A reader reflects on their last few months playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons and whether the game is really as wholesome as it seems.
Animal Crossing has recently become the poster child for promoting the benefits of video games for our mental health during the current global pandemic. Whilst enduring strict lockdown measures, many gamers escaped the confines of their encroaching four walls by taking a virtual holiday to Tom Nook’s island getaway.
But is Animal Crossing beneficial to our mental health or is it, in fact, detrimental to our wellbeing?
Having played the game extensively over the last few months, I have been considering if the game has been a force for good; bright and breezy entertainment of which I can relax and unwind with. Or has it made me feel more stressed, anxious, and distracted?
I put toward my case for both arguments then, and readers can decide for themselves if Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a game you should continue to dedicate your time to or be like some of the characters within it who decide to sell up and move away from your lovingly created island once and for all, in search of something new.
So then, let me pose the question.
Is Animal Crossing good for you? YES.
Living on your small island is a truly idyllic lifestyle where long sunny days are passed away chasing butterflies, planting fruit, giving presents to locals, stargazing, and shopping. The game has its own natural rhythm as you step out of your cosy abode, check your mail, go for a wander, and decide at your own leisure how you will spend each day. Hours in real life can just slip by as you clock up Nook Miles by catching fish, building furniture, and popping balloons.
The museum in New Horizons is a real wonder. Once you have built up a sizeable collection of fossils, fish and bugs, walking around and observing your catches is a wonderful sight to behold, and the music is both eerie and relaxing. When you bring your latest donations to Blathers, he gives a surprisingly detailed talk about your findings, and you may learn something you never knew before that could be the difference between victory and failure in your next pub quiz.
You can also become the next Karin Bohn by developing your interior design skills and mastering the art of feng shui through expert furniture placement within your ever-expanding digs.
After playing for just a few days, I would take a walk in a local park and notice a branch on the floor and think, hmm… I wonder what I can make with a few more of those? The more time you spend in Animal Crossing, the more you notice nature in real life. You think about the tress you pass by. You notice the butterflies and the bees going about their business. After landing a rare oarfish, you may go online and marvel at how long they really are and discover where they come from. Or find out if a tarantula can really run that fast?
You may notice that the more variety of fruit and flowers you plant, the more variety of critters you attract, and so you plan how you can promote more biodiversity in your own back garden.
New Horizons really does reward your hard work. The game starts off with what feels like virtual labour, as you constantly run errands for landowner Tom Nook. Yet yoru efforts do not go unrewarded, as more residents move in and the original bland landscape begins to develop into a beautiful tapestry before your eyes.
You will keep thinking about how you can make improvements and look for ways to boost your island rating. When K. K. Slider finally turned up to sing a song after the work I had put in, I had a great big grin on my face and it almost brought a tear to my eye.
With seemingly everyone playing the last few months, Animal Crossing has built up a strong community spirit. Facebook groups have been promoting the best prices for turnips. There have been news stories such as Elijah Wood popping up in someone’s game to ask for fruit. Gamers post their creative island designs on social media and there has been a wonderful sense of helping and sharing. I made a visit to another player’s island and the group hanging out their dropped me a cool 100,000 bells each! A bit like life as we currently know it, there is a feeling that we are in this together.
Is Animal Crossing good for you? NO.
In New Horizons you can buy a nice little starter home in a day just by collecting and selling fruit. You can then buy anything your heart desires by partaking in relaxing pursuits. There are no deadlines, no early morning alarm call, no commute, and no boss piling on the pressure. Everyone on the island is friendly, nothing ever goes wrong and life is basically perfect.
Contrast that with our daily reality, where many people will struggle to ever buy their own homes. Wages are stagnant. People are often not very nice to each other and life is often far from perfect.
Animal Crossing highlights a real divide between what we desire and what we actually have to face on a daily basis. Playing Animal Crossing can make us feel a sense of injustice because we cannot afford to purchase our own place, working our arses off just to get by; whereas in game we can buy a mansion through selling turnips.
Once Animal Crossing has its grip on you, it can be hard to break free. And the game does this by using daily rewards and time limits to keep you going back.
You get bonus miles for using the ATM each day. If you don’t visit the store you may miss out on the best prices for turnips. And don’t forget to jump in every Sunday before 12pm to buy those fresh root vegetables in the first place.
Want to buy some art for the museum? Better turn up every day, as you never know when Redd will arrive, flogging his wares.
Do you need to complete a fossil collection? Check in every day! Are you looking for the ideal piece of furniture to complete your en suite? Check in every day!
Yes, Animal Crossing makes you want go back each and every day, even when you know you should probably be doing other things instead, just in case you miss out. I even felt guilty when I hadn’t played for several days and wondered if I was going to go back to an overgrown mess and the local residents had upped sticks, as I hadn’t talked to them.
Whilst trying to catch an emperor butterfly, I smacked a walking crocodile over the head twice with a bug net as they wandered too close. They become visibly upset, and I felt terribly guilty. I had to plead their forgiveness to get back in their good books. I realised I was more concerned with how the villagers thought about me that people in the real word. In Animal Crossing I make an effort to talk to them on a daily basis. I visit their house on their birthday. I give them random gifts for no other reason then to see hem be happy. Things I am not doing out of the game, and so I felt weird that I had become so invested in the lives of these digital critters.
No matter how much time, money and effort you put into your island, you will have a nagging feeling that there is a better island out there than yours. Just looking at some of the designs on forums is enough to make you feel envious and resentful, as it dawns on that your island looks like a boggy marshland in comparison.
I visited a friend’s island and was amazed at the layout, the colour and the intricate designs, including their very own Starbucks with logos. Of course, I said to them ‘nice island’, but inside I wanted to take an axe to it like Jason Voorhees to a teenage slumber party
After a while it dawns on you that Animal Crossing feels like a sandbox without a bucket and spade. You can buy plenty of stuff, but you can’t do anything with it. You can buy scooters and tricycles, but you cannot ride them. You can fill a park with slides, climbing frames and ride on toys, but you can only look at them.
This lack of interaction makes it feel like an empty plastic world. Even when you visit friends it just feels… off. The conversation is stilted, you can’t do anything and you may as well be having a tea party on you own at home with plastic cups and teddy bears for guests. The whole thing starts to make you feel frustrated that you have all these items, and yet you can do nothing with them.
By reader Relaxed Chimp (PSN ID)
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