Content Warning: Pandemic, Coronavirus, COVID-19, Quarantine, Anxiety
When the situation with COVID-19 first started to (visibly) ramp up in the United States and people began to settle into their homes for some prolonged social distancing, a few companies started making adjustments to their policies in order to make life easier for people now at home for extended periods of time. Data caps were raised, free trials were extended, and some companies even pushed out upcoming products or services early to give people something to be excited about “during these uncertain times.” When this started happening there was a general sentiment I began to see among Nintendo fans that Animal Crossing should be released early. This sentiment increased when GameStop announced that DOOM Eternal would be sold in stores a day early as a (half) measure to follow recommendations around social distancing. People said things like “Animal Crossing is the perfect quarantine game,” and “this game couldn’t have come at a better time.” Public opinion in those circles was that relaxing on a deserted island would be the perfect antidote to the stress of the coronavirus pandemic. I participated in those conversations and was one of the many voices saying that Animal Crossing felt like a perfect fit for the scenario the world was finding itself in.
I’m writing this on a Sunday afternoon. Saturday, I spent all morning and the early afternoon hunting bugs and catching fish to sell to Nook’s Cranny. My goal was to make 400,000+ bells before Sunday so I could buy a full inventory of turnips to later sell again for a massive profit. My motivations are twofold: I’m trying to pay off my final house debt to see what happens when you no longer owe Tom Nook money, and I’m trying to get all the Nook Mile stamps for participating in the stalk market. After hours of catching bugs and fish to sell I only had about 250K, not enough for the turnip shopping spree I was planning on. So later that night after spending some time with my wife watching anime, I stayed up until 1 AM (on a day where I woke up at 5 AM) hunting for a mystery island where I could farm tarantulas so I could sell them Sunday morning. As soon as 8 o’clock Sunday morning hit, I was selling my tarantulas and buying turnips, then hosting other people on my island so they could buy turnips because I had the lowest price in the Animal Crossing Facebook group I’m in.
Do I sound relaxed to you?
I’ve jokingly said in the past that Animal Crossing is the least chill “chill” video game I have ever played. I attributed this in New Leaf to the fact that the real time mechanics create a sort of looming time pressure on a lot of what you do. If you don’t sign on every day, your town starts to deteriorate. If you don’t sign on between the hours of 8 AM – 10 PM, you can’t go to any stores or really participate in most of the core mechanics of the game. If you miss an exclusive event, you have to wait a year to participate in it again. Now most of this assumes you aren’t using time traveling to tailor your experience to your schedule, but ask the typical Animal Crossing player how they feel about that particular strategy. If you’re someone who is actively playing every single day and who either doesn’t have a busy life or makes Animal Crossing a priority amidst the business, then the real-time mechanisms force you to be patient and wait for another day for exciting things like an upgraded house or a new shop. But if you can only sign on for thirty minutes to an hour each day, or only play a couple of days a week, the fact that so many things are passing you by while you don’t have the game booted up may lead you to feel like you have to work harder to have an optimal Animal Crossing experience.
But here’s the thing: that pressure doesn’t come from the game, really. Tom Nook doesn’t judge you for not paying off your first loan at 2 AM on Friday, March 20th, 2020. You’re not getting less out of the game because you took three weeks to fill up your clam shell Nook Miles stamp card while your buddy finished hers in two days. Animal Crossing is designed to let you go at your own pace and in most situations, it doesn’t punish you for playing less or playing slower than other people in the community. That pressure to optimize your Animal Crossing experience comes from two places. One is the community – the power of FOMO (fear of missing out) is certainly a real thing and seeing the awesome things other people are doing that you’re not getting to experience in the game can create this sort of societal pressure even if no one is specifically saying “hey, You, play this game more and play it faster.” The other, of course, is our own selves, the part of us that wants to be doing what everyone else is doing or the part of us that wants to have the perfect experience with the games we play.
What I have noticed about myself in the midst of this pandemic is that Animal Crossing isn’t the only place where I’m trying to push towards a conclusion as quickly as possible. I’m currently working from home, and each day I try to wake up early so I can be sure to start (and by extension finish) work as early as possible. I keep my lunch to a tight thirty minutes and loath any interruptions which might make me have to work later in the day. The second I get off I’m jumping into Animal Crossing to make the rounds, make money, and try to get my virtual house paid off or participate in whatever in-game event is happening that day. At all moments, I am doing two things at once. Grinding tarantulas and catching up on shows I’ve been wanting to watch. Cooking dinner and watching a friend’s live stream. One day I literally cleaned my kitchen and living room while also watching a documentary for work. I’m making every effort to optimize my life, to finish each task as quickly as possible so I can get to the next thing on what seems to be a neverending list of stuff to do.
These minor life optimizations are not too different from the sort of thinking that drives a speedrunner trying to make their personal best time in a video game. “If I wear my wireless headphones I can wash dinners while I handle this conference call” is just the real-life version of “If I run up this slope, I can clip past the cutscene trigger and go straight to the boss battle.” Spending all this mental energy looking for ways to be as efficient as possible and maximize time by spending the minimum amount on every given task may be the ideal way to finish a 20 hour video game in 30 minutes, but it is not the ideal way to live your life. Pounding through every activity in your day like a list of achievements is the inevitable path to burnout.
There’s a good chance this week that when I sell my turnips, I’ll have made the bells necessary to pay off my final debt in Animal Crossing New Horizons. My house will be the biggest size it can be and I won’t owe Tom Nook another cent. I decided pretty early on that when I hit that marker, I would consider myself to have “beaten” Animal Crossing. Sure I might hop on for some additional events or something, but I will essentially be done with the game. But what has rushing to that conclusion gotten me? Was my experience with Animal Crossing more positive as a result? I wouldn’t say it was. I spent late nights fighting to stay awake to try and make the money to finish the game faster and made the game less fun in the process. In the midst of that process I only half-participated in every show, every stream, every RPG session where I was also half-participating in Animal Crossing.
During the course of my personal struggle with depression and anxiety, one concept I have studied as a method of trying to address them was that of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of intentionally engaging with the present moment, actually being where you are and thinking about what you are doing right now. It seems straightforward enough but it is a practice I almost never engage in. For most activities I do, I’m either also doing another activity or my mind is racing with thoughts about what I need to be doing later (or perhaps dwelling on a past mistake or grudge from earlier in the day or the day before). When you aren’t being mindful about an activity, one potential side effect is that you don’t experience that activity to its fullest benefit. With Animal Crossing, I never got that relaxing experience that I was so desperately craving in the midst of the pandemic because I never just sat down and calmly played the game on its own without some kind of ulterior motive driving my choices.
There’s a pressure to treat quarantine as an opportunity to optimize our lives. “You’re home all the time now, there’s no reason your house shouldn’t be clean.” “Instead of watching Netflix, start your novel!” These sentiments come from that same un-mindful mentality that’s focused on the future instead of the present moment. Would it be more efficient to lose 50 pounds, learn Spanish, and pick up a side hustle freelancing during this time when your options for travel or socialization are limited? Sure, I guess, but that refuses to acknowledge your needs in the moment. This pandemic is not something we voluntarily signed up for or prepared ourselves for, and it isn’t a vacation. Sure we’re at home more often (unless you’re an essential worker, in which case this pandemic has likely layered even more stress onto your life), but the context of why we’re home is really important. This isn’t fun time off to enrich your life. COVID-19 is scary, and feeling trapped inside of the same place day in and day out for weeks puts your mind into an unpleasant state. On top of all that, ultimately by speedrunning life what are we rushing toward? The end of life isn’t like the end of a video game; you can’t rush towards it any faster by being more efficient and making more money more quickly. And also unlike a video game, life’s definitive conclusion isn’t a pleasant one. Most people don’t want to reach it any faster than they have to.
My time with Animal Crossing is nearly done, but the lesson I have learned from it is one that I hope stays with me when I’ve put them game down. Relaxation is not a sensation that a video game can bring to you – at least not if you engage with it in a way that isn’t conducive to relaxation. It’s important to be aware of what you want from the game, and then play it mindfully in a way that provides the experience you want to have. A relaxing Animal Crossing experience is one taken slowly, where each day is given the space it needs to be what it is without the pressure of efficiency or optimization adding stress to the game. Quarantine in the midst of a pandemic, too, needs to be approached for what it is. Acknowledge the reality of the situation and what you need from it, and then proceed mindfully. If you need to relax, if the stress of COVID feels overwhelming to you, then maybe trying to take online programming classes or start a podcast isn’t really the “optimal” way to play right now.
My desire to optimize my quarantine experience has been one that added unnecessary stress to an already stressful situation. I hope my first month working from home, a month spent with a game meant to relax me that really just added one more task to the checklist of my life, can be an example to you of what not to do. We’re “living in uncertain times” (or interesting times, or difficult times, or unprecedented times, or whatever else you want to call them), so take things slow. If trying to accomplish too much can make an island vacation into a stressful experience, imagine how much more it can do to a pandemic. When folks say “stay home and stay healthy,” remember that your mental health is just as important as your physical. In the meantime, I’l be doing my best to take my own advice.