By Ryan Khosravi

May 7, 2020

Animal Crossing Helped Me Get Back to Real Life

Around the third day of social distancing, my apartment started to feel suffocating. All of a sudden everyone who had ever made a stupid joke about cramped New York apartments was getting the last laugh. It was clear that, in order to keep sane, I needed to make a change, but unfortunately, Brooklyn apartments leave little room for change — literally. All I could manage was to get rid of one shelf and move around another, but to my surprise, this little change actually improved my emotional health. It felt substantial to have even a semblance of control during a time where control seemed impossible.

This is also why Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Nintendo’s most recent major release for the Switch, came out at the perfect time. In Animal Crossing, you play as a community planner of sorts helping to develop the playful deserted island you inhabit into a thriving town filled with adorable cartoon animal neighbors. The world is open and no two days of play are the same: one day you might gather fish and fossils to donate to your museum and another day you might sell fruit and other items to pay for a bigger home, your time is your own.

While social distancing has impacted my relationship with my physical environment, Animal Crossing lets me create my own relationship to a digital environment. Almost everything in the game is decided by the player. You get to place all the buildings and bridges in town, and at a certain point, you can add roads and terraform the environment altogether, altering the rivers and land as you see fit. For eager players, it’s possible to make towns that look completely different than the island you started on.

Even among other Nintendo games marketed towards kids, the Animal Crossing series is pretty unusual in that there’s no harm, violence or even tension. Everything happens at your pace and your neighbors are just excited by you being there. I believe the overall calmness of the game is part of the reason people who aren’t familiar with the series are so confused by its popularity.

When people tell me the game seems boring, it’s hard to explain why it isn’t. There isn’t just one big show stopping selling point like you might look for in a shooter or fantasy title. The joy of Animal Crossing isn’t big and flashy, it’s in the quiet moments. You feel it as you try on clothing in your wardrobe, which can be a refrigerator by the way, and your character does stylish diva poses into the mirror. You feel it when you’re about to catch a rare fish and your controller vibrates slightly differently. You feel it when it’s raining out and your villagers carry around umbrellas and put on cute raincoats. Surrounded by a real world that’s overbearing and obnoxious, the game comes to life in its details.

There are obviously many ways to spend the hours at home that we’ve recently been thrust into, plenty of things to distract you. However, what’s unique about Animal Crossing: New Horizons coming out during the quarantine is that it doesn’t quite feel like a distraction from the physical world, it feels like a new way to engage with it.

In fact, the game clock moves in real time and always matches your own clock, so you’re never truly separated. But unlike real life, my friends can visit me on Animal Crossing as much as they want and I’ve been able to use these visits as a genuine surrogate for the interactions I can’t have right now. Just last week, I knew my coworker had a stressful week at work, so I sent her a cute beret in the mail. When I went to visit my boyfriend, I brought him a new outfit that I picked out at the clothing store. As strange as it might sound, giving those virtual gifts felt just as good as giving physical ones, because although the result is just pixels, the love and care behind those relationships are still very real.

My favorite moment in Animal Crossing so far was a few seconds when, while I was visiting his island, my boyfriend and I just sat on a bench next to each other, looking out at the river. I couldn’t tell you what was so compelling about that moment, but it’s stuck with me for the last week. We’re currently in a long distance relationship and because of the limited travel right now, we have no way of seeing each other for a long time. I don’t know when I’ll be able to sit next to him again in the physical world, so for now, I’ll just have to take what I can get.