Building Paradise During a Global Pandemic: The Therapeutic Benefits of Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Ryan Hosseini
12 min readApr 12, 2023

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Due to the emerging outbreak of the coronavirus, millions of people were subject to social distancing rules and required to self-quarantine at home. Thus arrived a worldwide epidemic of fear, anxiety, depression, and concern about the future (Dagnino et al., 2020). People were faced with social isolation and lost connections with friends and family, as the pandemic restrictions separated them from their support networks and interaction (Pietromonaco & Overall, 2022). Subsequently, amidst the global coronavirus pandemic, Animal Crossing: New Horizons (ACNH), a casual life simulation game, was released for the Nintendo Switch and quickly became a cultural phenomenon. The game allowed players to build their own virtual island, engage in various relaxing activities such as fishing, gardening and catching insects, as well as interact with anthropomorphic animal characters (Nintendo, 2020). ACNH’s popularity can be attributed to its ability to provide what was needed at that time– a much-needed escape from the stresses of reality, and it has been praised for its impact on mental health and well-being (Zhu, 2021). The release date of Animal Crossing: New Horizons was perfectly timed, as people were in dire need of a positive and engaging distraction — one which was separated from the harsh reality of the Pandemic– and ACNH did just that by providing a virtual world where players could interact with their friends or loved ones while building their own paradise islands; making this game serve as a source of comfort, connection and leisure, during a time of social isolation (Comerford, 2020). This essay will explore the ways in which ACNH served as a tool in promoting beneficial mental health and wellness traits in its players; that is, through its immersive gameplay, relaxing activities, and social aspects, ACNH has provided a safe and positive space for individuals to escape from the stresses of everyday life, to recover of personal development issues or laziness, and to connect with others around the world.

ACNH’s popularity can be attributed to its ability to provide players with a virtual escape from the harsh reality of the pandemic. The game’s slow-paced gameplay with its peaceful and serene environment, allows players to disconnect from the stresses of everyday life and immerse themselves in a therapeutic and relaxing environment (Krittanawong et al., 2022). The elements in the game encourage players to take their time and enjoy the simple pleasures of life, such as decorating their island, catching fish, tending to their gardens, as well communicating with their villagers. These features promote mindfulness, emotional regulation, and stress reduction, all of which have a positive impact on mental health (Jones et al., 2014).

Figure 1: Player catching a fish in Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Polygon, 2020)

According to a study conducted by the University of Saskatchewan, playing video games can provide a temporary escape from real-world problems, which can reduce stress and improve mental health (Dechant et al., 2020). The study further suggests that video games can provide a form of stress relief and distraction that can help individuals cope with anxiety and depression. The soothing and calming gameplay of ACNH creates emotional regulation and reduces the anxiety that emerged from the pandemic, as the player “perceiv[es] the game world as less broken than the physical world” (Dechant et al., 2020). This outcome is possible due to the game’s focus on mindfulness and relaxation through activities such as fishing, gardening, and bug hunting, immersing the player in their own world, and escaping reality (Benti & Stadtmann, 2021).

Comerford (2020) states that the sense of control and ownership over their virtual world provides players with a feeling of agency, which can be empowering and therapeutic. This can be especially beneficial for individuals who feel powerless and overwhelmed by the challenges of the pandemic. In ACNH, players can create and customize their own island, decorating it with their own personal touches and design choices (Benti & Stadtmann, 2021). This level of creative control can provide a sense of control and accomplishment, boosting self-esteem and promoting a positive mindset (Benti & Stadtmann, 2021; Comerford, 2020). Furthermore, according to Pearce et al. (2022), the benefits of the game were not limited to young players, but parents as well. The pandemic was a rough time for parents, as supervising remote schooling while balancing work and life demands added to their stress. According to the study, parents used the game as a means to escape. It then further states that by engaging in gameplay, they were able to mentally disconnect from the challenges of their daily lives. In addition to providing relaxation, the game offered them a sense of accomplishment through achieving mastery experiences. This sense of achievement was a factor that most people lost during the pandemic, and being able to have easily accomplishable goals, daily tasks, and “something to grasp onto” contributed to their overall well-being during an uncertain and stressful time (Pearce et al., 2022).

Figure 2: NPC villager “Isabelle” talking to the player (Higham, 2020)

Moreover, the game’s day-night cycle can provide a sense of structure and routine at a time when many individuals are struggling with disrupted schedules and uncertainty (Comerford, 2020). Establishing regular routines can help mitigate the negative impact of stress on mental health (Hou et al., 2020); by reflecting on real-world time, ACNH can help players maintain a sense of “normal” and order in their daily lives. This can be particularly important for individuals who thrive on routine and structure as a means of coping with stress and anxiety, but have lost their routines due to the pandemic. Likewise, an ACNH player’s activity in the game depends on their personality and hobbies, and can provide a significant lifestyle and identity as a substitute for those lost due to the pandemic (Comerford, 2020). As the pandemic disrupted work and social identities, the game can allow players to form a new, or reclaim their identity prior to the pandemic.

Figure 3: Tom Nook’s real-time report and announcements every morning (Justin, 2020)

The social distancing measures and restrictions on daily activities due to the pandemic had made it difficult for individuals to find meaning and fulfillment in their lives (Sikali, 2020). As a result, many suffered from a loss of self-esteem and motivation. Fortunately, ACNH emerged as a source of solace for many during these difficult times; the game’s focus on personal growth and creativity played a significant role in promoting mental health and well-being (Krittanawong et al., 2022). The game encourages players to set goals, work towards them, and experience a sense of accomplishment when they are achieved, to provide purpose for the player (Comerford, 2020). This can promote feelings of self-efficacy, a crucial component when combating the depression of the pandemic (Maddux & Meier, 1995).

Additionally, the personalization in the player virtual world as discussed before can lead to increased creativity, as players are given the opportunity to experiment with different design choices and express themselves through their creations (Comerford, 2020). According to a study published by Games and Culture, it was discovered that players that engaged in creative expressions through video games during the pandemic had a notable increase in positive emotions and their overall well-being (Games and Culture). Moreover, an analysis done by Deng & Zhang (2011) on the relationship between self-esteem and creativity, found that individuals who are more creative tend to exhibit higher self-esteem and confidence. It stated that this boost of confidence is due to self-esteem being related to self-confidence — as in believing in one’s own abilities in different situations — which is ultimately needed for taking creative risks and thinking outside the box. Therefore, engaging in creative activities — such as designing or decorating virtual islands, decorating outfits or furniture — can lead to a boost in self-esteem and self-confidence as players are able to see the positive results of their creative efforts and feel a sense of accomplishment.

Figure 4: ACNH Outfit designer interface (Addie, 2020)

ACNH provides players with a vast array of skills to learn and explore, from fishing in the ocean or rivers to catching rare bugs and butterflies, players can experience a variety of activities that can help them develop new skills and interests (Benti & Stadtmann, 2021). Additionally, the game features gardening, allowing players to plant, water, and grow a variety of fruits, vegetables, and flowers. As they watch their garden grow and harvest their crops, players can feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, thus improving their overall well-being (Benti & Stadtmann, 2021; Maddux & Meier, 1995). Furthermore, players can also learn crafting skills, such as woodworking and pottery, by collecting materials and building their own tools and furniture (Benti & Stadtmann, 2021). This not only promotes creativity but motivates the player to keep pursuing specific materials and ores, giving them a daily purpose.

Figure 5: Unique Tokyo-inspired island designed by a player showcasing their creativity and motivation (Rimando, 2021)

The process of learning and mastering these skills was crucial as the pandemic’s restrictions limited opportunities for personal development and growth, however, ACNH provided these sought-after opportunities for players to explore and gain new skills. By learning and mastering new activities in the game, players could experience a sense of progress and accomplishment that helped combat feelings of stagnation and boredom caused by the pandemic’s restrictions and helped “compensate for a lack of positive experiences in [their] daily li[ves] during the pandemic” (Pearce et al., 2022). This sense of personal growth would then be translated to other areas of their lives, providing motivation and confidence to take on new challenges and opportunities amidst the pandemic.

Figure 6: Player crafting a ‘Flimsy Axe’ using materials at the crafting station (Webster, 2020)

Lastly, the pandemic has brought about a significant loss in social connections, as people have been forced to physically distance themselves from others to prevent the spread of the virus. ACNH provided social aspects that were lost in the pandemic, it created a platform that allowed players to connect with friends, family, and strangers through online play in a time of isolation (Pearce et al., 2022). The game allows for social interactions simply by players visiting other islands in ACNH by “flying” to them (Benti & Stadtmann, 2021). A study conducted by the University of Northern Colorado found that those players who received visitors on their islands most frequently reported less loneliness, indicating that virtual platforms became vital to making new friends and dealing with feelings of isolation caused by quarantines (Lewis et al., 2021).

Additionally, the game provided an alternative location for ceremonies that had been postponed or cancelled due to lockdowns. Comford (2022) found that ACNH provided a space for players to create memorials for loved ones lost to the virus and to host weddings, allowing friends to attend as guests and exchange vows via chat. Some even celebrated their anniversaries by dressing up, visiting the museum and cafe, and exchanging gifts in-game.

Figure 7: Marriage taking place in Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Sentosa, 2020)

In addition to providing a sense of community and alternative location for traditional rituals, Comford found that players’ shared associations and engagement with the game functioned as a form of “serious leisure”, creating personas from a diverse range of roles such as “the social player, the turnip trader, the gardener, and the artisan” (Comford 2022). By adopting persona roles, players could specialize within the social environment, influencing their communal experience by tailoring their play style to their satisfaction– this could be viewed as a way for players to reclaim their societal roles that may have been disrupted during quarantine.

Furthermore, players in communities demonstrated many prosocial qualities, relying upon players’ specialization to encourage the sharing of information, skills, and resources for common purposes. Additionally, the collaborative nature of ACNH, leads players to a kind of “co-creative labour,” enacting “co-creativity” through the exchanging of resources and information via trading, “design codes,” and island designs (Comford 2022).

Figure 8: Multiplayer interaction and socializing in-game (Khan, 2020)

Animal Crossing: New Horizons has had a significant impact on the players’ mental health and well-being. By bringing in aspects of escapism, self-care, and social connection, it was able to set itself as something more than just a game to pass time, but as a sort of social cure during the pandemic. The game’s ability to provide a safe and positive space for individuals to escape from the stresses of everyday life while connecting with others and prioritizing self-care culture was its key to success. As the world continues to face unprecedented challenges that may cause social distress and disconnection between people, games like ACNH serve as a great reminder of the importance of how non-traditional solutions — such as video games — can help with an individuals self-care, relaxation, social connections, and their general mental health or well-being.

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Ryan Hosseini
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BBA Candidate at SFU Beedie School of Business