We’ve all had to find coping mechanisms during the pandemic. Some people have been baking sourdough and banana bread, some have increased their wine intake, some have taken up hobby crafts like candle making or pottery.
31 million people have been playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons (ACNH) on the Nintendo Switch every day.
The much-loved Animal Crossing series saw its latest edition launch last March, just as many countries around the world went into lockdown thanks to Covid-19. Whether Nintendo are some sort of evil genius or it was just a coincidence for them, the game where you get to live on a beautiful island surrounded by friendly animal neighbours, picking fruit and fishing all day, just happened to launch as we were all coming to terms with not going anywhere or enjoying the outdoors for a while.
Time and again throughout the last year, I’ve seen people referring to ACNH as their ‘therapy’. There have been so many discussions online around mental health during our periods of isolation but a consistent positive topic has been the overall wholesomeness of ACNH. In a time of monotony and boredom, having a game that runs in real-time where you can work towards goals – sometimes over days or weeks – to build something beautiful, has given so many people a sense of achievement.
But there’s something more than the game’s idyllic setting and laid back gameplay that has made it so successful. In my opinion, the real and probably underrated triumph of this game is how it allows people to connect. This aspect of ACNH has set it apart from games like Stardew Valley or My time at Portia, and alongside staggered seasonal releases it’s part of what has kept fans playing consistently all this time.
I honestly don’t remember the last time I saw such a wholesome but vast online community. Even behind the veil of online anonymity, people are choosing to be kind and positive. There are endless tips, ideas, and insights into the insanely varied islands that people have built. Every time there’s an update, you can bet someone is beautifully assembling a guide of what we can expect. Want to trade turnips (a form of in-game currency kind of like trading stocks) at the optimal price? You’d better believe there’s a Reddit dedicated to people sharing when they have a good turnip price on their island so you can swing by.
Searching for a particular pattern to lay on your garden paths? Ask around and someone is bound to have created it and will be happy to share the code. Of course, there are a small handful of people who’d like to take advantage of others, but 99% of the ACNH community actually just want to show off their island and be creative together. Players have essentially created a whole other layer of gameplay for themselves. They’re keeping busy while feeling connected by common goals.
With this game, anyone and everyone can feel creative. Whether it’s crafting, growing flowers, changing your island’s layout, theming all of your scenery around the colour pink – you name it, someone has probably done it. What you can’t figure out yourself, there’s a guide online. Inspiration is easy to find through YouTube island tours, Instagram accounts or Reddit groups.
Inspiration can also be found through one of my personal favourite methods: visiting other islands. You can either let the game pick an island for you that’s available to visit, or you can connect with someone that you actually know for an island trip. There’s even a chat function so you can communicate on your visit. I’ve particularly taken advantage of this second one during periods when I haven’t been able to socialise in real life. My sister happened to start playing ACNH around the same time as me and has spent several hours building an enviable island. We started setting up ACNH dates so we could visit each other’s islands to give each other a tour of our progress. We’d exchange in-game gifts and items, talk to the villagers living on each other’s islands, and craft items for each other.
None of that was what made these dates so special, however. It was the fact that we’d be on the phone at the same time. I didn’t get to see my sister for nearly a year, and inevitably when we called each other to play we’d end up speaking about other things as we ran around each other’s imaginary island. It would be the longest conversations that we’d have, sometimes going on for hours, and it kept us feeling close while we were apart.
I’ve been working consistently throughout the pandemic, but my sister happened to have breaks from her work, and she filled a bunch of that time diving into the ACNH community more than I did. She was another person who found the game a sort of ‘therapy’, helping her battle boredom and giving her something positive to look forward to.
“Having something routine that doesn’t change helps with anxiety when real life is utterly awful” is my sister’s honest way of summing up the game. “I have been playing for 10 months, the last eight of which I have been sick and some days it’s all I have the energy for. The villagers make me smile I guess, they’re so cute and silly.
“My favourite thing has been the freedom to design, build, tear it all down, and rebuild again. Very much ‘It’s my island and I can do what I want’. All the different themes of items and clothes are great.
“I follow a couple of Instagram accounts, for general gameplay and event tips and others for new design ideas. And I follow a few different Reddits for the same reason – as well as for the community. Like getting advice and tips, talking with other players, swapping and crafting items, etc. Everyone is always so nice and supportive. I also use an android app every time I play (free to use but I happily paid the creator to remove ads as they put a huge amount of effort into constantly updating it) to help me keep track of what I’m up to.”
Every time I think my enthusiasm for playing ACNH might be waning, one silly meme or one preview of an update, or one conversation with my sister pulls me back in. Feeling part of a whole 31 million-strong network of virtual islands, and seeing other players’ excitement at this game, is what keeps us all checking in to our daily virtual therapy.