Animal Crossing, as I said in my review, is a time sink. This usually would not be such a huge problem, as we have school, work or family keeping us to schedules where we can’t play the game all day every day. However, at the time of writing this, most of the world is locked at home. All usual obligations like seeing family are banned, all social gatherings of more than two people (who aren’t in your household) are illegal in the UK. This has left a lot of people with perhaps too much time on their hands. This is the world Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released into.
And was this necessarily a bad thing? I don’t know.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released into a world where most people feel isolated, depressed and trapped in their homes, desperate for at least some form of escape. This is leading to an overall sense of misery, as each day the death toll rises and we hear of more deaths and illnesses in our communities.
This is something which Animal Crossing is good for: your mental health. Due to its nature, the game set out a timetable which the player must comply with to make the most of the game. For example, some shops are only open at specific times while there are only certain bugs and fish that you can only catch at defined times. All tasks in Animal Crossing are achievable, and a great deal of the new features make the island customizable. This can be very comforting for someone who has lost control of large aspects of their life.
Animal Crossing can even fulfill the need for social interaction – even if you live alone. Every day one of my chores I give to myself when I switch on my game is talk to Goldie and Audie – my current favourite villagers. While they cannot talk to me in depth about the current state of UK affairs, or how Elsa is a lesbian vampire stereotype, they do talk to me about events currently occurring in-game. Most of the time these interactions are positive and I feel better afterwards. Additionally, via the game I can host a few of my friends in my little digital village. One of my closest friends and I spent this morning swapping roses and pansies and windflowers in-game whilst talking over the phone about my cat. It wasn’t the same as having her in the same room, but she got to see my in-game house and commented on my egg-cellent decor, and I went to her museum and excitedly yelled about amber.
Another benefit is that it can be a good distraction for children. While some jobs are non-essential, they haven’t stopped. Some people are still working, and even having meetings via Zoom. The game is simple enough with plenty happening that a child could quite easily get invested in the game. I will note at the moment this is speculation, as my usual test subjects for such things are staying safe quarantining with their Dad (my brother).
However, Animal Crossing is not ideal for everyone in lockdown. You can literally spend all day playing this game, and that is not healthy for you physically. While most don’t have the luxury anymore of going outside for more than a brief run or walk, there are some exercises which don’t require loads of space or effort to set up, such as yoga. By playing all day you’re not doing any exercise, simply lounging around staring at a screen.
Another downside to playing all day is that if you’re the type (cough like me cough) who is always saying they need time to do stuff, and now have bountiful time to do stuff, having a game that is a literal time sink is sort of counterproductive. You are wasting time you could be using to learn a new skill or write a book, etc. Alternatively, if you are working from home, but your work is irregular, you might miss important emails because you’re too wrapped up trying to catch a fish.
Another issue is that due to the times certain fish and bugs appear, it could disrupt your sleep cycle. Certain critters only appear after 9 pm and before 4 am. With no structure in place, or responsibilities the next morning this could be detrimental to some players who may try to stay up all night trying to catch certain bugs and fish. Obviously, it is important that people need to maintain as much of their normal schedule as possible (so as not to have a shock at the end of this lockdown).
Additionally, after playing the game without stopping for several hours, you can leave the game feeling empty. Whether this is the sharp sudden return to a reality where you can’t go outside and see your friends, or to a world where you don’t have as much control, I am unsure. It could even be a painful realisation that you should have spent these hours doing something more productive. I am not sure what precisely this feeling is, but that emptiness when I turn off my Switch is sobering and actually the start of some of the lowest points of the lockdown for me so far.
All in all, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a good game if the current lockdown and state of the world has left you depressed and helpless. However, like all good things, use self-regulation and common sense. While the game can substitute some issues, it is not a catch all cure. You may be trying to do work during the lockdown, or remain productive, or you still have a normal schedule but you still want to play. In these cases, I would either recommend scheduling it in smaller bites, or at times where you would usually not be working. If Animal Crossing has helped you in the last three weeks then I am glad for you, but if you’re finding it’s not and you’re still stressed, depressed or anxious, I would recommend trying out counselling, or telephoning or dm-ing your friends. We all need to get through this together and I have faith in us that we will.