‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ and how I turned a COVID crutch into a damaging addiction

Animal Crossing: New Horizons helped many people to cope during the throes of the pandemic, but I, for one, took it too far. Now that some time has passed, the withdrawal is strong.

Let’s start with why I fell in love with Animal Crossing: New Horizons so much. I knew it was going to be a game I would play on the Nintendo Switch, but I had no idea it would end up mattering so much to me. I had no idea how much it would break me.

Playing the ‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ Demo at PAX East

I went to PAX East 2020 in Boston, right before the pandemic took hold in the USA. I was hesitant to attend, as that very day, COVID-19 cases were cropping up in the city. Still, Animal Crossing was going to be there, so I put on my biking gloves for … germ protection(?) and headed right to the Nintendo booth.

You had to register for the demo in advance, but the spots were tight, so I missed the online registration. The line on the showfloor snaked around Nintendo’s massive booth, and my hopes of playing the demo were fairly low.

While I was still on the fence, wondering if I should feel excited about this, I spoke with a Nintendo employee to ask if there was a chance to get in line at the end of the day. Immediately, I was met with a kind, candid personality, giving me comfort in the “no, probably not.”

That one specific moment, and the subsequent ones with other employees, sold me on the fact that, yeah, Animal Crossing gathers people worth being around.

As the showfloor day came to an end, I checked back in with a friendly Nintendo employee running the line entrance, and they said, “Hey, we actually have some time, come on in!”

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With the theme song for the game blaring over the scene, I enjoyed the five precious minutes I was able to squeeze in on New Horizons. I took a turn playing the game alongside two other players, with an informative, excited employee guiding us through the island’s features. I went to Nook’s Cranny to buy the Anatomical Model item, and proceeded to place it on the beach so it could get some sun.

After this quick beat, I was given a small tote with the series’ leaf logo on it and sent on my way. As I walked out of the booth, I was greeted by a giant Isabelle mascot. She was so excited to see us! From there on out, I knew Animal Crossing was going to be a big deal for me.

Then, the world shut down

Mere days after I went to that Nintendo booth demo, the United States was put under quarantine. We were not to leave our houses, at all, unless it was for emergency services. Only necessary stores remained open.

I remember genuinely asking myself if the grocery stores would stay open. It might seem silly now, but if I look back at that time, the infectious fear and general unknowing fed into some horrible thoughts.

I needed an escape. Quick.

The main source of my social interaction was cut short. My college announced they were giving us “just an extra week of Spring Break to help flatten the curve.” I never went back on campus. I never saw my friends there again.

Animal Crossing was the best thing that could have happened to me in this situation. It had daily tasks, general chores, and ever-so-happy animal creatures. It seemed like all of my friends were playing it. Even people who generally did not play games had taken the plunge.

Suddenly, there was this explosion of social networks built around playing this silly little life sim with adorable talking animals.

I kept to myself at the start. I felt this immediate digital agoraphobia, and didn’t want to substitute real-world interactions with online ones. One month into Animal Crossing’s release, I realized that the base game had given me as much as it was going to.

While I had spent the past month not time travelling forward in the game, I found the daily rotation stale. I wanted to immediately move houses, unlock new NookPhone tasks, and buy things from Nook’s Cranny. I took a small step in moving forward my Switch’s internal clock, and what followed was a whole new world of completionism and obsession.

How ‘Animal Crossing’ became a drug

It all started with getting every piece of art.

Nintendo periodically sent out a free update to the game, which would often include returning characters from other games in the series. Redd was a bit of a series antagonist, as this art connoisseur carried fake versions of famous art pieces such as the Mona Lisa and the Statue of David. Spotting the small defects in his fakes was key to completing the fine art section of the Island’s museum.

Collecting the real art from Redd in real time would have taken years, likely four or five. He visits infrequently, and he might have been carrying only one real piece of art that you already have. For some reason, this felt like something I needed to complete.

After a few days spent time travelling back and forth to get all of the real art pieces, I said to myself, “Hey, that wasn’t so bad. Why not complete the rest of the creatures in my museum?”

I looked up all the guides on how to catch the toughest bugs, fish, and sea diving critters, grinded out those, and ended up with a fully complete museum, but an empty purpose.

What followed was meaningless, and ended in heartbreak.

New Horizons introduced a new trophy system, which could be accessed via the player’s in-game “NookPhone.” There were some simple trophies, such as talking to every villager for a certain amount of days in a row. I naturally completed some achievements through normal gameplay, but was time traveling throughout the in-game years in pursuit of a full museum.

However, some achievements alluded me. I figured I’d never complete some of the harder ones; I did. I caught 2,500 sea creatures, 5,000 bugs, and had earned 100,000 Bells in profit in the turnip stalk market. That last one is important, so remember that.

The major block I met, and am still at, is the achievement unlocked by doing 300 “favors” for your neighbors. The quests come rarely, and require a lot of time travel to complete. I did the math, and figured it would take a full calendar year of playing around five hours a day to earn that achievement.

When faced with this block, I initially thought, “Meh, I’ll just move on to something else.” I was wrong.

Nothing else mattered more than ‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’

Nintendo slowed down, and eventually ceased to release any more meaningful updates. It was fine, because I still had a lot of holidays to travel back to. I planned on experiencing the holidays one by one, hoping to savor each.

I tore through the holidays in a week. I was not satiated.

“More,” I thought obsessively. “More!”

Before I knew it, I was spending real-world money to pay eBay hackers for digital holiday items. The equation made sense for me, as grinding out the items I wanted from characters like Pave the dancing peacock would have taken me at least 20 hours.

Quickly, I spiraled. The rush of buying new items to decorate my home and island was addicting. I needed to have a perfect town, whatever that meant. I was never satisfied with my rooms, and my Island entrance was so, so ugly. At one point, I made the majority of my Island water tiles in a fit of frustration and designer’s block.

Nothing would stop the craving. As soon as I was done with my school projects, I would log into Animal Crossing, cursing the five minute load time preventing me from getting into my save file even quicker.

I was not playing Animal Crossing anywhere near the way I had intended. It was a crutch, and spread into my real-life social interactions. Soon, I found myself only interested in what other Crossing players were doing in Facebook groups. If their Island looked “better” than mine, I would curse at myself, pushing against what one might consider reasonable boundaries of creativity and constructive time management.

Before I knew it, I was back on the grind for the game’s toughest achievements. How was anyone else supposed to complete their NookPhone if I was having so much difficulty doing it with so much obsessive gameplay and time travel?

I needed to beat the odds and show up everyone who wasn’t able to complete their trophies. I was going to be the best Animal Crossing player anyone ever heard of. I effectively turned a casual, life simulation game into a high that I would forever chase, and never find my fix.

The obsession ran deeper. I worked to get all of the portraits of my chosen Villages, signifying max friendship with the digital animals. Not enough.

I bought more spoofed Amiibo NFC cards than I would ever use in an attempt to further “perfect” my Island with the best animals. Not enough.

It was time. I was going to work toward the 300 neighbor favor trophy, no matter the cost to my mental state and real-world responsibilities.

The crash, and hopefully the end

After writing this, I want someone to take my Animal Crossing save file and delete it. It’s difficult to admit you have any sort of a problem or addiction, especially when you can excuse bad behavior as a means of coping during a worldwide pandemic.

I suppose coming clean about my past addiction is what will allow me to take Animal Crossing in small strides.

The exact moment I had my ultimate falling out with Animal Crossing: New Horizons came from me hacking my save file. I had absolutely no reason to do it, but the hack I was paying for must have been worth it, right?

Maybe it’s a good thing that I broke my NookPhone by selling “bad” turnips in a hacked town online to get max Bells in my ATM. Just like that, one of the relatively simple achievements was erased from my save file. Gone. I could not get it back.

I felt like crying, but this moment left me feeling dry. I promised myself that was the absolute last moment I would pay for any digital Animal Crossing services off of eBay. The end result of getting more Bells than I could ever use was so careless, but I suppose this carelessness broke my cycle.

In a strange moment of cleansing, I started to throw out Bells by the pocketful. I don’t know why exactly I was doing it, but it just felt right at the time. Maybe I was subconsciously trying to undo my careless hacking?

I still boot up my save file of New Horizons about once a month since the bad turnip incident. I lost track of time (does anyone else feel like they’re still in a pandemic time flux?), but I think it’s been around four months since the bad turnips.

Unfortunately, Nintendo recently announced a long-awaited free update. After nearly a year of a grueling dry spell, the Japanese corporation was throwing a bone to the hardcore fans: the inclusion of a fan-favorite coffee shop in the museum run by the advice-giving Brewster the pigeon.

The funny thing is, I now suspect that Nintendo fully fucking knew what was going on. Recently, they sent out email surveys to Animal Crossing players asking questions that I’ve only seen used in mental health offices.

The questions asked you to rate their relatability from 1 to 10, and read something like, “I feel like I need to play Animal Crossing every day,” and, “I am only happy when I play Animal Crossing.” (If you, too, have felt like your relationship with Animal Crossing: New Horizons has gotten out of hand, or if you have felt personally attacked by Nintendo’s invasive mental health surveys, please reach out to me via our Twitter or our About Us page. I’d love to compare stories and know that I’m not alone!)

I hesitate to assume innocence on the behalf of any company so large, but let’s hope for the sake of humanity that Nintendo asked these questions in hopes of gauging the mental health effects of releasing Animal Crossing: New Horizons in a lightning-in-a-bottle moment in world history. Maybe they’re submitting their research to mental health journals in the hopes of studying video game dependency and the results of quarantine’s isolation.

Or maybe they’re just gauging if they should start making us pay more for the next hit.