When public places closed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people bought Animal Crossing: New Horizons. From planting flowers to decorating a home, some users spent hundreds of hours in the game. One player even decided to write an essay about Animal Crossing and send it to the New York Times.
Ananya Udaygiri, a student at Shadow Creek High School in Pearland, Texas, won the New York Times 2020 Student Editorial Contest, with her written piece “How Animal Crossing Will Save Gen Z.”
“Basically, Animal Crossing represents everything we don’t have,” said Udaygiri. “Children are no longer looking for ways to grow up and go on exciting adventures through video games. Animal Crossing is a tie to childhood. And as young people are given new responsibilities of fighting for gun change and climate change sometimes all by ourselves. We desperately need to hold on to the little childhood we have left.”
Video games such as Animal Crossing: New Horizons help people relax as they can complete daily activities at a leisurely pace and focus on bonding with other players in the game. Compared to first-person shooter games and other fast-paced action games, users don’t have to worry about finishing missions under a deadline or upsetting a teammate during a battle. Rather, Animal Crossing: New Horizons lets players indulge in building a serene atmosphere, which is crucial for relaxing at the end of a tiring day.
Like many other gamers during lockdown, Rutgers University student Davin Kim downloaded Animal Crossing: New Horizons and logged in more than three hundred hours of game time. While video games often have a reputation for violent themes, games such as Animal Crossing take a different approach.
“[Compared to] other games I play, Animal Crossing is definitely different because I’m used to first-person shooter games, like Call of Duty. But with Animal Crossing, it’s much calmer,” said Kim. “I have to think more of what I’m doing, compared to other games. I think it was a good game during this quarantine.”
With features such as watering flowers, decorating an in-game home and fishing for rare specimens, it’s apparent that relaxing video games have become a new go-to method for unwinding. However, Kim worried about how she’ll fit Animal Crossing: New Horizons into her in-person schedule at Rutgers University this fall. Classrooms will be filled with the familiar shuffling of steps and a sea of chatter, but Kim doesn’t think that she’ll be prepared to face this new post-pandemic world yet.
And what does a post-pandemic world look like? College students will be running across campus, rushing to classes. Some commuters will fight fatigue when traveling on the bus for work. Restaurants, malls, and other public areas will soon become bustling hubs of noises, and accidental shoulder-to-shoulder contact. It’s clear that this new world might be overwhelming to those who have become used to their work commute from the bedroom to the dining room.
According to a poll by Morning Consult from the Bloomberg News, one survey of 1,000 American adults claimed nearly 40% would think about quitting if their bosses weren’t open-minded about remote work for the future.
Fortunately, you can turn towards video games for fighting burnout in both a pandemic, and post-pandemic world.
The Positive Mental Effects of Relaxing, Leisurely Video Games
When describing Animal Crossing: New Horizons, psychologist researcher Dr. Natalie Coyle smiled as she spoke.
“Animal Crossing is quite a creative game,” said Dr. Coyle. “It's quite a social game in terms of being able to meet and interact with other players, with friend codes and things like that. So the sky's the limit when it comes down to Animal Crossing.”
Although video game packaging doesn’t wear a cape, Dr. Coyle said that Animal Crossing has saved people from anxiety and isolation, whisking them away into another world.
“A little bit of escapism can actually be healthy just because of the number of things in our life that we don't have control over,” said Dr. Coyle. “So for example, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic, people were guilty of, you know, just scrolling for hours at a time on their phone, trying to figure out what's going on in the world.”
While the outside world can bombard you with deadlines, and distressing news, diving into the world of a video game is simply a power button away. Dr. Coyle stated that relaxing games such as Animal Crossing: New Horizons can even replace real-world means for satisfaction and contentment.
“If you just take time being creative, maybe even meeting up with your friends in Animal Crossing, then now that's kind of time that's spent, you know, in a healthier way--being creative, relaxing, and not worrying about things as much that we don't have control over." Dr. Coyle said.
Dr. Coyle also noted that there is a social aspect in games that are similar to Animal Crossing: New Horizons. With chances to visit another player’s island and interact with friendly NPCs, gamers can enter in-game social spaces without going for a long train ride.
When talking about playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons with her mother-in-law, Dr. Coyle laughed, “I can't ever see her not play Animal Crossing. So I think I will always have an attachment to Animal Crossing because of the people in my life as well. So I'll definitely be playing in future, playing it with the people in my family.”
Author of Anxiety Relief for Teens Dr. Regine Galanti stated that relaxing video games can become mindful activities for gamers. Galanti said that mindfulness requires an individual to focus their attention on a particular activity, engaging their five senses.
“It’s much easier than, let's say if you're a gamer, to focus your full attention on a video game, because there's so much more to gaming than just--let's say people think of it as like your visual sense, you're holding a controller. What does that feel like in your hands? What visual details do you see?”
Dr. Galanti said that video games aren’t inherently harmful or helpful for mental health. Rather, it depends on how the individual plays the game. However, a crucial part of one’s mental being is establishing hobbies, and playing video games is a productive slot of time for some people.
“Having a game that you really like as a motivator to get through harder parts of your day is a really helpful thing,” said Dr. Galanti. “Like I'm going to go to school or I'm going to finish this paper, or I'm going to do this meeting, and then I'm gonna allow myself, you know, 15, 20, a half-hour of game time that you can use the best reward.”
Like Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Garden Paws is a relaxing farming simulator that revolves around role-playing elements such as quests. Developed by the independent game studio Bitten Toast Games, Garden Paws let players participate in the game at a leisurely pace, interacting with animal avatars and roaming across green scenery. From managing a shop or exploring dungeons, users can enter various activities without stressing about a health bar or formidable fighting opponents.
The game was initially a place where users ran across a green expanse and picked up flowers. Now, it’s a multiplayer game with quests and activities. Bitten Toast Games developer Daniel Nascimento and the studio’s game designer Kristina Vandale planted the first seeds of the relaxing themes for Garden Paws.
When talking about developing Garden Paws and working with the Bitten Toast Games team, Vandale said, “It just grew from our love of games and playing together.”
From puzzles to dragons, the independent game studio has released updates in the past which have contributed to the various activities in the game.
Vandale said that the responses towards Garden Paws consisted of positive comments.
“We've been getting new people every day,” Vandale stated. “We probably have more players this month than we did two years ago, which is really great for the building of the community and game. We do updates every month, maybe two months sometimes, but we do very frequent, large updates, which I think keeps players coming back.”
Among the positive comments that the independent game studio has received, there are some players that have also applauded the game for its mental health benefits.
“We’ve received a lot of messages from players that have mentioned they deal with anxiety or depression,” said Nascimento. “The game has provided them with a safe space [where they] can relax, forget about their problems with the outside world and just enjoy themselves in the game.”
Like Bitten Toast Games, the independent game studio Spry Fox also developed a relaxing game that players can participate in at their own pace.
Cozy Grove is a life simulator that revolves around exploring a haunted island and befriending ghost-bears. Players can explore characters’ stories, gather spirit animals, create decorations and fish.
“You can play a little bit every day and it won’t take over your busy life,” said Spry Fox Chief Creative Officer Daniel Cook. “I hear a lot from players who use it to create a little happy ritual in the morning or at night before bed. It can be a calming break from everything that is going on in the world.”
Cozy Grove implemented graphics that are designed to appear tranquil for players. Cook said that the inspiration behind Cozy Grove stemmed from memories of playing Animal Crossing on the Gamecube.
“Noemi Gomez is an illustrator from Spain and she brought a very unique dark but cute look to everything,” said Cook. “It is a gestalt. You putter around the lovely art, help genial folks, feed cooing baby ghost birds, and then a light rain starts falling...It is all surprisingly calming.”
Cook stated that every NPC in Cozy Grove has a story arc which players can dive into on a daily basis. The Spry Fox Chief Creative Officer also said that the game doesn’t punish people for missing a day of playing, which has contributed to its leisurely atmosphere.
When talking about one of the best elements of the game, Cook said. “The biggest feature is a simple one. You can now hug the bears. Sometimes we all need a hug.”
A post-pandemic world can seem less scary with a game console at home
Talking to her friends while playing Valorant, Kim realized that juggling school work and video games is a balancing act. She hopes that logging into Animal Crossing: New Horizons can help her tackle deadlines and exams at Rutgers University.
“Ever since high school, playing games was a way of de-stressing,” said Kim. “It’s like a way of escaping. I find myself playing more games during school than like summer break.”
While it’s apparent that relaxing video games have soothing music and cartoon-like visuals, young people like Udaygiri and Kim turn to these games during any situation.
“I just turned 17, but I still look to Animal Crossing as a comfort,” said Udaygiri. “Even if it's just the idea of it, it feels nice knowing that there is a game made for me out there. Someone somewhere is thinking of my generation. And I'm really thankful.”