How I’m Using Animal Crossing to deal with Anxiety

by Dave Proctor

It’s been a while. Thanks for your patience, and I hope you have a happy 2017.

For the people I’ve talked to about this, I get a lot of laughs.

“My sweet summer child,” they say as I express my occasional frustration that the rest of the town hasn’t contributed to one of my many public works projects. “They only contribute 1-3 bells at most. It’s hopeless.”

For those that don’t know, Animal Crossing: New Leaf is some sort of surrealist life simulator. You are the mayor of a small, grossly underdeveloped town, and you are in charge of building it up, maintaining relationships with its many townspeople, and occasionally buying some nice things for your house. You walk around collecting random objects strewn about the world and selling them for Bells, the currency of the world. If you’ve collected all the shells and pears and butterflies that have spawned in at any given time (or if you’ve played for more than an hour) the game will encourage you to take a  break, and come back and get more things. In this way the GameCube predecessor of ACNL is a harbinger of most modern free-to-play models. The game would rather you play for 3 hours spread out than 6 hours at a time.

This does not, yet, sound like it would provide atypical amounts of stress, but coming up is where people start to get wound.

As it simulates life it also simulates many different aspects of life, including debt. Players will rack up mortgages for home and home improvements to the tyrannically cute Tom Nook, a raccoon that runs the home renovations centre in every town. Once the mortgage is paid off your character celebrates with an adorable fist in the air (that my wife and I will not likely replicate for 30+ years) and you are encouraged to expand, get a new home loan, and start the whole thing again.

There is also (with the latest update) an initiative system that encourages you to do some odd tasks around town, randomly updated each day, in exchange for another form of currency (Mutual Exchange of Wealth, or, MEOW coupons). These initiatives require you to collect bugs or fossils and donate them to the museum, grab rare fish, talk to 5 people in the town, anything that may seem “questy,” for lack of a better word. There is, I have noticed, at least one per day that relies heavily on chance. Catch a coelacanth or wear today’s “lucky item,” (which can only be declared to you by a travelling fortune teller or a special phone you can call, both of which appear on very specific days of the year). For my experience, I haven’t yet finished all four initiatives in one day.

So the game presents you with things that it wants you to do, and a limited capacity and resource to feasibly accomplish them. You can only get so many Bells in a given hour and the game doesn’t want you to hang around the ocean for hours at a time looking for a coelacanth–members of the town will actually speak to you and tell you to take a break. This should, by all accounts, trigger most of my anxieties.

As a guy who has been working with anxiety for about 6 years, money and disappointing people are two of my biggest stressors. Not being able to adequately managae my financial situation and also worrying that I’ve let down someone in my life would traditionally cause me to freak out. Why doesn’t Animal Crossing do this?

ACNL is designed in such a way that it allows for new approaches to established patterns and problems. Debt is presented, because it’s real, but repayment is at the whim of the player. Do it as you can, don’t worry about regular or late payments. No one is going to take your house. Initiatives as well–maybe today’s not the day but you can catch a rare tuna another time. The game even has a mechanic where you can schedule specific dates and appointments with town members. You set the time–“Come to my house at 7pm”–and if you don’t show up, they do not mention it. There’s no guilt, no followup. The mechanics are there for you to engage with if you want, but if you don’t want to that is up to you.

This shouldn’t be surprising that a video game allows for escape from the real consequences of things in life, but I ask instead that we frame it a slightly different way. Animal Crossing allows you to enter and create new relationships with life’s problems by removing the real stress. You don’t have to treat these things as you do in real life and, perhaps most importantly, Animal Crossing acknowledges that there are different ways to approach a pattern. By designing the way they handle debt, work, and personal relationships differently than they behave in real life, Animal Crossing opens up the possibilities to handling these things in different ways.

Think about it; if you were forced to make mortgage payments and ended up disappointing your friends when you missed a hang, it wouldn’t allow you to think about them differently than you do in your everyday existence. It wouldn’t encourage you to form new ways of negotiating life, and as such, play, with these responsibilities.

I’m encouraged to experiment with new ways to pay down debt (currently I’m putting half of whatever I sell that day to my home loan, and whatever remains gets divided to a given public works project). I am encouraged to think about meetings with my friends not as responsibilities, but as chance encounters, things that are a benefit if I can make them. I am encouraged to look at work in terms of what I can do and what I can’t, instead of a mountain of things that must get done.

These are foundational principles to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, recognizing the reasons we feel certain things, and being able to identify what is in our control. By employing a “play space” to interact with real problems in different ways, Animal Crossing lets you (without punishing you) try new ways to negotiate this thing called life.

Thanks for reading. There’s another article here I didn’t want to read before I got this out, but it’s nice to see that other people feel the same way. I’m going to go read it now and then probably pick up a few seashells before I get back to work.