These past few days while the coronavirus pandemic continues to accelerate, I have burst into my neighbors’ homes, planted a grove of orange trees, and visited a number of far off islands to collect bugs and fish. This, of course, has all from the comfort of my couch while playing the recently-released Animal Crossing: New Horizons on Nintendo Switch.
The new Animal Crossing dropping this past weekend couldn’t have come at a better time. Because just as you should be doing if you aren’t already, I’ve been practicing social distancing as part of my public health duty to help slow the spread of the virus. It’s now been a couple of weeks of working from home and spending the weekends indoors as COVID-19 upends our everyday life, and like many people on social media, I’m finding contentment in the comforting mundanity of Animal Crossing.
Essentially, Animal Crossing is a game of chores. You walk around your island finding things that you can sell for bells (the in-game currency) to buy different clothes and furniture, or pay off your housing loan only to have Tom Nook convince you into another home expansion, only to owe him more money. Chat with neighbors to get a better idea of who they are and occasionally get gifts from them. Pulling weeds is literally a part of the game. Doing these various tasks will unlock other seemingly-mundane things, such as the opening of a bigger store or the museum where you can donate specimens. But the banality of these duties, coupled with some of the most adorable graphics to come out of Nintendo franchises, is what has made Animal Crossing so consoling while anxieties are at full-speed in the real world.
Because in Animal Crossing, the stakes are low. There’s no real peril. Sure, a shot of adrenaline might wake you up when you shake a tree and wasps storm out, but you can easily catch them with your net or run safely home. And if you do get stung, your swollen eye can quickly be healed using some weeds. Sure, there’s a pesky tarantula that emerges at night that can give you a nasty bite, but you’ll just wake up at your house. Arguably, the most intense negative feeling you’ll experience while playing Animal Crossing is the heartbreak of waking up and reading a letter from a neighbor announcing that they’ve moved away. Wasps, tarantulas, and goodbyes? Much more manageable than disease and our government doing little for crisis relief.
New Horizons also has online social features that allow you to visit your friends’ islands — which makes for a nice social distancing alternative to the exhausting slate of FaceTimes and Zoom chats we’re all piling on. I’d much rather see a friend’s island and how they’ve decorated their Animal Crossing: New Horizons home than see their face full screen on my laptop.
And with that socializing comes a layer of sharing and helping. When a person starts on Animal Crossing, they get one fruit that’s native to their island (peach, cherry, apple, pear, or orange). By visiting your friends’ islands, you’re able to pick whatever fruit they have, return home, and grow your own trees. As simple as it may seem, just being able to offer something like that provides a small bit of gratification and achievement. I might not be able to drastically change the world at this very moment from my couch, but I can contribute a piece of my island that you can take home to yours.
The customization of Animal Crossing is also what makes it such a joy to play. Collecting different furniture has always been a favorite pastime of the Animal Crossing games, and now you can build your own using materials you find around the island. Additionally, you can put your own spin on basic items like bookshelves and wardrobes, turning them pastel, green, or a number of other appearances. New Horizons gives you the ability to put furniture wherever you like outside and later on in the game you can even move buildings and change the landscape of the island. The world-building and molding are at a whole new level in the latest installment. Sitting at home all day has made me tired of all my IRL decorations and fixtures, forced to stare and interact with them 24/7. In Animal Crossing, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition only takes a few buttons and however little time you want to devote. And then voila, different knick-knacks and wallpaper breathe new life into your island home and state of mind. There’s catharsis in the acute personalization of your island.
Daily life has changed dramatically for so many people who are now spending a lot more time at home and away from friends. Meanwhile, we’re more aware than ever of globalization, and the ways we (and our economies, political systems, and disease-spreading abilities) are all connected. Right now, the world feels both way too big and (if you’re in a tiny apartment with roommates) way too small — Animal Crossing presents a fresh yet manageable middle ground, a contained island paradise of life and color instead of a limitless open world.
Ultimately, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a game of ordinary behavior in an extraordinary setting — the bustling island is both an aspirational getaway and a return to life’s simple, everyday, taken-for-granted pleasures. It’s exactly the game we need right now.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue