Disclaimer: This article was not written by a mental health expert and should not be taken as advice for those suffering from depression or any other health-related issues. There is no alternative to proper mental healthcare for those in need. If you or someone you love is seeking mental health treatment, please seek local mental health professionals in your area. Readers in the US can also call the National Suicide Hotline at 419-879-7195 for help. Thank you.
As society has become more and more advanced, we’ve not only expanded the average lifespan but also our knowledge of ways to improve physical well-being whether it’s through exercise or diet. We’ve also increasingly begun to look inward and explore our own mental health more directly than ever before.
While there are many tools to combat mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and sleep or eating-related disorders, not everyone has access to these tools. Therapy can be prohibitively expensive and resources aren’t always immediately available for those who need help.
That’s not to say there is ever a substitute for professional mental health counselors, but many people who find themselves in mental ruts have turned to forms of self-care. Some read self-help books, and some play video games.
That’s right, despite the stigma video games have regarding accusations of making people violent, there are a lot of video games that many have found help them relax and cope with their everyday lives. One game in particular comes up frequently among gamers who have ever experienced periods of prolonged melancholy: Animal Crossing.
While Animal Crossing has always been a series I’ve played to unwind after a stressful day, I never realized how profound an impact it has had on gamers suffering from anxiety and other issues until very recently.
It all started when I pulled up some Animal Crossing music on YouTube. I wanted to get into the mood for the upcoming release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons on Switch, so I figured I’d play some highlights from the series’ soundtrack on my daily commute (via subway, don’t worry I wasn’t driving).
As I enjoyed the soothing sounds of composer Kazumi Totaka’s work, I began scrolling through the comments on a whim. I soon found a recurring pattern: comment after comment describing how Animal Crossing got players through a rough patch in their lives. I like to pride myself on being mentally tough, but after reading about a dozen or so comments repeating the same sentiment about how this game series had touched so many lives in a positive way, I couldn’t hold back the tears that began streaming down my face.
There was a story of a father who always came home late from work when his son was asleep, but they would send letters to each other in the game. Stories of people who were too shy to socialize in the real world, so they practiced socializing with their animal neighbors in the game – essentially learning how to communicate with others – until they gathered up the courage to strike up conversations with classmates and co-workers in real life. Stories of people who grew up in abusive households, but would turn to the friendly faces in Animal Crossing to escape if only for a few hours. Stories of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy who were able to distract themselves from the pain by playing Animal Crossing. Stories of autistic gamers who have used Animal Crossing as a sort of mental model on how to fit in. And of course, stories of senior citizens living in nursing homes who have poured hours into the game creating their own communities as a social outlet. The list goes on.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise considering series creator Katsuya Eguchi has stated the game was inspired by his own personal experiences.
“Animal Crossing features three themes: family, friendship and community. But the reason I wanted to investigate them was a result of being so lonely when I arrived in Kyoto. Chiba is east of Tokyo and quite a distance from Kyoto, and when I moved there I left my family and friends behind. In doing so, I realized that being close to them – being able to spend time with them, talk to them, play with them – was such a great, important thing. I wondered for a long time if there would be a way to recreate that feeling, and that was the impetus behind the original Animal Crossing.” Eguchi once stated in an interview.
I’d say Eguchi perfectly succeeded on his goal. As I wiped the tears away, I gained a new appreciation not only for the series as a whole but for the stories of the gamers who have built such a positive and wholesome community around it.
So as I count down the days until I can chill out with Tom Nook in his tropical-themed attire on my very own island, I’ll also reflect on all the people Animal Crossing has helped over the years and will hopefully continue to help in the years to come.