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Animal Crossing: New Horizons was supposed to be just a game. Through a series of weird coincidences, it instead became a cultural phenomenon, and a record of the first few months of a global pandemic. It’s not surprising that a lot of us have complicated feelings about it.

Granted, a lot of those feelings are positive ones, because Animal Crossing was a lifeline when many of us were really struggling — an oasis in a massive desert of difficulties. But for many of us, those positive feelings also came with a massive dose of FOMO (fear of missing out) when we compared ourselves to other people playing the game, and worries that we were somehow wasting time or playing the game "wrong" by either bingeing it, or not playing "enough" to keep up.

Now that the gigantic 2.0 update and the Happy Home Paradise DLC are here, many of us are flocking back to a game that we abandoned for months, or that we potentially associate with feelings of loneliness, despondency, and anxiety — and we’re wondering how to get back into the game without feeling weird about it, or playing it in unhealthy ways.

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I mean, it's easy to relax when you work at a tropical resort, Wardell

Good news: It is possible. I spoke to two psychologists from Take This, a non-profit mental health organisation that deals specifically with the gaming community, to tell me (and you!) how to ease back in.

In fact, my two interviewees — Dr Rachel Kowert, the Research Director of Take This, and Dr Raffael Boccamazzo, Take This’ Clinical Director (“better known as Dr B for long Italian name reasons,” he tells me) — are both gamers, too, and they’ve played a lot of Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Dr B is at 240 hours, and Dr Kowert says she’s “pushing a hundred” hours, adding that it should be more — “#momlife”). Who better to ask about the weirdness of coming back to a game that’s tied to such a lot of strange memories?

Psychologists struggle with gaming habits, too

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"There is a sort of... lowkey anxiety to having to relearn so many things”

“I haven't played in a while before the update,” admits Dr B. (Psychologists — they’re just like us!) “There is a sort of... lowkey anxiety to having to relearn so many things.” He dreams of a world in which games have an “adult with responsibilities” mode: “Listen, we know you have kids, we know you have a real job… so tell you what, Solid Snake, we're going to reteach you this game.”

Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ new Island Life 101 app is sort of like that — and, admittedly, the stakes are lower, too. Solid Snake might accidentally die because he forgot which button shoots the gun, but your Animal Crossing villagers are just going to be mildly miffed at you. Still, that anxiety is real, especially when we feel like we’ve missed out on so much, or know that we’re prone to “bingeing” the game and making ourselves sick of it.

But Animal Crossing was designed to be a low-stakes game, which just happened to come out at a time when many of us had nothing to do, so of course we ended up bingeing and min-maxing it. Understanding why that happened — and why we feel anxious about it — is key to understanding how to come back to it.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out at just the right time

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Kapp'n's advice is surprisingly good

Dr Kowert directs me towards something called Self-Determination Theory, which says that people find motivation and engagement in three main things: Autonomy, the power to make and enact our own decisions; Competence, the ability to do well and master something; and Relatedness, in which we experience connection and intimacy. To put it another way: Being in control, being good at things, and having friends makes us feel good about ourselves. Shocking, I know.

The pandemic lockdowns took those three things away. Animal Crossing: New Horizons gave them back. In a study by the University of York’s Sebastian Deterding, Kowert tells me, “people were very self-aware that they were loving Animal Crossing because it was meeting those three needs, when those three needs could not be as well met at other places.”

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It's been a while for many of us, too

But everyone else was also playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons, too. Soon, something that Dr Kowert terms “social comparison” began popping up: Our social media feeds were wall-to-wall plastered with people’s incredible creative ideas, and all the neat things they were discovering, all while the rest of us were stuck in tents catching nothing but Sea Bass. Coming back to a game that rewards daily play is nerve-wracking, because you feel so far behind the people who actually stuck with it.

If you're enjoying the game, you’re playing it correctly. That's really what it comes down to

It can feel a bit like you’ve turned up to a party late, so you don’t understand all the in-jokes, and you missed all the best moments. But that’s not true. Dr B puts it simply: “If you're enjoying the game, you’re playing it correctly. That's really what it comes down to.” Dr Kowert agrees. “It’s not a sprint,” she tells me, reassuring me that it’s fine that I don’t have all the fish yet. “You have to give yourself permission that it’s not going to happen immediately. It’s not that kind of game, it is not meant to work that way, and if you're stressed out about it… it’s meant to be fun.”

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Having a brief emo moment in-game

In fact, it turns out that working on the anxiety, guilt, and fear of missing out that we feel about things like Animal Crossing can actually be a helpful exercise for life in general. You see, I, like many people, am afraid that I’ll use up all of a good thing — like blazing through the Happy Home Paradise DLC — and then there will be none left, and I will be sad.

But coming to terms with the “loss” of something good and finite is apparently a very important thing to learn.

“There's certain things you're going to miss out on, and that's just the nature of the game,” says Dr B, after I tell him how utterly stressed I’ve been about my half-empty museum. “This is a nice microcosm exercise in existential impermanence and the fact that if you choose one thing, you have to exclude another.” Ever felt torn between two things, and as a result, you can’t enjoy the thing you actually chose to do? “Give yourself permission to miss some things,” says Dr B. “That’s so much pressure, and it’s going to take away from the enjoyment.”

"The opposite of play is depression"

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Yep, I can relate

If you’re thinking that this is turning into a combination of therapy and Psych 101 — you’re right. The way many of us feel about and play games can actually highlight some of the issues we have emotionally and mentally, and help us work through them, too.

Give yourself permission to miss some things

“Personally, it's been a really good exercise in trying to quell my own impulsivity,” says Dr B, who has his own bugbears (pun intended) in the game. “I do not know why I can't get the bloody spider.” (Possibly because he hasn't read our comprehensive bug guide. Can't resist that easy promo.)

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Tom Nook encourages a maximalist approach to belongings, because of course he does

But you don’t have to be Working On Yourself™ to make your game time worthy, either. A lot of my own guilt and anxiety about playing Animal Crossing (and just about any game that I’m not playing for work) comes from feeling like I’m being unproductive or wasting time — which Dr Kowert simply describes as “capitalism” — but the two doctors introduce a novel concept to me (and hopefully, to you).

“Fun for the sake of fun is okay,” says Dr B. He laughs when I tell him that I feel like I should be doing something grown-up instead, like tax returns. “Oh god, you’re allowed to do what you want with your free time, okay?” It’s strange to hear, because of course it’s fine to use your free time as you please — but it’s hard to do in practice.

But we are, as a society, meant to be playing. Play is not childish; it is a beneficial, social, and educational tool. Dr Kowert quotes an excerpt from a book called Play: How It Shapes The Brain, by Dr Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute for Play in California: “The opposite of play isn’t work,” the quote says. “The opposite of play is depression.”

Bingeing games: It's not always bad, actually

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A representation of how it feels to watch the news right now

Like many players, I binged Animal Crossing in the first two months of the pandemic. And, like Dr Kowert said earlier, it made me feel a strange sense of normality in extremely abnormal times. But with the unprecedented times came unprecedented change, and with change came depression. I didn’t touch Animal Crossing for over a year, while I recovered.

Now, I feel as though escapism is a privilege — not everyone is lucky enough to be able to step away from the trauma of global affairs by playing video games. It just feels frivolous.

Oh god, you’re allowed to do what you want with your free time, okay?

But Dr B reassures me that escapism isn’t necessarily bad — in fact, it can be exactly what we need. “So often, when people talk about video games, they use the word escapism in a pejorative term,” he tells me. “What’s wrong with a little escapism? If I, in a conscientious, healthy way, can feel good for 30 minutes to an hour at a time, and then somehow feel more recharged to go back to the dystopian hellscape that we were hoping it wasn't going to turn into, what's wrong with that?”

Dr Kowert relates: “I was definitely playing more,” she says of the beginning of the pandemic. “I would leave and come back, because I was in a heightened state of stress — because I didn't know it was just a much needed reprieve from the Black Mirror episode we're living in.”

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Black Mirror, ft. Punchy

To put it more bluntly: Blaming yourself for needing a reprieve is just going to make you unable to find that reprieve. And blaming yourself for bingeing something, or seeing it as “unhealthy”, is not helpful — and not necessarily true.

“There’s a lot of different reasons people engage in repetitive patterns of behaviour,” says Dr B, citing Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, autism, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and even just garden-variety stress as reasons that someone might “binge” something — either as a self-soothing activity, or simply as a symptom of how their brain works. And, crucially, it’s not addiction, he says — “it’s so much more complex than that.”

It doesn’t help that gaming as a hobby still has a lot of baggage. “When I finished watching The Witcher,” Dr Kowert says, “[I watched] 8 episodes in 10 hours. No one has a problem with that. I bring it up in conversation all summer, they were like, “good for you, great show”. But if I spend 10 hours playing Animal Crossing, they are like ‘oh, like what happened to you?’ like ‘are you okay?’... The word "bingeing" is already a negative term, but bingeing Netflix, cool. Bingeing a video game, bad. But it can come with a whole lot of benefits” — and Dr Kowert and Dr B team up to give me a list of those benefits, like creative thinking, novel problem solving, social connection, and forming a part of healthy development.

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The line between games and work is extremely blurred with the Happy Home Paradise DLC

The word we use for playing games for hours at a time, “bingeing”, comes with negative connotations of excess and indulgence — but only you can tell whether something is indulgent and excessive, or just a very focused break that happens to give you a ton of feel-good brain chemicals that you’re not getting elsewhere.

Dr B tells me that the problem comes when escapism and gratification through video games becomes neglect. “If you’re going outside of those boundaries of what is your free time,” then that’s when you need to dial it back. Dr Kowert adds that “it becomes unhealthy when you fail to do the things that you need to do in order to get paid, and do your job, and eat.”

What about poor games journalists, though

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it me

But, well… some of us (no names) don’t have those healthy boundaries. Streamers, YouTubers, influencers and video game journalists who work at Nintendo-focused publications get paid to play games. I’m currently supposed to be playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons to death so I can write guides for it, which makes my free time playing the game feel a lot like work. How do people like me create a barrier between work play, and play play?

It's a strange thing when you get to do what you love for a living

“It's a strange thing when you get to do what you love for a living,” admits Dr B, whose job it is to play a lot of video games, too. “Something that you previously had an internal motivator to do purely for the sake of fun… you now have these extrinsic motivators and rewards for doing it.” That makes it a lot harder to know when you’re having fun, he says.

You might be thinking, “This doesn’t apply to me! I’m just a person with a regular job!” — but a lot of us are currently working from home. That means that our office is our living room is our kitchen, and so on. We’re all basically playing games just metres away from our desks, and whether you notice it or not, it can really affect the way you feel about your free time.

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It's been a while for me, too

The trick is to create visual and tactile cues, says Dr B — like two separate keyboards, or two separate accounts on your computer or console. The most important result from this separation is that “you get to be present wholly at home,” he says. In fact, I’ve even taken some of his advice myself — I’m currently pretending to have a commute by walking around the block in the mornings and evenings, making sure to exit through the back door and enter through the front so it feels different.

It doesn’t help that Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a life simulator, and it’s even worse that the Happy Home Paradise DLC is literally referred to as “work”. Sure, there are no mandated hours, and money actually falls from trees, but those already-blurred boundaries are now extra fuzzy.

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A recreation of an unhealthy work/life setup

If you find yourself at this blurred-lines crossroads, wondering if you’re actually just taking on a second job, then ask yourself, says Dr B: “Are you doing this because you enjoy it, or are you doing it because it’s a habit?” Are you playing because you want to, or because everyone else is? Are you trying to catch up with other people? Are you forcing yourself to log in every day because if you don’t, you’ll miss out?

Play how you want to play, and don’t mind what other people are doing

Dr Kowert compares this ("with the large caveat that game addiction is widely disputed as not an actual thing"*) to a sign she once saw in Las Vegas, aimed at gamblers. “When the fun stops,” it says, “STOP.”

Of course, gaming is slightly different — “there are times, especially for certain games, that we’re going to have to do a grind,” says Dr B — but fundamentally, if you’re not having fun, then stop. Either go play something else, or stop playing in the way you think you should be playing. “Play how you want to play,” says Dr Kowert, “and don’t mind what other people are doing.”

It's okay to play, okay?

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Do yoga in the game instead of real life! It still counts, probably

This interview was nominally about Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a very particular case study in weird coincidences and bad feelings that tie into societal trauma, but it turns out that humans are kind of simple beings, in the end. The strange emotions that we feel about coming back to this game during a pandemic are easy to map onto the ways we feel about a lot of things.

Fundamentally, the answer is that play is not only okay, but it is a hugely important part of our lives, and that we just need to ensure that we are doing it on our own terms (or, perhaps in the unique case of Animal Crossing — on the terms of a certain money-lending tanuki).

Animal Crossing: New Horizons was supposed to be just a game, but instead it became a nexus point of culture, a complicated knot of psychological turmoil, and the answer to our problems. Perhaps it never was “just a game” in the first place.

*This point really merits an entire article on its own, but Dr Kowert notes that "there is no empirical evidence to support the designation of gaming disorder as a behavioral addiction" and links to a video of hers on the topic, as well as an open letter from multiple scholars to the World Health Organisation that warns of the dangers of over-pathologising gaming habits: "Applying symptoms reminiscent of substance use disorders to gaming behaviors too often pathologizes thoughts, feelings and behavior that maybe normal and unproblematic in people who regularly play video games."

Dr B likewise adds that "the way the public understands the word “addiction” and the strict, pedantic way in which researchers use it are different." Dr Kowert has one more caveat-slash-recommendation: "Problematic use can exist, and if you feel that's the case you should seek professional help... can help with that!"

Thank you to Dr B and Dr Kowert for talking to me for over an hour about this topic (plus another half an hour for the interview prep!) and being fantastic and knowledgeable interviewees. Make sure to follow them both on Twitter (Dr B / Dr Kowert / Take This) and check out their streams and videos for more information on mental health in gaming (Dr B / Dr Kowert)!

Let us know your experiences with Animal Crossing and mental health in the comments below!