Why ‘Animal Crossing’ Is So Soothing Right Now, According To Psychologists

Despite not having left the house in who knows how long, our household has made a handful of new friends since sheltering-in-place: Isabelle, K.K., Tom Nook to name a few. If you too have turned your home into an Animal Crossing sanctuary, welcome. Nintendo’s recently launched game Animal Crossing: New Horizons for Nintendo Switch has seemingly taken over everyone’s homes, free time, and entire lives. This begs the question: why is Animal Crossing so soothing?

Why not Tetris or Mario Kart or some bootleg version of Barbie Magic Hairstyler? What is it about this social simulation game — filled with colorful animals, bell currency, and “recipes” for how to build fishing poles — that feels so apropos right now? Perhaps the answer is about as simple as you might assume and given the state of *gestures widely* everything, simple answers are what we all need.

Life, Idealized

Since launching on March 20, 2020, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has been downloaded millions of times. In Japan alone, the new Animal Crossing was downloaded 1.8 million times in just three days, setting records for the game series. Major retailers like Amazon have sold out of the Nintendo Switch with Animal Crossing undoubtedly contributing to that shortage. (The new Animal Crossing is currently only available for Nintendo Switch.) If it seems like everyone is playing Animal Crossing, that’s because most everyone is.

More than 297 million people have been told to shelter in place amidst the coronavirus outbreak, and that’s just in the United States. We’re having to Google how to safely buy food and figure out what we need to buy to last us until our next limited grocery store trip. Health experts and government agencies are recommending, if not requiring, that we practice social distancing for the foreseeable future. Life is currently far less than ideal.

Animal Crossing is almost exclusively ideal. Though you still face life-like problems — paying off debts, learning basic life skills, figuring out how to afford the things you want — the stakes are so, so low. There are few negative consequences in Animal Crossing, if any. Your character can’t die. You aren’t hiding, chasing, or trying to catch some elusive “bad guy.” You’re just trying to get by and enjoy your time.

Animal Crossing is a reminder of the Before Times. It is escapism on X-Games mode.

This lack of urgency is integral to the game. As Jennifer Scheurle points out in a piece for Polygon, the pacing in Animal Crossing is key to its relaxing nature. You learn new skills gradually and are given ample time to explore and play at your own pace. Additionally, gameplay happens in real-time, meaning if you’re playing at night, it is nighttime for the Animal Crossing universe, too. If you don’t accomplish what you set out to do today, there is always tomorrow.

“It’s a form of pleasant escapism from our present harsh reality,” Dr. Erika Martinez, licensed psychologist and founder of Envision Wellness, tells Bustle over email. “It’s distracting, mindfulness entertainment that’s helping people cope,” which Martinez notes is fine in the short-term but isn't a long-term cure-all by any means.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is centered around an island getaway. (Whether you interpret that as a vacation, the start of a new life, or being admitted into witness protection is up to you.) Unless you’re incredibly wealthy or willing to risk the health and safety of yourself and those around you, you probably aren’t going to take a vacation anytime soon. In this sense, Animal Crossing is a reminder of the Before Times. It is escapism on X-Games mode.

Control and Choices

We've had little say in the choices we've had to make over the past month. Many if not all of us have spent this time adjusting and adapting, forced to compromise things like a consistent source of income and seeing loved ones in order to prioritize health and safety. This lack of control directly feeds into the appeal of Animal Crossing, Natalie Ryan, a psychotherapist in NYC, explains to Bustle over email.

“The predictability that this kind of virtual world provides can relieve some of the anxiety we might be having around the lack of control in our current climate,” Ryan says, emphasizing how uncertain this time has been and how destabilizing that can be.

“With these types of games, we're able to be fully immersed in a fantasy world that allows us to make choices, feel our basic needs are being met and taken care of, and generally feel more safety and autonomy — a stark different from our current reality,” Ryan says. “Being involved in a world where the complexities and fears are left to the side can help us cope with our own realities.”

The ~Aesthetic~

One 2019 survey called The World’s Favorite Color Project found that the lighter a color is, the more often it is associated with calmness and relaxation. The color palette of Animal Crossing is fairly muted, tapping into pastels and softer hues. While there are lush greens, deep blues, and bright reds, those are limited to more natural elements: the grass, the sky, some apples.

The animation evokes Pixar-esque soft edges, too. Nothing too sharp, sudden, or jarring. There are no jump scares or sudden attacks. (Unless you count running into Timmy and Tommy as an “attack.”) The sound track is reminiscent of a "soothing nature sounds" playlist. The sound effects are often cute, silly blips and bloops. It is, to put it simply, just incredibly pleasing.

As one Redditor put it in a thread answering why Animal Crossing is so popular right now, “the music and sound effects and overall vibe of the game [are] cute, lighthearted, and wholesome.” And who among us could use some good vibes?

Playing Animal Crossing feels almost meditative. I’ve watched my husband play hours of Animal Crossing, picking up bundles of wood and burying fruit to grow a new tree. The motions are repetitive without being boring, creating a new routine when many of us have had our real-life routines uprooted. The benefits of meditation and mindfulness run the gamut of reducing stress to coping with anxiety. As one blog post from Psychology Today states, “research even suggests that mindfulness can help people better cope with rejection and social isolation.”

Simulated Social Connection

As we navigate working remotely through video conference platforms and figure out how to still be social even when social distancing, many of us are craving human connection. As New Horizons game producer Hisashi Nogami told The Verge, Animal Crossing is best enjoyed with other people. You can play Animal Crossing with friends, inviting them over to your newly decorated home or going on fishing trips together. One couple even hosted their wedding on Animal Crossing. Getting to see, experience, and enjoy the same environment with the people you love is a rarity right now; Animal Crossing is one way to work around that.

“A fantasy of a place where things are clean and orderly, where we have control of our surroundings, where things are somewhat predictable and logical, sounds pretty good right now,” Christine Celio, Ph.D., clinical director of mental health integration at One Medical, tells Bustle over email. “This is at the heart of COVID-19 anxiety -- it is unprecedented in recent history, so prediction is so challenging. We get new updates on symptoms and approaches to treat it on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. Reading the news increases that sense of insecurity, whereas playing a game like this creates a sense of calm and predictable outcomes.”

On top of all of this, Animal Crossing is also nostalgic for many people as the original game was released nearly a decade ago. It’s something old made new, something familiar made fresh. Some studies have suggested that nostalgia is good for your brain helping combat everything from loneliness to boredom to anxiety, three things many of us are likely feeling right now.

If you’re looking for games to play while self-isolated, Animal Crossing may be just the escape you seek. Come for the zeitgeist of it all. Stay for the good vibes.

Experts:

Dr. Erika Martinez, licensed psychologist and founder of Envision Wellness

Natalie Ryan, a psychotherapist in NYC

Christine Celio, Ph.D., clinical director of mental health integration at One Medical