While many of us are sheltered in place, novelty can be hard to come by.
I am admittedly very late to the “Animal Crossing” craze, the beloved video game in which players create their own idyllic village on a deserted island.
But after recent wildfires set my home state of Oregon ablaze, and I learned the unique and terrible pain of a kidney stone that kept me bedridden for a week, I knew it was finally my moment.
Reality was becoming less and less appealing by the minute.
Island living it was, then. I bought the game… and was immediately hooked.
As someone who studies positive psychology, the nerd in me was struck by how many elements of the game actually hold water when it comes to living a fulfilled, contented life.
While I wouldn’t recommend swimming in shark-infested waters or eating only apples for the rest of your life, there are some solid lessons we can take from Tom Nook and company. And with the mental health of so many under strain as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, these simple but powerful reminders are especially needed.
One of the first things I do on “Animal Crossing” each day is give a quick hello to all my neighbors.
It’s not a requirement of the game by any means! But there’s something nice about making the rounds and having silly, unimportant conversations that I find comforting.
I found myself thinking a lot about social integration when I was playing — both because I am very geeky, but also because it explains a lot of my behaviors in the game.
Social integration refers to a person’s sense of belonging to a community. This is reinforced by, you guessed it, our everyday exchanges and the familiarity of a place.
In the real world, this is why a barista memorizing our order feels so meaningful, or why seeing the same friendly faces at the dog park can lift our spirits. The transition from being someplace to this being My Place is social integration in action.
Research actually ties social integration to
Psychologist Susan Pinker dives into this more deeply in her 2017 TED Talk, noting that it’s not just our close relationships, but the meaningful day-to-day interactions that we have that fortify our mental health.
As for life during a pandemic? We can still create these rituals for ourselves.
Virtual coffee dates, a friendly check-in before a work meeting, and taking a moment to step outside our front door at least once during the day can be a meaningful part of connecting to our communities.
Nothing delights me quite like a balloon with a present attached. In the game, I mean. There’s something about the excitement of an unexpected gift falling out of the sky that brings me an inordinate amount of joy.
Part of what makes a game as simple as “Animal Crossing” so irresistible is something we call novelty — unexpected events in the plaza, new items in the shop, and the thrill of not knowing what fish you’re about to catch all keep our brains happy and engaged.
Unsurprisingly, novelty plays an important part in our brain functioning.
Neurobiologists have identified novelty as a dopamine activator — yes, dopamine, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter — which becomes important for things like learning and memory.
While many of us are sheltered in place, novelty can be hard to come by. It’s important to have a consistent routine, yes, but it’s just as important to have novel, interesting experiences to break up the monotony.
Looking for ways to weave this into your week is an important part of our mental well-being, whether it’s a spontaneous Zoom event or a new hobby. Our metaphorical presents in the sky can be a serious brain boost when we need it most.
My favorite part of “Animal Crossing” by far is decorating my little home just the way I like it. My garden of white lilies, my carefully curated selection of furnishings, and the wallpaper I chose for each room all make me ridiculously happy.
And unlike real life, my coffee table will literally never be cluttered and the dishes will always be done.
Research tells us a lot about the importance of our environment when it comes to mental health. Everything from your wall color and lighting to the plants you have can impact your mood, energy level, and overall sense of comfort and mastery.
It’s unsurprising, then, that something like “Animal Crossing” — in which we have almost complete control over our environment — would be so satisfying to us.
If a wall color is unpleasant or our yard is feeling a little sparse, it takes nothing to change things around.
That said, we can still take some cues from our virtual island life! When cabin fever strikes, adding a few indoor plants or switching out a lightbulb can make more of a difference than you’d think. Removable wallpaper can also help break up cabinet or wall colors that we’re not especially thrilled with.
I can get into a pretty deep hyperfocus on “Animal Crossing.” This really intrigued me, especially as someone with ADHD, who tends to struggle with concentration even on a good day.
In addition to all the novelty the game provides (which is great for staying engaged), I realized that my increased focus might not be so coincidental: by picking up my Nintendo Switch, I was putting down literally everything else.
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that human brains aren’t wired to multitask. We greatly cut down on our productivity and focus when we repeatedly switch between tasks.
“Animal Crossing” became a really unique reminder for why simplicity and a one-task-at-a-time approach can work with our brains, rather than against them.
The game doesn’t overload you with goals, and it encourages players to tackle tasks one by one, incentivizing each project and limiting gameplay to keep you on track. (Think about how Tom Nook assigns out only one major goal at a time, for example.)
It’s also not the kind of game that you can play effectively if you keep checking your iPhone.
“Gamification” is also an important component of motivation. Simple, reward-driven behaviors can help us catch that jet stream of focused attention. In other words, if we can emulate what keeps us engaged in a video game, our work lives could become a lot more productive, too.
On the surface, “Animal Crossing’s” appeal may not be immediately apparent to those who haven’t played it.
Collecting resources to build pretend furniture for a make-believe island doesn’t exactly scream thrilling adventure ahead. It’s deceptively simple.
How does a game so unassuming manage to captivate people without becoming tedious?
For one, the game relies on goal-directed behavior, giving players tasks to complete to build up the reputation and community on the island. This makes the tedium of building a bridge feel more meaningful, because it connects to a larger, more important purpose and story.
Purpose is actually the subject of a lot of research in the field of psychology. Having a life that feels meaningful or useful has been shown to reduce depressive symptoms and
In other words? The story surrounding the tasks we take on is often more important than the tasks themselves.
This becomes especially relevant when we’re talking about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wearing a mask, staying home, and practicing social distancing can all feel burdensome — that is, until we examine how these actions connect to the health of our larger communities.
Similarly, when our collective mental health is languishing, it’s even more important that we still have goals — even if those goals involve building a pretend bridge.
Putting a stake in the ground gives us momentum that we might otherwise lack. It can be as simple as mastering a new craft or hobby, as silly as renovating our virtual homes on “Animal Crossing,” or as ambitious as a promotion at work.
These goal-driven behaviors help contribute to our sense of purpose, fortifying our mental health even in lockdown.
I believe that’s why a game like “Animal Crossing” can be a source of comfort — especially when the world seems to have come to a screeching halt.
It gives us goals without overwhelming us; it offers a sense of connection and novelty that our brains thrive on.
If you, like me, find yourself lost to the peaceful world inside your Nintendo Switch, don’t despair. Your mental health matters, and if “Animal Crossing” is what’s keeping yours together? By all means, enjoy.
But when you notice yourself enjoying something in particular, it’s also not a bad idea to investigate a little and see what elements of play could be brought into your real life as well. We can learn a lot, even in the places we least expect to.
As for me? I’ve got a date at the plant nursery this coming weekend. I’m thinking white lilies.
Sam Dylan Finch is a writer, positive psychology practitioner, and media strategist in Portland, Oregon. He’s the lead editor of mental health and chronic conditions at Healthline, and co-founder of Queer Resilience Collective, a wellness coaching cooperative for LGBTQ+ people. You can say hello on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or learn more at SamDylanFinch.com.