How Playing Animal Crossing Calms Everyone.
Use my degree as your excuse to please (please) take a breather from 2020.
If there’s any game as universally loved like warm soup for the soul as the Animal Crossing series, I have yet to encounter it. There are jokes about therapists hearing a lot about it — namely the latest title, New Horizons — in lockdown.
Heard in snatches second-hand, it all sounds bemusingly simple. You:
- 🥥 fish in the ocean
- 🥥 catch butterflies and bees in a net
- 🥥 grow delicious fruits
- 🥥 decorate, with fruit bowls or robots
- 🥥 create custom designs
- 🥥 talk to your neighbours (30% are pastel deer)
This list misses nuances. You can wander around and listen to the grass crunch softly. You roll snowballs in winter and catch purple moths in summer. You can stare at the clouds and watch the stars fall on clear nights. You can switch on the radio and go to sleep.
“So its just a hybrid of Minecraft and The Sims?”
I’ve picked it up to become a proud fellow islander, so not quite. Soft graphics and home-building raccoon aside, I believe Animal Crossing does more for the mind than either of the above.
From my perspective as a psychologist, here are two reasons I think Animal Crossing is so popular as (and genuinely good at being) chicken soup for the soul in times of burnout, isolation, layoffs and stress, aka 2020.
🍒 You’re doing what humans are supposed to be doing.
Evolutionary psychology tries to explain the mind the same way in biology we try to explain why we have an appendix, or eyelashes. Boggling and wonderful as consciousness is, we assume it is all there for a reason that stems from our ancestry. Feelings always serve a value.
You enjoy eating chocolate more than tofu (to consume sugars which were rare in the wild); you feel cuddly after good sex (to solidify strong bonds for raising a child); you get scared that your coat on the door is a demon in bed at 2am (to stay vigilant of night-time predators); you feel lonely until you make new friends when moving apartment (to establish a supportive “tribe” to rely on).
Likewise, humans enjoy being in green because for millions of years, we were. We gathered, hunted, and (eventually) cooked in forests and savannahs, with far lusher ecosystems than most of us live in today. Zoom calls, notifications, emails: often weird and stressful. But a good old park lets you breathe easily. Our biological evolution no longer keeps pace with our cultural evolution.
Animal Crossing fulfils this ancient need for green because you spend 95% of the time wandering around outdoors. This natural world is vividly and lovingly realised. In New Horizons, weed colours and types change by season. Each fish, moth, and creepy-crawly is also seasonal, and true to context. For example, ants will only come if you leave turnips rotting on the ground. Centipedes fly out of poked rocks. Tropical fish come in the summer. There are breezes, rains, and sunsets.
The environment is dynamic, reactive, and lush with nature. Exactly what our brains have been shaped to love.
Most compellingly is the ways you are given to interact with this environment. You move within the world of Animal Crossing in ways even your grandparents from a million years ago would see the sense in. Picking fruit? Fishing? Giving gifts to others you live near? (Occasionally) chasing your friend with an axe? Exploring? Trading items? Crafting tools?
To our ancient neurobiology, there is a comforting sense of homecoming in being in a lush outdoor world, gathering materials, alongside friendly others, with a gathering and barter system going on. In the 21st century, this can make us really fond of an anthropomorphic sheep in a scarf.
🍐 Less a game; more a bonsai tree.
The fascinating part of how Animal Crossing works is, it is engaging without being addictive.
It is not designed to be addictive. I throw my thumbs up for it as healthy because it encourages its own moderation.
Most games have your dopamine/reward system so hooked, it’s more a question of it putting you down, rather than you putting it down. They’re incredibly fun. They are also hard to walk away from, except at specific points. Like when you get stuck on a level, or frustrated with a match, or finish your favourite storyline.
In contrast to this, Animal Crossing’s design actively discourages you from binge-playing. You wait days for fruit to regrow. Shops close until the next day. An angry mole tells you off if you try to cheat this.
The only other games that are this closely tied to real time, and limit your actions by day, overwhelmingly use free-to-play models. They limit you in a far more abrupt and deliberately frustrating way — such as running out of energy — designed so you shell out for instant-fixes. Even when they have a “nurturing the environment” aspect, its more about clicking buttons than actually enjoying the world you’ve created. (I would say RIP to Farmville, but oh God, it still exists.) So in their own way, they also twist this clock-based model to become unputdownable, making more £££.
Animal Crossing isn’t like that. You can accomplish a satisfying amount within a day: if you want to play for more hours at the weekend, you can save up for island tickets, to explore and gather more, but you can also tend to your island well with a spare twenty minutes. It expands and contracts to fit your schedule. It never punishes you for being away: only welcomes you back. It always, at its core, blossoms most with low-level, regular attention. Neighbours move in. Weather and seasons change. Weekly and random events occur, like a shifty painting-seller.
In this way Animal Crossing: New Horizons is more similar to a bonsai tree than a game. It requires a small bit of care everyday: pruning weeds, watering, small and regular close care. It grows before your eyes, sometimes unexpectedly, in the directions you want it to. It becomes more satisfying to look at the longer you spend with it.
Growing a beautiful island in Animal Crossing, as with many worthwhile things in life, takes time. In a world where most video games, from Fire Emblem to Fortnite, are pick-n-mix candy — you want to play another round, or find out what happens next, or progress to another area, or open that box, and you keep doing it and doing it until you eventually realise you’ve played for six hours straight and feel a bit sick — Animal Crossing is a bonsai. There is no rush. Only gentle, regular devotion.
For many of us, especially in urban and gardenless environments, Animal Crossing is the perfect alternative to bringing back another dying houseplant: a small, personal green to step into and cultivate. One that holds up no matter where you are, or how strange the world outside is.
God bless anthropomorphic deer.