During a period when all but essential workers are confined to their homes, many people are faced with unexpected free time. The source of these extra hours introduces anxiety and isolation that makes it difficult to know exactly what to do. Some are turning to video games for distraction, while others argue that such entertainment is not a good use of time. One game in particular, though, has brought light to many during these difficult months. “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” provides a unique experience with particular potential to combat pandemic stressors.
The newest installment of Nintendo’s popular Animal Crossing franchise — released March 20, 2020 — emerged into a world primed to receive it. “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” is a life simulation game in which a character, designed by the player, travels to an undeveloped island with nothing but the clothes programmed on its back. The ultimate goal, according to “The Verge,” is to transform the island into something bigger and better while making friends along the way. This game may now have a higher calling.
The sudden relocation of outside activities to the home has proved disastrous for individuals’ daily schedules. One might think that the introduction of a video game into the chaos would only exacerbate the issue, but “New Horizons” is contradicting this narrative. “Animal Crossing” takes place in real time, meaning that the game matches the player’s situation to the minute. This distinguishes it from many other games which might tempt the player to binge by playing for hours at a time. Instead, it sets a routine by encouraging players to check elements of the game for a short time each day.
Nintendo’s design even combats “time travel” — changing date and time settings to progress faster — by limiting access to certain time-sensitive events. People are using the game’s daily tasks to help regulate their real-life schedules, setting aside time to play in the morning before work begins or checking in for a moment when life gets overwhelming. “New Horizons,” if played as intended, can help create a routine when a schedule is particularly difficult to establish.
A pandemic naturally prompts heightened anxiety for many. Again, “Animal Crossing” offers a solution. “New Horizons” is the fifth game of the series. The initial “Animal Crossing” debuted on Nintendo 64 in 2001 and subsequent installments have been available on everything from the Wii to the iPhone every few years since. This means that “Animal Crossing” fans of all ages likely have a nostalgic connection to the game, perhaps lasting up to two decades.
This nostalgia factor could be making a significant difference in the levels of anxiety for many players. Psychologist Constantine Sedikides’ 2018 study on nostalgia revealed the phenomenon’s enormous benefits. Nostalgia helps reduce anxiety and stress, particularly regarding misfortune and death, and it can allow people to realize a greater sense of life meaning. Some have called “Animal Crossing” childish, but perhaps a brief return to childhood isn’t a bad thing.
“Animal Crossing” has likely gained the most praise in recent months for its emphasis on community and relationship building, both in the game and in reality. The premise of “New Horizons” in particular relies on friendship. Each player’s island is populated with anthropomorphic animals to befriend and help, and the more an island is improved, the more new animal friends will want to move there.
Not only this, but the multiplayer capability of “New Horizons” brings a lot to the experience. Each player’s resources and customization capabilities are limited, and inviting real-life friends to visit each other's islands is an easy way to progress and still “hang out” with others. People have gone so far as to invite a Tinder date to their island in lieu of prohibited face-to-face interaction. The game’s emphasis on connection makes it an especially useful tool for maintaining relationships during isolation.
The fact that “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” was released as the pandemic began is a happy coincidence. The game's unique content and features make it not only a welcome distraction but a healthy coping mechanism for those quarantined and on edge. This video game battles stereotypes, emphasizing routine, calmness and community during a time of global isolation.
Most importantly, “Animal Crossing” offers something enjoyable to do which, Dr. Regine Galanti says, is especially important when people are surrounded by stressors largely out of their control.
It may not be the right fit for everyone, but it’s certainly capable of helping players combat their difficult realities. “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” offers itself up as a “personal island paradise” in a time when most are limited to the view from their bedroom window.
Caroline Rose is a freshman undeclared major. Contact Caroline at email@example.com.