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Your Brain on 'Animal Crossing'

How the Nintendo Series Gives the Basics to a Better Mental Health Lifestyle

Screenshot of Animal Crossing Wild World; Dialog reads, "Kids who think they're not good at stuff usually end up being good at it, maaan. Ya just gotta try."

Content Warning: Depression, anxiety, and mental health.

Video games have always been under scrutiny when talking about the player's health, more specifically the mental and social "toll" of spending time in virtual worlds. Scientific research revolving around adolescents behavior while "being on Video Games" (known as IAD, Internet Addiction Disorder) started way back in the 1980s in papers such as "Media violence and the self: The impact of personalized gaming characters in aggressive video games on aggressive behavior." (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 137) Since then, the stigma of people who enjoy passing their free time with video games has not lightened. YouTube is stuffed full of clips of aggressively toxic behavior on online platforms, even frustration with single player games that do not have social interaction. These montages are usually publicly posted in a humorous light, or to shame a player for saying things that are morally unacceptable. Granted, denying the toxicity in the gaming community is pure blissful ignorance, despite the best efforts of gaming developers. An example of a gaming company trying to force the metaphorical chill pill down its player's throats is Blizzard's Overwatch 1.25 update, which adds an endorsement system for positive interaction with teammates.

For many other players, video games are just a way to de-stress; video games "can be a more effective way of bouncing back from negative moods than passive forms of media like TV or movies." (Raffael Boccamazzo) Even connected online with people they otherwise couldn't because of social anxieties or distance, individuals that typically play video games as a stress reducer, instead of a competitive career, gravitate towards a single player or "casual" game. J Juul defines a "casual" game in A Casual Revolution Reinventing Video Games and Their Players as, "Interruptibility is a third vision. The design does not need to be segmented or repeatable, but the player should be able to easily interrupt the game without serious consequences and return to the session later." Following that definition, the Nintendo DS system was a flagship for casual gamers, interrupting gameplay with suggestions of the player taking a quick breather—either for physical activity or just the crucial awareness of outside life. The game that adopted the daily check-in method the strictest was Animal Crossing: Wild World, released for the Nintendo DS on November 23, 2005. However, this article is going to rotate around the newest installment to the series, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, which follows the same premise—a non-violent, life simulator, without consequences, silly animal neighbors, and surprisingly, the ingredients for successfully battling depression.

"Animal Crossing has always helped me during the worst phase of my depression I've had. I would lay down at night and go swimming in 'New Leaf.' I would literally play for hours every day, swimming. It was the only time my brain would shut up. That was many years ago, but late night swims in 'Animal Crossing' are still the most peaceful and wholesome things to calm down too." —Bee via Mastodon

'Animal Crossing' and Isolation

Screenshot by tricky-pitfall-seed via Tumblr

When first starting a save file in Animal Crossing: New Leaf, your character is thrown into a very awkward first start in your new town. The villagers currently living in your town will introduce themselves when you first interact. The villagers have eight main personality types; regardless if two "Jock" personality occupies your town simultaneously, for example, they will feel completely unique as your avatar interacts with them more. Nintendo wanted to create a "communication simulator," writing letters, occasionally chatting with neighbors stimulating more options and interactions. People who suffer from depression can resort to clamming up and isolating themselves from real-life consequences, such as paying bills or avoiding social situations entirely. It is common for a depressed individual to "ghost" their friends, seeming to fall off the Earth. While in New Leaf it is possible to just... not play the game, Animal Crossing is known to be "the game that keeps playing, even when you don't"—kind of like real life, right? If for whatever reason the player does not boot up New Leaf for an extended period of time, Isabelle will have added dialog, saying things along the lines of "townspeople were wondering about you," "glad you are doing okay," etc. When someone "ghosts" in reality, they might not be greeted back with such loving concern, but that is not the case in Animal Crossing. Each townsperson will be shocked to see you, but all in all, glad your avatar is walking around outside the house again.

With enough time and dedication to friendships, they will come up to your avatar to give them random gifts, "something that made me think of you;" even if it is a toilet, it is very sweet. A letter will pop up in the mailbox with random silly sayings or just saying hello from them. And eventually, they will give you a framed photograph of themselves with a nice letter on the back, "Congratulations, you now have made a best friend on Animal Crossing."

The techniques shown by the townspeople are excellent for battling depression; isolation only makes a depressed friend feel worse, it is a horrible brain trap. Checking up on your real friends, either sending them a quick text message saying you miss them or have a spontaneous drop into their neighborhood to say hello, does make a difference.

Even the club in Animal Crossing: New Leaf is wholesome; inside there is an axolotl named Dr. Shrunk (a pun on Shrink) that teaches your avatar how to use "expressions," or small animations that depict your avatar's emotion. When using an expression in front of another character, they will react to the emotion your avatar is portraying. For example, if you use "Joy" to clap, the surrounding animals will either clap along with you or blush shyly from the admiration. Expressing yourself, in reality, can be a struggle, and sometimes you need to see a "Dr. Shrunk" to learn to open up. And there is nothing wrong with that at all.

Animal Crossing does more than promote healthy face-to-face friendships by providing a bigger scale of connection with the community. Since the game is in real time, there is something new each day to embrace, such as fishing and bug catching contests, townspeople get excited for holidays or celebrations of birthdays, and even being invited to play hide and seek. The town you create is lively when connecting amongst itself. In Animal Crossing: New Leaf, your character is in the position as mayor, meaning your animal neighbors will come to you for the completion of wants/needs for the town. Completing a public works project to decorate the town gives a sense of accomplishment for participating with your virtual community.

The real fan base for Animal Crossing is just as pleasant. The ability to visit other towns via Dream Suite promotes insane creativity flow with many different directions to take your town (scary ones included, watch a YouTube video about Aika Village sometime). Townspeople will actually move to another player's town via Street Pass on the Nintendo DS, and the small community of your town is inside the huge community of Animal Crossing players. Stacks on stacks of fan art and fan-made villagers pile all corners of the internet. The multiplayer function in New Leaf is extremely helpful when you need some help filling in your museum's fish tanks. YouTube and Twitch gamers regularly come back to Animal Crossing for content:

"When I started playing 'New Leaf,' I was dealing with a years-long mental breakdown where I lost my job, apartment, and many friends. I developed anxiety on top of my bipolar disorder, but 'Animal Crossing' gave me a healthy outlet and, eventually, a step back into society. Even on my worst days, loading up the game made me feel better because it was calm and friendly, and having daily things to do gave me a sense of structure. Through the game, I found a community of people who dealt with similar issues, and we often talked about how we played 'Animal Crossing' to cheer up and cope with our mental illnesses. Thanks to their friendships and support, and our mutual love for such a wonderful game, I eventually improved my mental health, and use 'Animal Crossing' these days to talk about experiences with mental illness in my streams."

@fuchsiarascal via Twitter, 'Animal Crossing' and Gaming YouTuber/Streamer

The Music

One of the most calming aspects of Animal Crossing is the iconic real-time music produced by Kazumi Totaka (the voice actor for Yoshi!) that changes with the in-game weather and time of day. Calming music regulates mood and eases anxiety by slowing down the heart rate. Add nature sounds such as rain falling or chirping of crickets, and you've got an Animal Crossing soundtrack. There are countless videos on YouTube that loop the video game's music for several hours; the viral 24-hour live stream "Lo-Fi Hip Hop Radio Beats To Relax/Study To" by Chillcow always has a packed chatroom of listeners looking to de-stress. Ironically, most of the music sampled in the tracks are from Animal Crossing's soundtrack.

The Power of Routine

Animal Crossing Screenshot

"If you can start doing one thing, like getting out of bed at the same time each day... slowly, you add more and more into your routine. Shopping, paying bills..." —David Ford, Published Writer for HuffPost on coping with depression through routine.
Good habits form through repetition include waking up at a decent hour, going to work on time, finding the energy to do hobbies... but it's not an instant change for most people with depression. It takes practice and patience to slowly crawl out of the shell and into an ideal self. Animal Crossing is a game with limited tasks per day; the money rock, for example, only shows up once per day and gives the player a decent chunk of bells to decide how to spend. Mortgages, public works projects, a new outfit, flowers to plant, furniture, put it in the bank, etc. etc. Soon enough, a daily routine is formed, all to positive outcomes in Animal Crossing. Buying 50 saplings from Leif will gift the golden axe, in addition to the town now being lush with greenery. Saving bells builds interest in the bank, allowing an easy stack up to public work project goals, which increases the citizen satisfaction rate, and also builds the town to the player's liking. Checking up on the animal neighbors helps build relationships and creates new friendships. These are all aspects that help with real-life depression. It is a gradual process, but getting out into your local community radiates positive energy. Taking it slow day by day will surely grow into good habits. So, how can you apply Animal Crossing: New Leaf's habits to real life?

  • What are activities you enjoy the most in-game, and is it because you enjoy those things in real life?
  • Does planting flowers, picking up trash, and donating to causes give you positive feelings? Are there needs in your community that you can help with? Are there groups you can contribute to?
  • Talking to friends regularly, people still love receiving letters so get your friend's addresses, or just send a quick text saying that you're thinking of them.
  • Go out into the sunshine.
"See you tomorrow."

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