Feel you can't invest in the real world? You can in Animal Crossing

Jacob Pendrey on the 'solution focused distraction' of the video game Animal Crossing.

Complete repetitive tasks to harvest root vegetables, in order to pay off a debt to a Tanuki (who has a monopoly that would make De Beers blush). If I were to describe the purpose of a game in this way, you may raise an eyebrow. Yet 'Animal Crossing: New Horizons' has an undeniable charm, grounded in psychology, and could not have come at a better time.

With the restrictions imposed by Covid-19, the game has surged in a popularity as a result, with notable fans such as Brie Larson, Elijah Wood, and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez all taking to Twitter to share their enthusiasm for it. It was even a surprise to the game’s developer, Nintendo, who reported they had outsold their expected lifetime sales within three months of its Japanese release.

So, what is the appeal? Since this game has been flooding my social media, I reached out to my friends to supplement my reflections with theirs. 

Animal Crossing is open-ended – there are no defined objectives or story to complete. You start off on an empty island with nothing but a tent and tools provided to you by the aforementioned business shark (or racoon, should I say). It's a blank canvas with countless customisation options, the chance to create a community in which you attract more adorable anthropomorphised animal residents to settle. It is entirely up to you to decide how you build and shape your island. Once you have created something that attracts residents, you then cultivate friendships with your townspeople for them to stay. 

There is one catch – this game has a real-world clock. This means you can only do certain things at certain times of day, particular days of the week. When our real life days blur together and 2pm becomes the new 7am, the game’s internal schedule of events gives a reason to be up at a reasonable hour. In lieu of the work-week structure, it provides a routine that has been taken away from those who have been furloughed. If you sleep through the morning market and do not buy turnips, how else will you get the resources to develop your orchard? Once you are up for that, it enables you to get on with your day and stay connected with the rest of the world. 

Where for some it has provided semblance of a normal day, for others it has provided a touch of escapism from a year that appears to have been scripted by the creators of Black Mirror. We are constantly being reminded that nothing is normal right now, the cracks in society are showing and we are being forced to recognise some ugly truths. Being able to log in to an island paradise of your own making gives some much-needed respite, and sights beyond your own neighbourhood. 

You can even visit friends on their islands. It gives a specific reason to catch-up with someone, to have something to talk about and feel like you are doing something together – a sense of connectedness whilst we have all been socially distant. You can share your progress, or your plans for your island, and not face the awkward silence when you habitually ask them what they got up to last weekend. It gives the placebo of hanging out and doing something together when you cannot in the real world. You can even visit the islands of strangers to trade, interact, and share tips. Animal Crossing rewards you for your kindness and creates a sense of community. The more you interact with others, the more you can do progress. Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez has been reaching out to people this way, uniquely connecting with her supporters. You even find yourself becoming attached to the virtual residents, developing favourites as you build relationships with residents (shout out to Poncho the bear). 

Finally, Animal Crossing gives a sense of achievement that many of us are missing in our current lives. The game does set some tangible goals, but perhaps the most satisfying are the ones you can make for yourself. It starts off small, perhaps gaining a specific amount of resources that gets you the tool you need for the next step in your island’s development. Eventually it becomes much bigger, like building a specific area. For one friend of mine, Ryan, this game has given him a special sense of fulfilment. Ryan sadly lost a grandparent this spring, and due to social distancing he was unable to visit her before she passed. He felt like there was little for her he could do after her passing, yet yearned to do something. It was within this game that he was able to create a shrine to all his grandparents, which gave him the nice feeling that he could do something for her in his own way. Now whenever someone visits his island, he makes a point to show them this area and shares it with them. Where many may have felt lost without something to do in their daily lives, checking in daily and seeing the progress of the town perhaps supplements what they are missing from normality. 

In this period of uncertainty, many of us are stricken with anxiety. And those of us that had it before, are no doubt experiencing it two-fold. Animal Crossing gives a sense of control when the whole world, and by extension our personal lives, feel very much out of control right now. You are free to explore and experiment, and the consequences are minimal. What you feel like you cannot invest in the real world, you can in Animal Crossing. I sit writing this in my rented room in a house share, but in this game, I can pay off an entire mortgage! I could live the millennial fantasy!

- Jacob Pendrey is an Assistant Psychologist based in South Wales.

Editor's note: What games are you particularly seeking out during the pandemic? I am by no means a gamer, but I have been drawn to Lonely Mountains: Downhill. This is despite the fact that bombing around on a bike, with the wind in my hair and birdsong filling the air, has been one of the few things I've been able to do in real life.

Share your recommendations, along with why you might have been particuarly drawn to them at this time, on Twitter @psychmag.

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