New Horizons for those on lockdown

Across the globe, millions of people are waking up to their very own island paradise. Each day consists of meeting with friends, chatting to neighbours, trading furniture, catching fish, and picking fruit. Houses, museums and fashion boutiques are built within a matter of days. Business is roaring both on the island and abroad. The stock market is strong, the environment is flourishing, and life is good. So how has this island survived the crunch of coronavirus? Well for starters, it’s entirely digital, and found in the game Animal Crossing: New Horizons. For its millions of players, the game is a haven away from a mid-pandemic world, and a crucial key to staying sane and social in these isolated times.

Since its release on March 20, Animal Crossing: New Horizons (ACNH) has become a self-care sensation. As lockdowns come into effect across the globe, many have turned to island life to stay in touch with friends and lovers alike. The sweet animation style, wholesome characters, and cutesy everyday tasks have also become a form of therapy for many, helping them maintain a routine whilst stuck at home. If one thing’s for sure, it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Island mindfulness

For 20-year-old Habibah Ahmed, the game has been the perfect escape from life on lockdown in Oxfordshire, UK. “It’s really helped my mental health, it’s really calmed me down and kept me sane,” she says.  “It’s given me control in my life; I get to create my own island, I build things, I build a routine that I don’t have at home at the moment.”

Habibah was introduced to the game by her boyfriend, who bought her a copy so they could play together. “We live separately so that’s how we’re coping at the moment,” she says. “We’ll meet up together, I’ll set up a little bonfire with chairs, so we’ll go there, have a little picnic, go fishing together.” She explains how her love of the moon and stars extends into the game, with the couple having virtual stargazing dates to replace their real ones. “It’s just the little things we would normally do that we would do in the game.”

Habibah’s boyfriend, Andrew Martin, is helping her plan her upcoming 21st birthday party which, due to COVID-19 restrictions, they’ll be having in-game. Screenshot supplied by Habibah Ahmed

For self-confessed socialite Rikki Ocampos, 23, the interactions with computer-generated villagers are only just outweighed by the online multiplayer aspect. “I love how you can develop relationships with the different animals,” she says. “I’m in love with Melba the koala, I think she’s so cute.” She says that playing ACNH has been a good way for her and her friends to “check up on each other” during the crisis. “I’m a very extroverted, very social person so it has been very difficult for me to not see a lot of my friends, but Animal Crossing has been a really good excuse to see them.”

Known for its high levels of wholesomeness, Rikki says the game is also a great way to share representation. “I love making a lot of different cultural designs,” she says, referring to ACNH’s custom design capability. She describes the planning of a “pseudo-graduation” for a friend being a great opportunity to bring culture into the game. “She and I are both Pilipino-Americans, so I designed a little Pilipino stole to put over the graduation gown.”

Rikki was inspired to have a graduation for her friend after seeing other events being held in-game in response to coronavirus cancellations. Screenshot supplied by Rikki Ocampos

From Islander to Alumnus

For the boys over at The Break Room Arcade, a Nintendo-focused YouTube podcast, the idea of using games to supplement real-world interaction was a natural one. “The digital age has prepared a lot of us, especially the younger generations,” says Logan Welliver. “Being in Animal Crossing is such a social thing in general.”

When he and fellow podcast hosts, Brandon Miracle and Paul Anderson, heard that their friend’s graduation was cancelled due to the virus outbreak, they leapt into action. “We’re already all online playing Animal Crossing together, let’s just do it right now,” Brandon says. Unlike many other players, Brandon already happened to have graduation gowns in stock at his island’s fashion outlet. They subbed in a fedora for the graduation cap, a Nook Miles Ticket for the diploma, and scouted out the perfect spot. “We all gathered at the campsite at the north end of my town because we thought it would be the perfect stage,” Brandon says.

Brandon says that for those in their Discord group, a communication app designed for gaming communities, ACNH has provided a regular social outlet. Screenshot supplied by The Break Room Arcade

The three friends, who now stream their podcast from inside an Animal Crossing recreation of their studio, have also found the game to be a big help in dealing with current world events. “Animal Crossing is relaxation incarnate,” Logan says. “The idea that even paying debt could be relaxing is an odd notion, but it certainly is in Animal Crossing.” Both Logan and Brandon have clocked in over 100 hours of gameplay over the last two weeks. “Animal Crossing has built a daily routine for people like us, who have had their routines ripped out from under them,” Brandon says.

Wedding Bells

Rebecca Dabbs and Avery Lucas had more than just their routines taken away by COVID-19. Their April wedding, which had been planned and ready to go for months, has seen a big change in structure. Avery describes the stress of “running into obstacles” at every turn. “Becky took that really hard,” he says. “We weren’t even sure we were going to be able to do it.”

One day while playing the game, Avery says he saw a stone arch which prompted a great idea. “I basically spent four days trying to collect all the materials, mostly because Becky got on first every day and took all of the materials before me,” he says with a laugh. “I just wanted to do something to make her happy.”

Avery managed to keep the ceremony a surprise, right up until asking Rebecca to find a white dress. Screenshot supplied by Rebecca Dabbs

Despite it being digital, Rebecca still gushes about the big day. “He played the wedding march on our end and everything,” she says. “It was really sweet, I cried like a baby.” Rebecca shared the images on an Animal Crossing meme page and received over 1300 comments and over 2000 shares. “I know it’s a hard time for a lot of people, at least wedding wise, and I thought it would be something to bring some light.”

On the real-world front, Rebecca says the wedding is still on but with some minor adjustments. “We’re still keeping our date, but we’re pretty much minimising it to just straight family at this point.” A bigger celebration is still on the cards, but it will be a while before it can happen. Until then Avery says that ACNH will be a key way for them to pass the time. “It’s just a fun slice-of-life game where you can chill out and escape.”