How Animal Crossing: New Horizons can improve our mental health

Love Island.

Animal Crossing has such a wonderful and rich history, starting with the first game – Animal Forest – releasing in Japan on April 14, 2001, to its current incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Horizons. No one could have expected the most recent release to come at a more pertinent time. New Horizon was released on March 20th 2020 – coincidentally, a time when it was needed the most. The dawn of Spring marked a beginning for lockdown measures in a lot of countries to help manage the spread of COVID 19. Animal Crossing: New Horizons was a break from the stress and anxiety created from lockdown as the pandemic took hold around us.

Animal Crossing for the Nintendo Switch not only gave people that sense of routine, with the daily activities that needed to be done and the colourful characters, it also provided a source of positive psychological wellbeing. I work as a therapist in private practice, as well as being a passionate gamer myself, and I have been able to see first-hand that Animal Crossing acts as a psychological calm in our current storm of uncertainty.

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The main qualities that Animal Crossing provides people during the pandemic are positivity, stability and also the important quality of self-expression. If you are in a bad mood, the simple act of playing Animal Crossing can lighten this stress as a result of the wonderful environments you find yourself immersed in, even after just a few minutes of play.

From my viewpoint, as a therapist, there is a lot of evidence that demonstrates that playing positive games, exactly like Animal Crossing: New Horizons, can contribute to positive emotions and stability. Animal Crossing encourages continued gameplay and the routine it provides allows a person to cultivate those psychological resources on daily basis.

The most important thing about Animal Crossing is that it ticks all the boxes for the elements of psychological recovery. Psychological recovery covers four areas. They are:

1. Relaxation

2. Distance from Stress

3. Learning Opportunities

4. Feelings of Control

New Horizons provides all four in aplomb. Simply engaging in its light and cheery in-game activities can help us recover from stress, stabilise our mood and also help us develop a sense of mindfulness and gratitude.

It allows the person to restore psychological energy that was spent trying to cope with real life. New Horizons allows the player to take in the ocean, enjoy a virtual landscape and have a few minutes of silent reprieve from the stresses of the world around them by chasing and catching bugs. Even interacting with the villagers can add to the feeling of positivity as there is a sweetness to the game as a result of the positive dialogue. Animal Crossing offers an opportunity for players to engage in uplifting, mindful tasks while also providing a safe space for the player, this positive feedback enhanced by the routine behaviour it encourages. Routine provides the players with the psychological benefits of safety, confidence and well-being. These are feelings that we need plenty of during periods of distress and uncertainty.

The process of loading up New Horizons to complete daily tasks can in itself be very healing as it can empower players to create order out of chaos. The theme of New Horizons is building a peaceful world. When the player starts each day on the island, everything is the same and when there is change in the game it is because of the player’s actions. If there are changes that do happen as part of the game, they tend to be positive and uplifting. The very mechanics of the game allow the player to adjust their crafting goals so that they have something to look forward to in the future. These features help us to engage in the psychological process of self-expression. New Horizons offers a level of self-expressive play which allows the player an opportunity to showcase their creativity and individuality within their own tailored game space.

This is a vital part of psychological recovery. The new features and the regular updates that are provided by Nintendo allow the player to engage in identity play. This is the ability to explore different and variable aspects of the self as well as the process of developing identity. New Horizons achieves this by giving the players the option to customise their islands and also their appearances in the game. By giving the players these options, this shows how they want to express themselves to others.

Players engage in self-discovery by finding the perfect outfit combinations and by the construction and decoration of their landscapes. The hours spent in New Horizon are much more productive than we think, we sharpen our understanding of who we are in a world without judgment or restriction. It is powerful for the player to create a space that is relevant to their interests which will lead to recovery and feelings of self-confidence. This ultimately increases positive mood and psychological resilience.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons also provides another important psychological resource for people and that is the psychological resource of agency. It is important as it keeps people constantly replenished and balanced. It is the feeling of autonomy, to do as we please and meaningfully engage with the environment. Just like in previous games of the series, spending time on the island weeding and picking fruit is just as valid an action as travelling to four islands or donating 20 specimens to a museum.

The curiosity and the discovery elements allow a player to constantly engage with the environment. Practising curiosity can be very beneficial for us, as we are only curious when we feel safe. If we are anxious, we tend to be involved in avoidant behaviour. New Horizons provides a safe environment that allows players to engage in levels of curiosity and discovery and by doing so they are engaging in mindfulness and the willingness to grow. Both of these of these traits are essential for creating positive mental health.

As a psychological aid to one’s mental health in these trying times, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has been invaluable. A wholesome video game experience that also serves as a break from the high demands and stress of life, encouraging beneficial behaviours. With the game having sold upwards of 31 million copies already, Nintendo’s masterpiece is more than just a incredibly made piece of interactive entertainment – it’s a beacon.


Animal Crossing Guides from TheSixthAxis

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1 Comment

  1. Why single out one particular game? Anything could be helpful during the complete madness of the past year. Shooting some zombies in the face works just as well. Or going for a nice drive in a car you could never afford. Or lock yourself away in VR and visit a strange new world in NMS and tame some creatures you inevitably call something stupid, like “Bernard”. Or a nice relaxing trip to a sunny island in Hitman, before you realise you’re supposed to be killing someone horribly with whatever blunt object is to hand.

    Psychologists might claim some of those things are more healthy than the others, but if the past year has proven anything, it’s that we should be listening to scientists more. Proper scientists that come up with theories and then test them to prove that something causes something else. Not just claim some vague correlation between 2 things is proof.

    Animal Crossing is no more useful than whatever else you enjoy playing.

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