The Psychology Behind Animal Crossing’s Incredible Success
Being in debt has never been so relaxing, or so fun
DISCLAIMER: This article features lengthy discussions about mental health and depression. If this subject matter affects you negatively in any way, please reach out to a friend, family member, or a support service such as Beyond Blue or Lifeline for support.
It’s time for a confession: I have never understood the hype around games like Animal Crossing. Believe me, I’ve tried — I do own New Leaf, but I haven’t logged too much play time on it because I just couldn’t get into it — but I’ll admit that seeing Animal Crossing: New Horizons memes all over all of my social media feeds has piqued my interest. When I’ve asked people why they enjoy the game so much, all I’ve really gotten was vague answers like “it’s relaxing” or “it’s just fun to collect bugs,” and when I’ve dug further into why being in debt is fun, the responses have always been shrugs. Obviously I’m missing something, because New Horizons has gone ahead and thrashed even Nintendo’s wildest sales expectations.
I decided to do some research since my family and friends weren’t much help, and started to get some leads when I did a quick search for Animal Crossing and relaxation. What I found was article after article like this one, discussing the benefits the game has had on people’s mental health; the outside world is just so scary at the moment, and the game’s cute aesthetic and lack of real pace helps people to embrace a serene, tranquil island life (and also, catch up with friends). I feel like we can do better than just using generic buzzwords like “calming” and “soothing” to describe this franchise’s positive impact on mental health, though, so let’s talk about the clinical psychology and neuroscience behind it.
First thing’s first, let’s break Animal Crossing down into its core gameplay loop — or lack thereof. Basically, you start your island life by taking a loan for a small house from Tom Nook, and then you’re on a quest to pay it back (just so he can offer you bigger loans to upgrade your house), making Bells by building furniture, catching bugs, designing clothes, finding fossils or just picking fruit and flowers. The catch with Tom Nook’s loan is that there’s no term, no interest, nothing. You pay it back at your own pace, so technically… you don’t even have to pay it off if you don’t want to. There’s no overarching quest, no time constraints or actual challenges, it’s just a life simulator in which you don’t age. That is pretty relaxing in and of itself, but I’m not convinced that that tells the whole story.
Looking at any Animal Crossing gameplay through the years, the first thing you’re likely to notice is the game’s bright colour palette, cutesy characters and the abundance of sunny days in comparison to darker ones. This colour choice is intentional, because people tend to associate the colour green with vitality and the colour blue with calm, but that’s not too concrete either. In order to fully understand the impact of light on mood, though, we need to discuss Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) — a subset of major depressive disorder that occurs during the winter months, when the weather is colder, the nights are longer and the sun is more scarce.
A commonly-used treatment for SAD is light therapy, which exposes patients to a bright white light, simulating natural light exposure and modifying the patient’s hormonal production and release. By adding hours of additional light exposure to a patient’s day, light therapy aims to shorten the amount of time the body has to synthesise melatonin — a hormone most commonly associated with sleep that, in high doses, can bring about fatigue and lethargy — and promoting the synthesis of its counterpart, serotonin, which promotes feelings of happiness and well-being. The link back to Animal Crossing is therefore simple: players associate the game’s bright, carefully-constructed colour palette with happiness and positivity.
Of course, there are some other factors in play when comparing a life simulator to light therapy: the light boxes used in light therapy are much brighter than any handheld console’s screen, and patients are told not to look directly at the light box as they do a handheld screen. It’s not a like-for-like comparison, but it’s definitely an interesting explanation as to why Nintendo chose this specific aesthetic for its quaint life sim.
Nintendo’s use of rounded character and structural designs was also deliberate, playing on the fact that over many years, we have been conditioned to perceive circles,or anything rounded, as being “safer” than shapes and objects with sharper, more jagged edges to them. This isn’t just me spouting things that sound true, either: neuroscientists Moshe Bar and Maital Neta published a study in 2007 that found that the amygdala – a region of the brain associated with fear and survival instincts – was more responsive when participants were exposed to sharp objects than when they were exposed to rounded ones. It stands to reason that rounded designs are more comforting and more inviting, and so it’s no surprise that rounded designs are present from the moment you turn Animal Crossing: New Horizons on for the first time. Nintendo isn’t the only company to have caught on to this, either; characters such as Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Star Wars’ BB-8 are also designed with this principle (or a variant thereof) in mind.
Moving away from its visuals, it’s also reasonable to explain Animal Crossing’s “feel-good factor” to its relaxing lack of pace. The lack of firm deadlines, consequences and even necessary objectives allows players to take things at their own pace and just be aware of themselves and their actions rather than everything around them. Polygon’s Jennifer Schuerle outlines the importance of locking players out of particular activities until the following day – especially in the current climate where lengthy gaming sessions are well and truly acceptable – but I would like to go a step further and discuss how the game helps with mental health by allowing players to create their own routine. Even if it’s just a few menial tasks, a routine helps us feel like we have agency and control over our lives, improving our motivation levels and even helping us keep our sleep schedules regulated. This becomes a point of difficulty for those suffering from mental health issues (particularly depression), who often find it difficult to get out of bed and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
With a selection of daily tasks to complete like watering plants, picking fruit, hitting rocks with shovels, selling the night’s takings to Timmy and Tommy Nook, and completing tasks for Nook Miles, and then locking further activity until the next day, Animal Crossing: New Horizons gives players a “checklist” to work through. It’s not a massively important routine, neither in the game or in real life, but creating that first routine can snowball into setting similar daily goals in real life and then potentially become a real daily routine. Of course, it’s important to stress that video games, as fun as they are, are not a substitute for real and actual therapy, and as with any treatment they should be used in moderation to prevent a dependency. There are plenty of other support systems available to people who are going through any kind of difficulty either due to mental health issues or just due to the isolation period we’ve all experienced, and those should always be your first point of contact.
Perhaps the biggest of Animal Crossing’s many positive contributors to mental health, though, is in its social features. We’re all missing our social interactions at the moment, with schools and workplaces closed down and people being advised to stay home unless they absolutely must go out, and it’s also common knowledge that friendships and social interactions are important to our mental health. When you combine Animal Crossing’s online features with a service like Discord, Messenger Rooms, Skype or even the resurgent Zoom, it’s very possible to simulate social interactions just by relaxing with our friends on a virtual island.
Much like its single-player experience, Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ social offering lacks competition, deadlines or any other kind of pressure, granting players the opportunity to hang out, check out what others are doing with their islands, exchange resources and recipes and just relax. This experience has found its way onto Twitter as well, where there’s a vibrant player community sharing designs, fan art and even turnip prices, and it’s also quite popular on Twitch, where it ranked as the ninth-most watched game in April. That’s a major achievement for a game that has no action and no competition – traits that the eight games above it, and countless others below it, all share. It’s interesting to note that Minecraft, another game that eliminates any real deadlines or pressure (outside of player-created competitive experiences, of course) is ranked tenth as well, symbolising viewers’ desire to relax with their games more and more in these uncertain times.
Over the past couple of months, people from all walks of life have been encouraged, if not begged or forced, to stay home and avoid any and all non-essential interactions. These social restrictions are starting to ease up now (at least in Australia), and we’re slowly making our way back to normal society, and so I feel it important to note that video games — no matter how relaxing they may be — should never replace all human interactions; excessive use of social media, or anything that replaces actual human interaction, has been linked to feelings of loneliness and anxiety, so be sure that you’re balancing your time spent on Animal Crossing’s incredibly relaxing islands with actual human interaction when it’s safe and permissible to do so.