Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the moment.
2020 has been a hard year for all of us. Whether it’s losing loved ones, your livelihood, or a friendship, or fear of losing your way of life, even simply grieving for others, COVID-19 has stripped us all bare like a tree with its bark ripped off. Society has reached a tipping point in its struggle for equality and the pursuit of happiness, boiling over into persistent protests in the streets of the U.S.’ largest cities, and clashes between protestors and police that evoke the most grim parts of our nation’s past.
Personally, 2020 has brought a reckoning with unhealthy ways such that I’ve avoided rather than coped with changes in my life, in small part thanks to Animal Crossing: New Horizons. At its release, a common sentiment was that it came at just the right time—what better game to sink your teeth into when we’re all stuck at home with no place to go than a charming life simulator? What better time to have a game that gives small, attainable goals each day and gradually lets you develop your ideal house, ideal personal island town, and ideal set of friendly neighbors with persistent positive encouragement?
I poured one-to-two hours a night into New Horizons, picking away at the landscape to squeeze in fruit trees of every variety, becoming a beast of burden for Tom Nook to fast-track island development, maxing out my purchases of turnips every Sunday and then leveraging every tool and acquaintance available to sell high and pad my bank account. I used my scant work breaks to do quick meet-ups with friends to trade for items I need. I did all of this while my wife & I spun plates of teaching our two young sons, improving our diet & exercise, learning how to cook, staying on top of chores, and attempting to work from home while being on top of each other in the same space nearly all the time.
Then my 8-year-old son wanted to play. For those unfamiliar, Nintendo decided that all accounts on one Switch have to share an island. Suddenly, the one space that was still all mine was being occupied by a small agent of chaos. Fruit shaken off trees and left there, all the resources picked clean before I could get to any of them, and hundreds of questions on how to play the game in the middle of my work day. I had reached my limit—the kids needed their own Switch so they could get off my virtual lawn (my wife & I had discussed rewarding their good work dealing with homeschooling anyway; this was just extra incentive).
After transferring my account to the new Switch, to my horror I learned Animal Crossing: New Horizon doesn’t let you transfer your island with you. I begrudgingly bequeathed the land I tilled to my sons, spending a few hours one evening having both switches on my lap, making visits between my former home and the new, untamed landscape I’d have to start over on, not wanting to start completely from scratch.
Then something incredible happened—the space between my son & me in-game allowed our relationship to flourish. Not being stuck on the same island gave him and his brother autonomy to build their ideal world. Visiting each other’s islands became a special experience of receiving a tour: he shared with me all he wanted to accomplish along with what materials or bells he needed, and me being grateful I could share with him the fruits of my virtual labor to give him a leg-up in accomplishing those goals. The special notes he’d mail me didn’t hurt, either.
I realized this mirrored unhealthy coping mechanisms in my life. My fear of losing what matters most compelled me to exert control over my relationships instead of making them what they should be—a partnership. My fear of losing my wife, kids, parents, grandparents, relatives, and friends manifests into controlling how much I share with them—what I allow them to know about my life, interests, aspirations, and struggles. These are things I’m actively working to correct in baby steps.
So yes, for me, Animal Crossing: New Horizons was the right game at the right moment of my life. Not because it provided mental shelter from the world outside my front door, nor because it gave me the little hits of feigned accomplishment I felt I was missing in real life. It gave me an experience with my oldest son that allowed me to better contextualize my broader life struggles, and how my fear of losing control was consuming me. I hardly touch it anymore, but I will always be grateful to Animal Crossing for expanding my own horizons.