Animal Crossing: Just a Kids’ Game or a Modern Coping Tool?

Matt Slater / Staff Photo 

Young or old, you have probably heard of the video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Amidst the uncertainty that is global affairs in 2020, Animal Crossing’s cheery exterior and light-gameplay have been welcomed into the public light with open arms. 

But what about Animal Crossing: New Horizons has made it so successful? Could the raging popularity be accredited to individuals just searching for ways to escape their current situation, or is there a deeper benefit? 

The video-gaming industry as a whole has seen an increase in sales due to the coronavirus pandemic. With the current global atmosphere being very tense and many individuals stressed about COVID-19, whether it be work or health-related, Animal Crossing has offered a type of peaceful sanctuary. 

Animal Crossing can be used as a daily escape from the frightening reality of life. It allows individuals to take control of anxiety-provoking situations and vent any frustrations or fears they have about the real world. 

This pursuit of an outlet to funnel attention to is called escapism. Escapism has historically been given a bad rap because it is associated with relief from an unpleasant situation, but it is not always negative. 

Animal Crossing offers a video-gaming experience that is often compared to soothing meditational practices. The franchise is not dominated by heavy story-telling and the narrative guidelines can be completed at your leisure. This self-pacing mechanism offers players many choices, and with it, control. 

In Animal Crossing: New Horizons, players can decide what their character does day-to-day in real-time; whether it be tending a garden, catching fish or bugs, decorating villager’s houses, or visiting friends from around the globe. Original music, characters, and dialogue make Animal Crossing quite unique in the gaming world. 

New Horizons launched on March 20, 2020; In record time, it exceeded the lifetime sales of each previous game in the Animal Crossing franchise. Also during March, the Nintendo Switch console, which is the only platform New Horizons is offered on, saw a sales increase of 150 percent. 

Individuals like Jeremy Bailenson have worked to investigate the connections between escapism and virtual enrichment. As he explores in his book, Experience on Demand, virtual reality, and social simulators can help individuals recover from trauma. 

Traumatic events, such as global pandemics, bring a degree of uncertainty, which can lead to serious psychological repercussions. 

A 2002 study of children in psychologically traumatic situations showed that playing with toys or art materials helped rebuild emotional stability. Having the opportunity to play comes with the notion that people are beginning to put their lives back together, and life is going back to normal.

In this way, Animal Crossing: New Horizons might be the relief that our modern generation needs. 

Anyone could make the argument that COVID-19 has been a traumatic experience. Life for many around the globe has completely changed. The loss of communities such as school, work, and religious gatherings, as well as the uncertainty when communities will be able to gather again, can lead to serious mental health repercussions.

Maybe the reason New Horizons has gotten so popular is that it is tending to the psychological human need to play in order to deal with trauma. 

New Horizons is fundamentally simple. It allows for easy repetition, which can soothe nerves or anxiety. Additionally, New Horizons is open to creative expression. As a player, you are not confined to a strict rule book. Almost every aspect of the game is moldable to your artistic vision. If players don’t have a specific vision in mind, the game inspires them to create one with the tools provided. 

Finally, New Horizons lets you build and nurture new relationships and communities. It has become a new resource for individuals to connect to one another. In a time when everyone is a little lonely, thousands of players congregate online to share resources and playthrough tips.  

Animal Crossing: New Horizons may pave the way for new, innovative virtual simulators, especially if quarantine persists. It will be interesting to see how different aspects of the media industry will cope with life restrictions or if more companies try to capitalize on stay-at-home requirements. Regardless, New Horizons will be written in the history books as a smashing success.