In March of 2020, Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released on Switch, New York City—where I live—went on city-wide lockdown, and my partner was eight months pregnant. This confluence of events rests heavy in my mind.
Though many might view the release of ACNH coinciding with a widespread closure of non-essential business as a soothing balm for what became a protracted period of self-isolation around the US, I look back at this moment as a harbinger of mounting anxiety around new fatherhood.
Where many found solace in visiting islands, populating their museums with fossils or critters, and bringing new villagers to their secluded communities, I instead found these actions stoking my fears of enacting care. The constant maintenance and upkeep of one’s island was so satisfactory because it played nicely into widely circulated memes about the need for self-care. Furloughed workers and shuttered schools provided eager communities in need of distraction and comfort. ACNH provided this in spades: a timely release valve against the onslaught of news media spewing dire warnings of COVID’s impact (which in retrospect seem justified).
At the time many in NYC assumed the worst would last only a couple of weeks. After taking a short break the city would reemerge triumphant, jubilant for the oncoming spring. I too welcomed this break. I rejoiced that ACNH would fill seemingly long hours between home-cooked meals and restlessly doom-scrolling. I also was glad (somewhat selfishly) to have time to delve into a game before our firstborn arrived. I knew this might be the last time I’d get to spend hours at a time doing anything other than caring for a baby, so spending it on ACNH felt appropriately self-indulgent.
However, the simulated stress and artificially applied pressure baked into Animal Crossing’s core gameplay—tied with the dominating social media presence the game accrued early in its release—heightened my worries of what I should be doing to prepare for our newborn. My island, like my future child, would be a consuming undertaking. Though hopefully rich and rewarding in experience, it would also be daunting as a sustained effort.
Where the initial excitement and challenge of ACNH posed for some immediate (and mostly mindless) breaks, I found that the mechanic of care, maintenance, and development of my island weren’t as satisfying as some of my other play-throughs of previous Animal Crossing titles. As quarantine stretched from days into weeks, ACNH became a chore: a daily routine of checking turnip prices, seeing what was for sale at Nook’s, watering my tulips, collecting non-native fruit, and paying off debt.
Though I had a small group of friends whose islands I would visit periodically, my rituals when playing alone become strangely dulling. Soon my feelings of isolation that initially stemmed from the pandemic veered into concerns I had about being a dad. ACNH once felt like an escape from the world, but it quickly highlighted my uncertainty of what the world had in store for me.
I would see the intensity of other people’s commitment to the game and struggle with the idea that I wasn’t “doing more” for my island. I noticed how quickly people found effective get-rich-quick strategies or min-maxed their economies into hyper-efficiently in order to lavishly decorate their sprawling homes. I felt inadequate as a result: lacking the necessary investment in my island and not doing enough out-of-game research to know how best to exploit my resources for maximal Bells. Gameplay no longer became an exercise of discovery, but rather an expression of economic prowess. This feeling of lagging behind didn’t incentivize me to pour even more into the game, but rather made me question my commitment to the platform.
This made me concerned about my own sense of impending responsibilities, increasing my worry about whether or not I had the stamina and ability to commit to the demands of raising a child. If I couldn’t keep track of turnip prices or villager preferences, how would I know what’s best for our infant’s development? If the anger and anxiety I found in something so superficial as an anthropomorphized Beaver requesting fish pics for his fictional social media followers, how could I possibly cope with an impulsive screaming baby?
I concede that the comparisons might seem a bit farfetched, but the feelings that surfaced during my gameplay triggered in me doubts that I didn’t know I had. Undoubtably these misgivings were exacerbated by the fact that the Corona Virus had ravaged the city, dashing all expectations that our newborn would be having what we considered or hoped to be a typical “welcome into the world.”
Now, eight and a half months later, I’m sitting on my couch watching my daughter sleep under a canopy of stuffed animals and plastic playthings. Maybe the apprehensions that ACNH stirred in me were for the best since looking at her now I see all the joy in the little island we’re making together.