Using the space of Animal Crossing to assert control and have positive experiences during COVID-19 and newborn-management.
Peeking over at my wife’s phone, I saw various nine-boxed, color-coded square charts. “What is that?” I asked. “Nothing.” I then looked over to the Nintendo Switch and saw, on our island Teddytown, patterns of flowers being laid out in similar styles to the phone. The pieces weren’t hard to connect. My wife was using her online research to engineer and design her flower garden to her desired color scheme in Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
This was around the beginning of April 2020. Our first child had been born two months prior, and the COVID-19 pandemic had shut down Philadelphia, where we live, for about a month. Uncertainty hung in the air everywhere. The scariness of the pandemic and demands of new parenting were taxing our sanity, to say the least. We simply had to respond the best we could to the whims of baby and the realities of pandemic life. Our ability to control our environment and lives felt diminished or nonexistent. For my wife, Animal Crossing: New Horizons perfectly filled that void.
I originally purchased Animal Crossing mostly because of friends and the internet raving about it. I’m kind of a sucker for new Nintendo games, even with their $60 price tag. I pulled the trigger for the digital version, knowing vaguely that my wife and I could share an island and thinking perhaps it could be a fun activity to share together. I booted it up, started the island, and found myself less than compelled. I wondered if my wife might be more interested, so I erased the save and handed her the Switch so she could be the primary resident. “See what you can make of this game.” She started it up. Her initial comments: “What am I supposed to be doing?”, “What is the point of this game?”, “I don’t know if I like it… but I kind of want to keep playing.”
Animal Crossing would become a fixture in our household for the next few months. My wife, who doesn’t play many videogames, would grab the Switch during any free time. She played while nursing, while pumping, and anytime she wasn’t passed out from the challenges of being a new mother. I enjoyed seeing her play and, while she perhaps played more than she would have liked, the fact that there was a place where she could have positive, lighthearted interactions seemed to be a real comfort for her. She became particularly obsessed with flower-gardening, reading about how to create various breeds of flowers of specific colors. She had a vision in her mind of the lovely flower gardens she wanted to make on our island.
I know my household is not alone among people who found comfort in Animal Crossing during this time, and as of January 2021, the pandemic ongoing, I assume it’s a game in which people still find comfort. What I witnessed was a videogame providing someone who does not often play them a space to be positive and accomplish pleasant goals. To distract, but also give some real small satisfaction of pride and control when the outside world had limited her ability to do so. I saw firsthand that videogames could be a place for positive expression—not necessarily an all-out escape, but perhaps a pleasant recess. COVID-19 created the desire for a positive place to exist in, even temporarily. For us, Animal Crossing provided that space. The game powered off, we faced deadly news, sleep deprivation from a crying newborn, and isolation in our small apartment. Game powered on: “How do I make my garden just right?”