‘Animal Crossing’ Is the Religion We Need Right Now
The game provides players a sense of daily routine and gives them an open world to wander — a luxury that’s sorely lacking from our lives
After Rachel Smith started showing symptoms of Covid-19, she had to leave her retail job. She then found herself stuck at home, quarantined with her mother, sister, stepfather, brother-in-law, and three cats. Bored and afraid, she looked for comfort in Animal Crossing.
“It’s a religion to me,” says the 28-year-old resident of Portsmouth, U.K. “It brings that feeling of peace and home and safety that a religion, higher being, or a place of worship can bring to people.”
Animal Crossing, a video game released by Nintendo in 2001, has no rules or objectives. You simply exist. In the latest version, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, released on March 20, players move to a deserted island and build the community from the ground up.
Previous versions of the game have the same basic idea, with some key differences. Each version takes place in a different location: a city, a town, an island, a campground, a wild world. You’re a cherubic human in a world full of cute animals, each with their own quirks and personalities. In prior Animal Crossing games, you move into a town/city/wild world with a museum (run by a nervous and adorable owl named Blathers) and clothing store (run by two porcupines, the Able sisters) already set up. In New Horizons, however, the museum and shop come to your island after you complete a certain number of tasks, and you decide where to place them.
In New Horizons, you move onto a deserted island with the help of the infamous Tom Nook—a raccoon who is half loan shark, half lifelong friend—and two new characters: Tom’s raccoon nephews, Timmy and Tommy. You’re given a tent and a house payment, which you can pay off in different ways. The currency in Animal Crossing is called bells, which are small gold coins. You can get bells by selling fish or bugs that you catch; sometimes you can shake a tree or hit a rock to make bells come out. Though the game has objectives and tasks, like helping Tom Nook scout a location for a new house or museum or paying off your loan, you can spend your life in Animal Crossing however you choose.
Players can spend their days fishing, hanging out with their animal neighbors, visiting a museum, or building their island. Your world is not completely in your control—you can’t put in a strip mall or a restaurant—but you exist freely while intertwined within the confines of the game.
This idealistic yet realistic game has become huge, especially in the era of self-isolation and social distancing. Animal Crossing provides players a sense of daily routine and gives them a world of their own — a world where they can wander freely outside without worry.
‘Animal Crossing’ has transcended mere entertainment — it’s become a part of people’s identity.
Many of the game’s fans tweet about Animal Crossing being their religion. Some fans have set up altars adorned with crystals, candles, and photos of characters. Other fans say the only religion they believe in is Animal Crossing or that they have joined the religion of Animal Crossing. The game has transcended mere entertainment—it’s become a part of people’s identity.
I started playing an earlier version of the game, Animal Crossing: Wild World, as a kid and was immediately hypnotized by the fact that I was in control of my own life in the game. I grew up in a strict Armenian American household. I lived far away from any friends, and all my siblings and cousins were much older, so a big portion of my childhood was spent alone—until I got Animal Crossing. I was suddenly transported into a world where I wasn’t the annoying younger sibling or the kid with strict parents. I was my own person. I logged on every morning and watered my plants, chatted with my villager friends, decorated my room the way I wanted, and shopped for clothes. The game wasn’t just a game—it was my life.
Smith has a similar experience with and love for Animal Crossing. She’s been a player since childhood and has always loved the freedom the game gives her. Growing up, she would take Animal Crossing with her on long walks and even to a local café, where she would drink tea and play for hours. Her favorite activities in the game were catching bugs and going fishing.
“The game was, and still is, my rock,” she says.
Now, as an adult, Smith says Animal Crossing allows her to be a homeowner, which she lacks the financial means to be in real life. Currency exists in the game, but it’s inconsequential and almost silly. You can shoot down a gift from the sky with a slingshot, and that gift could contain 10,000 bells. In real life, finances, loans, and mortgages are serious, and you have to make your payments on time. But in the game, you can pay off your house at your own pace; there are no consequences.
The government in Portsmouth has ordered people exhibiting coronavirus symptoms to stay in their homes for seven days. Smith estimates that she plays Animal Crossing about eight hours a day.
“When I play the game, I forget about the coronavirus for a while,” she says, “and I’m no longer worried.”
Others find the connection to nature to be a huge appeal of the game. Lily O’Brien first played Animal Crossing as a child in 2003. She’s now 24 and remains obsessed with it. She and her boyfriend went to GameStop and bought the limited-edition Animal Crossing Nintendo Switch console the night it came out and excitedly brought it home to their Mid-City Los Angeles apartment.
“For me, it’s meditative and a little bit Daoist,” she says. “The way that you play the game is super passive, like you can stop to sniff a flower or sit on a bench, and nothing happens besides time passing.”
O’Brien, like many people, is following stay-at-home orders as much as possible. She noticed her mood and mental health improving since Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out. Though her real world has shrunk down to just her apartment, in the game she has a whole island to explore and build.
“Last week, during quarantine, I was so bored,” O’Brien says. “But having the game gives me that daily routine back, and I can end the day knowing I completed some tasks, even if it’s virtual.”
A sense of accomplishment is extremely important for people facing social isolation, explains Ryan Kelly, PhD, a psychologist at Southeast Psych in Charlotte, North Carolina, and CEO of Geeks Like Us, a gaming psychology media company. “People can lack motivation and feel apathetic, and video games boost their mental health,” he says. “People are scared, quarantined, and bored. They’re not able to actualize things that they would otherwise be able to, and video games provide them with an escape to obtain that sense of engagement, accomplishment, even though the rest of the world is in a state of inertia and not moving.”
Video games like Animal Crossing can be an antidote for the heightened anxiety and stress that is hard to shake off when you’re stuck inside.
“At a time like this, where there are countless what-ifs. What if the economy crashes? What if I run out of toilet paper? What if I can’t pay my rent? There is a massive importance to just being present and being in the moment,” Kelly says. “Video games like Animal Crossing give you that state of flow, that feeling of being present and in the zone.”
That state of flow is nirvana for Animal Crossing players, who feel a sense of peace through playing.
When you’re playing Animal Crossing, you’re given the opportunity to truly slow down and enjoy life in a way that’s hard to achieve in the real world. You can spend eight hours fishing, or listening to music in your home, or writing letters to your neighbors. The worst thing that can happen to you in the game is getting stung by wasps or missing while trying to catch a butterfly. This virtual community has become a sanctuary for people who are confined to their homes in a world with endless worst-case scenarios. Animal Crossing gives you a moment to stop and breathe.
This search for community is part of religion and spirituality, explains Reverend Timothy Moral, leader of a collaborative faith-based community in Rochester, New York. Moral says all major religions have elements of daily routines or rituals, which he calls “spiritual disciplines.”
“It can range from a strict daily schedule like a Trappist monk, or things like Salah, which is the five obligatory daily prayers in Islam, or even the guy next door who wakes up at 5:00 every morning to enjoy his daily coffee in silence and meditates,” Moral says.
Daily routines give us a sense of feeling grounded, which is increasingly important during this time of social isolation. Games like Animal Crossing also give you access to community, an element of spirituality.
“By incorporating games like Animal Crossing into your daily routine,” Moral says, “people can practice a spiritual discipline, which in this case is being with your community.”
Finding and community can be difficult, even before Covid-19, and Rory Lacerda is no stranger to having to create a community. Lacerda is a nonbinary, queer 14-year-old living in a Christian community in Brazil. He recently began to experiment with new religions and identifies as a neo-pagan Wiccan.
“I told my mom that I wanted to celebrate Yule, a pagan holiday, and she told me no and that I can’t do that in her home,” Lacerda says.
Rory realized he could still celebrate — in his game of Animal Crossing.
“I dressed up in all white and put on this beautiful white hat, and I really focused myself on experiencing Yule,” he says. “I got all the seasonal fruits, like the apple and orange, and threw them around me in the game, and I purchased some glow sticks from Nook’s store. I just got to celebrate with my villagers.”