'Animal Crossing: New Horizons' Is Great for Your Mental Health Through COVID-19, Professionals Say

If you own a Nintendo Switch, there's a good chance you've spent much of the week immersed in a world of nature, creation and Tom Nook announcements. Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released on Friday, which seemed to be perfect timing, considering the fact that so many people are self-isolating at home because of the growing coronavirus pandemic.

Pretty much immediately, players started to rejoice at the game's "therapeutic" qualities, which seem to be helping many people tune out the COVID-19 news and retreat to a much happier, safer island of their own design. And according to some mental health professionals, diving into the game is a great idea because of its loose narrative and slow-paced activities that can be compared to mindfulness.

I just played three straight hours of Animal Crossing you call it ridiculous I call it theraputic

— pastel R2D2 (@kayla_cant_read) August 23, 2014

playing the new animal crossing game for hours on end has been truly theraputic!!

my eyes are burning but my heart is full!!!!

— paige (@nuclearunicorns) March 21, 2020

#WhyIPlay Animal Crossing is because it's a great way to escape from the troubles of the waking world and be able to relax in an environment that always welcomes me and makes me feel in control of my life. The music is theraputic as well.

— Knight (@knightieboi) March 19, 2020

"Right now, in the middle of a crisis, finding something you enjoy is really important," Dr. Regine Galanti, author of Anxiety Relief for Teens, told Newsweek. "Giving yourself time to engage in an activity you enjoy can be a helpful distraction in a world full of uncertainty, and finding those activities that are fun and meaningful for you is definitely helpful in this crisis."

Animal Crossing not only provides a simple, craft-friendly escape, but it serves as a welcome bit of nostalgia for those who played Animal Crossing: Wild World on their Nintendo DS, or even the original game that was released for Nintendo's GameCube back in 2001.

New Horizons champions the things that made the first games so lovable. Players can customize their character and an entire town, socialize with NPCs (Non-Player Characters, or characters created by the game and not controlled by a real-life person), go fishing, catch bugs and more. There's no set timeline or rulebook in the game, which allows players to explore new places and completely zone out from real life—something that might feel particularly necessary right now.

Dr. Galanti noted that the constant, heavy news cycle related to the spread of coronavirus has the potential to trigger anxiety, and avoiding the constant barrage of information is okay. "It's a great idea to stay away from the news or limit news consumption, so turning to a game like Animal Crossing can be a great way to reengage without escalating your own anxiety symptoms," she said. "It's completely healthy to try and escape right now."

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That bit of advice may sound contradictory to what your therapist has said about coping with anxiety. While one major tool in mental health care is working thorough anxiety and facing it head-on, desperate times call for a different approach. Dr. Debra Kissen, CEO of cognitive behavioral therapy treatment center Light On Anxiety, told Newsweek that it's helpful to tune out the "worst-possible-case" scenarios.

"When we're in this pandemic, there's a lot of uncertainty and not much to do, the brain can kind of wreak havoc," she said. "We like giving it something to do."

Dr. Kissen also compared New Horizons to Tetris and said that the visual processing of such a game can separate a person from their detrimental thoughts.

It's not just the distraction of the game that makes it healthy, though. It's the world that Animal Crossing creates. It's not a game that features violence, or even a scripted storyline. While there's a general goal—continue expanding your town and home, forever working toward paying off your no-interest debts—each day can be whatever the player wants.

Seemingly mundane activities like fishing, picking weeds or watering flowers can act like a safe haven, especially when they're things that the general public isn't encouraged to do in real life. As coronavirus forces people to lock down in their homes, New Horizons acts as a digital, fruitful trip outdoors.

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"All of us are dealing with a lot right now. Some, of course, more than others," Evan Skolnick, a game writer, narrative designer and professor told Newsweek. "I can't say I'm surprised to see people are turning to the new Animal Crossing because it just came out and it's, for many people, probably a relief to go somewhere where you can explore and mingle with people and create beautiful things. And to do things that you can't do right now—even that we took for granted a few months ago."

To Drs. Kissen and Galanti, these repetitive movements and calming activities can very well stimulate mindfulness. As long as a player is fully focusing on the activity in question, and staying present, it can produce similar benefits to focusing on breathing, or one's real-life environment.

"Mindfulness is really about fully engaging in whatever anchor you choose," Dr. Kissen said. "One could mindfully wash the dishes. One could mindfully focus on the breath, which is the most traditional thing because it's always with you. Mindfully attending to the nature in this game, I consider very much so a form of mindfully engaging with your experience."

animal crossing new horizons bridge

There's also the issue of curing loneliness at a time of social distancing. In New Horizons, each NPC animal neighbor has a personality. So far, these have been described as "jock" or "sisterly" by players who have begun to categorize the personalities. Some come off as arrogant, while others are sweet and timid. Each town is full of different residents, who are forever moving in and out of the town to make room for new interactions.

When it comes to mental health benefits, Drs. Kissen and Galanti prefer real-life socialization compared to interactions with NPCs. But Skolnick explained what makes game characters so realistic.

"We try to make you feel for these characters. The emotions that we can tap into, I would say, are sometimes stronger," Skolnick said. "Sometimes you'll see games working to evoke a feeling of guilt for something [players have] done, which is extremely difficult to evoke from a person watching a movie who didn't partake in the actions."

Animal Crossing offers a kinder feeling. "In a more calming and soothing-type game like Animal Crossing, we still want to employ those methods to make players connect on some kind of emotional level with the characters in the world—to make them feel real and make you want to come back and interact with them."

Whatever your reasoning, rest assured that now is a better time than ever to fully immerse yourself in another world, like New Horizons, if it makes each day a little easier.

Animal Crossing is available to purchase on Nintendo Switch systems now.

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