Living with a mental illness can feel like being trapped in a cage of your own thoughts and impulses. Countless people use video games as a coping mechanism to escape into another world, a simulated haven where they can get out of their own heads for a while and into someone else’s. For many, that haven is Animal Crossing.
The game is designed to create a sense of a community. You move into a new rural village populated with friendly anthropomorphic animals. And they all love you! Okay, maybe not unconditionally, at least not at first. They tend to send you on an errand every chance they get. But maybe that’s the beauty of it. Fatigue and difficulty concentrating are both symptoms of depression. Sometimes being given simple, manageable, familiar tasks is enough to help afflicted individuals reengage. And after only a few short days of buying medicine, delivering packages, and burying time capsules, your villagers will treat you like family.
Though it might sound silly, it can be a great comfort to have someone, even a virtual someone, say something sweet like “I’m going to compliment you until you puke on Saturday” or just tell you that you are appreciated or even threaten to beat up the person they think was messing with you after a bee attack.
And when you’re not being wooed by your adorable villagers, you can do whatever you want. That’s kind of the point of the game. You literally can’t lose. You can’t starve to death. You can’t go bankrupt. You can’t fail. The pressure is off! After an exhausting day of depression and anxiety tag-teaming you, telling you that you can’t do anything right, it’s nice to go to a place where you can’t do anything wrong. Want to spend the day fishing? Go forth and park it on the beach. Ran out of bells? Sell some fruit and then treat yourself at the hair salon. Want to design a bombin’ dress? Rock it. You are fab.
Players of all gender identities can dress their avatars in a way that makes them the most comfortable.
Speaking of which, New Leaf has taken great strides in letting players create and customize a safe space by breaking down the rigid gender binary that once dominated the Animal Crossing fashion scene. Female-bodied characters can wear pants now. Male-bodied characters can wear skirts and dresses. Players of all gender identities can dress their avatars in a way that makes them the most comfortable. Considering how transgender individuals are more prone to mental illness than cisgender individuals, it is especially important for games with character customization to allow their players to present themselves however they wish.
Animal Crossing’s most important gift is simply making its players feel at home. The village is a safe space in which you can slow down and be yourself. And while it certainly shouldn’t be used as a cure, Animal Crossing can make living with mental illness just a little bit easier.