Why Everyone Is Obsessed With ‘Animal Crossing’ Right Now

The therapeutic effects of building your own world

MMaybe, like me, you’ve seen some bright, cartoony landscapes dotting your Twitter feed lately. Liberally sprinkled among the grim coronavirus tweets are posts bursting with enthusiasm. Excitement. Fanaticism, in a few cases. Suddenly, it seems, people can not stop talking about Animal Crossing.

In a stroke of perfect timing, the same week many of us began our coronavirus isolations, Nintendo released Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a revamped version of the social simulation game first released in 2001. The premise is simple: You build your home on a deserted island, populate it with cute anthropomorphic animal characters, plan out the community, and then just live your life. You can decorate your house. You can befriend your neighbors. You can explore.

A few days into our new, socially distant life, my husband downloaded the game on our Switch and encouraged me to try it. I told him no. I’ve never been a gamer: I usually roll my eyes when he hunkers down after dinner to play Zelda or when my six-year-old begs me for more time to beat his Mario level. I’ve always seen video games as a distraction from reality, a retreat from the colors and sounds of the three-dimensional world.

But what if those colors and sounds aren’t available? What if you’re stuck at home for the indefinite future? During a quarantine, there’s not much else to look at except the confines of your own, small world.

So I caved. I gave it a try — and was surprised how immediately great it felt to be in charge of my own little island. The cartoonish sounds and bright colors are strangely soothing. And better yet, the whole game is about making choices. Want to travel to someone else’s island? Sure. Pawn a plant or seashell? Go for it. The only choices I’ve made IRL recently are about which can of beans to open for dinner, but here, I could build a whole life.

According to psychologist Ali Mattu, hanging out on a pixelated island can fulfill the psychological need of “diversity of environment.” Humans are wired to quickly become desensitized to routine pleasures, a phenomenon that’s known as hedonic adaptation. New and varied settings, sights, and experiences help keep hedonic adaptation at bay.

A few weeks ago, a change of scenery was as easy as working in a coffee shop or going to a friend’s house. Now, we don’t have the luxury of interacting with the world beyond the walls of our home.

“If we can create that diversity in our everyday lives through a game,” Mattu says, “that can help us get a little bit of a break from the stressors of our daily grind at home, which we all need in one way or another.”

Making progress on something you’re building also brings a sense of achievement — which, as all the days blur together in a cocktail of boredom and anxiety, is its own gift. Mattu says working on something you can control can help you feel like you’re moving forward. This is particularly useful when, say, you feel like the entire world is up in flames and there’s nothing you can do about it.

“I’m telling everyone right now to find something that absorbs them and distracts them — something they can keep working on to build a sense of mastery,” he says. “You can get that from a painting or re-organizing your closet, or you can get it from a video game.”

Two days into the quarantine, my therapist gave me some perspective-shifting advice: When things are uncertain, find as many things as you can to control. Maybe Animal Crossing isn’t for you. And honestly, I’m not sure yet if it’s for me. The important thing is finding a way to feel like you’re going somewhere. Broaden your horizons. Even if those horizons are cartoons.

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.

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