Pallavicini, Ferrari and Mantovani. Historical evidence has mainly been sourced for the negative effects video games can have on children, and adult video gaming is still a developing field of study. But playing games has been shown to improve problem-solving skills, reaction times and emotional flexibility in both children and adults.
Animal Crossing is boosting my mental and emotional health in 2021, and provides a pastime that doesn’t demand a lot of energy in exchange for enjoyment. And I get to experience a lot of the old content with fresh eyes–which made me realize that I missed a lot of details in the initial mad rush of playing for the first time. This return to Animal Crossing feels like playing for the first time again, and it’s still a different experience than any other game I have.
“[it’s] like my secret clubhouse, a space that’s mostly just for me, and maybe the kind of friends that feel comfortable sitting in silence. Coming back to the game this time — alongside all of its new content — means doing things differently, but it’s still just as satisfying.” says Nicole Carpenter, a writer for Polygon, in her November review of Animal Crossing.
Carpenter echoes my thoughts exactly. Coming back to my island is cozy-feeling, despite playing the game a little differently than I used to. If you’ve been away from your island for a long time, consider picking your Switch up again. You might be surprised by what you discover. Finding comfort in Animal Crossing again is exactly what I needed to survive Fall 2021 and the beginning of 2022.