Animal Crossing: New Horizon is the Perfect Antidote to Pandemic Life

Unlike the real world, this game is calm, orderly, and predictable

I live on a small island surrounded by a freshwater stream filled with fish and a sandy ocean front where I collect shells and stumble on messages in bottles.

Animal Crossing New Horizons
 Lifewire / Julie Bang

My day is filled with collecting weeds, fishing, eating cherries, and negotiating with landlord and general island entrepreneur Tom Nook and his furry little sons, Tommy and Timmy.

I am, for the first time in weeks, content.

I’m also living in a fantasy world of Nintendo’s design and I’m not alone. According to Nintendo’s most recent earnings report, the social simulation game Animal Crossing: New Horizon sold over 11.7 million copies since its March 2020 release and is “the best start ever for a Nintendo Switch title.”

Animal Crossing
My island, Phoenix Island, is small but homey. Animal Crossing / Nintendo 

Nook's World

Animal Crossing and its anthropomorphic characters and world-building metaphors has been around since the days of Nintendo 64, but if you’re not familiar with it, Animal Crossing and the New Horizon Nintendo Switch build is like a much kinder, gentler version of The Sims. There’s world building and interaction and the game plays out in real time. That means that when it’s midnight in your world, it’s also midnight in Animal Crossing. If something takes a day to accomplish in the game, you’ll have to wait a day in real life, as well.

You build a home, garden, pick plants and weeds, catch animals (I literally cheered out loud the first time I caught a fish), travel to other islands through the single-plane airport, and buy, sell, and negotiate with the generally kind island merchant and overseer, Tom Nook (and his wily sons).

The graphics and music are as soothing and inviting as an old episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. It’s easy to lose track of time as you chase butterflies, shake trees for cherries, take on DIY projects, and engage in mindless conversations with the other island inhabitants (your island starts with two computer-generated “friends”).

Animal Crossing New Horizons
The more stuff you own, the more you can do. Nintendo

Out of Isolation

Animal Crossing: New Horizons' launch date was set long before anyone ever heard of Coronavirus, COVID-19, or imagined that a pandemic would sweep the world and force millions of people to shelter at home for months.

As Quibi learned, launching during pandemic times is a risky venture at best, but it seems to have worked in Animal Crossing’s favor. I asked Nintendo if the company considered the timing and if it marveled, at least for the Switch platform, its unprecedented success. Unfortunately, Nintendo did not choose to comment.

Not that they really need to. Evidence of the game’s impact is everywhere.

Island Connections

With Animal Crossing's village store proprietor Tom Nook’s help, I named my island, pitched my tent and started living a quiet life on Phoenix.

It does not have to be a lonely life. Nintendo Switch Online subscribers ($3.99 a month) can extend the experience to the real-ish world and interact with other players by connecting the Switch to the internet and traveling, with player permission, to other islands. They can, in turn, visit your island. I’m still trying to amass some Animal Crossing friends.

This is how, for instance, New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez started visiting constituent’s islands in the game, and how others have held weddings and parties.

The game is now a source of memes, like players collecting to recreate popular music. This stilted rendition of Africa’s Toto is more endearing for its limited graphics, audio, and motility 

Instead of voices, we hear “Animalese,” which sounds like baby robot gibberish.

As we have done on Zoom, FaceTime and even social media, we are replacing currently inadvisable direct physical connections with digital simulacrums. However, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is unlike those other platforms. While we can dress ourselves and even strip down to our skivvies (I once spent a day strolling Phoenix in my underwear), we’re still just a collection of game-friendly, safe avatars who speak in word bubbles. Instead of voices, we hear “Animalese,” which sounds like baby robot gibberish.

No one gets in your face or starts pontificating about the right, left, or ending stay at home orders. It’s a troll-free environment, fixated more on the next weekly Stalk Market (a prime opportunity to buy and sell turnips) than on toilet paper supplies.

Tiny Struggles

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is not without its controversy. Players cannot decide if Tom Nook is a hero or a villain and recently held one of his sons hostage to see if they could force Tom to forgive some of their debt. Granted, the “hostage taking” amounted to some players putting handmade tree stakes around Tommy Nook, which limited his movement.

The monetary system, which is comprised of “bells” and “Nook Miles” and is the gateway to better equipment, furnishings, and experiences on the island is also a source of Animal Crossing-sized stress. There are multiple articles explaining how to make “money” more quickly in the game.

Last week, Nintendo set off a mini panic when some of it servers went offline and took with them players’ bells and ability to make purchases.

Animal Crossing New Horizons
You have to remember to eat and sleep on your island. Nintendo

For me, however, and I suspect many others, the real benefit of Animal Crossings: New Horizons is its balm-like structure, predictability, and sense of order. Sure, my island changes incrementally each day. Today, for instance, I discovered a neighbor had built a small home near my tent and, for the first time in the game, I felt envy. Even so, when I knocked on his door, my neighbor welcomed me inside and offered to sell me supplies if I needed them. I walked out pondering how I might enhance my position in the game to gain the tools, supplies, and expertise to build my own home.

We are, in general, playing more video games, but my forays into Fortnite and pursuits of “Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner” victories in PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds tend to key me up more than calm me down.

Of all my activities while in quarantine, my daily visits to my island are among the most relaxing. Minutes and even hours pass without notice. It’s the only time when I feel, essentially, disconnected from the pandemic-driven world crisis. I may not be alone.

Dr. Sudeepta Varma, a psychiatrist at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, doesn’t play Animal Crossing: New Horizons but agrees with my assessment and told me via email, “Yes, anything that gives us the element of control, distraction, escapism, or is addictive, or allows someone to feel productive, or satisfying—if even momentarily—will be popular. So many of us feel helpless right now.”

The last bit, the feeling of helplessness I know many of us share, honestly, doesn’t exist in Animal Crossings: New Horizons. On my tiny island, I feel a fantastic amount of control. There are, obviously, things I do not know yet and Tom Nook’s actions are inscrutable, but none of it has the danger or risk associated with living in today’s real world.

So what

Even if Nintendo didn’t intend it, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the digital balm I and millions of other players need right now. Our world shows little sign of returning to normal anytime soon. While we wait, we’ll garden, build, collect bells, and ponder if Tom Nook is really a man wearing a raccoon disguise.