Behind the cartoon-style talking animals lies the much needed escape from the COVID-19 realities that David Gonzalez, senior journalism major, and millions of others have longed for. Animal Crossing: New Horizons allows people to interact with computer generated animals and allows people to stay connected with their friends and family during lockdown. / photo by Maxwell Sierra

Behind the cartoon-style talking animals lies the much needed escape from the COVID-19 realities that David Gonzalez, senior journalism major, and millions of others have longed for. “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” allows people to interact with computer generated animals and allows people to stay connected with their friends and family during lockdown. / photo by Maxwell Sierra

Video games heal our souls, even for just a few hours

by David Gonzalez
photography by Maxwell Sierra

Every morning I wake up, put on a shirt and jeans, and walk out with my camera around my neck, ready for whatever activity the day holds in store. I water the flowers in my garden and talk to my neighbor Shari. Sometimes I pick an apple or a peach straight from the trees in the community garden and eat it on my way to Nook’s Cranny for the latest deals on furniture and the Able Sisters for new clothes. I spend the rest of the day chatting with whomever I happen by while fishing or catching bugs. Finally, I turn off my Nintendo Switch and get ready for my day of online classes over Zoom, and prepare to face another grueling day of the COVID-19 pandemic.

My new reality is captured in a game. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and caused life to press pause, many around the world pressed play as they continued life online. Games like “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” and “The Sims 4” saw a boost in sales as people found ways to cope with the new normal.

“Animal Crossing: New Horizons” is the latest adaptation of the Animal Crossing franchise, which dates back to 2001. In this latest rendition, players fly to a remote island where they become a character and interact with the island around them in hopes of creating the perfect vacation destination. Upon arriving at an island—to which you assign a name—players and computer villagers are greeted by Tom Nook and his nephews Timmy and Tommy, and the adventure begins. On your first night, a celebration takes place as the player character and their new friends gather fruit and sticks to create a bonfire. As the virtual day ends in the game, the crackling of the bonfire and the nearby soft chirping of crickets indicate a new horizon of friendships.

The island that players are dropped into has humble beginnings. It is full of deep green pine trees, fruit trees and cedar trees, and the triangular grass is overrun by weeds. The goal of the game is to beautify your island by picking weeds and tending to a variety of flowers, like roses, tulips or lilies. After gathering resources through playing the game, players can upgrade from a simple one bedroom tent to a small house with a rainbow of roofs to choose from. As the island grows, and you cultivate your friendships with fellow islanders, more computer-generated people come to live on the island.

The twist – everyone but the player character are talking animals.

Despite being in a fantasy world, this can provide the escape you need to help cope with the pandemic or whatever stress life throws. “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” simulates real interactions with people, but hides it behind the facade of cute animal villagers. Tom Nook, Timmy and Tommy are all “tanuki” or raccoons. There are a total of 35 species the villagers can be, including alligators, bears, birds, cats, frogs and dogs. These villagers can fall into a range of different personalities, each having different ways of interacting with the player character and your environment. Male villagers can be cranky, lazy, smug or jock, while female villagers can be peppy, snooty, uchi or normal. The most popular villagers are Marshall, a white squirrel with a smug personality, Raymond, a gray cat with complete heterochromia iridum and smug personality, and Sherb, a baby blue goat with a lazy personality.

When I first arrived on my own island, I was accompanied by Teddy and Shari. Teddy is a brown bear, resembling a teddy bear, with large bushy eyebrows and possessing a jock personality. Shari is a gray monkey with yellow paws and hands and bright pink cheeks, and has a sisterly personality. Whenever I talk with Teddy in-game, he encourages me and the rest of the villagers to exercise and live a happy lifestyle. Shari, having an uchi, meaning big sister, personality, invites me and other villagers for fresh baked goods and gives medicine to anyone who is sick.

Despite being virtual talking animals, I created a bond with both Teddy and Shari. While not being a replacement for bonds between my friends outside of the game, the characters provided comfort in this time of uncertainty. Just like there is comfort in being around loved ones and chatting about your day, there is comfort just chatting with my villagers about our days.  Shari: ““How’s fall treating you so far? I love this time of year. Cool temps, pretty trees, good food… sooo good!” Sneezy (my game name): “Fall has been such a great time because of you.” I say in my head. We go our separate ways as we head out to think of ways to improve our paradise.

“Animal Crossing: New Horizons” was the escape I needed from the high demands of college deadlines, and the distraction I was looking for to hide away from the fact that we were in the midst of a pandemic. Even if it were for just an hour—or eight—a day, all I had to worry about was watering my white cosmos in hopes of finally getting a hybrid black cosmo and wondering what outfit I would wear in the game. I no longer had to worry about the next Zoom meeting or breakout rooms. All I had to do was talk with Shari about her latest baking creation or with Teddy to learn about his latest workout regime.

Social distancing has forced everyone into isolated silos and posed risks if people do meet in person. A solution to this was moving these interactions into a game. Animal Crossing is not a game that isolates people on an island with talking animals; instead, it allows people to visit your friends’ islands. Despite not being able to see each other in person, my friend and I would meet each other virtually on each other’s islands. We would talk about whatever came into our minds while completing mundane tasks like watering flowers in hopes of creating a hybrid flower or fishing for the rare great white shark.

Madison Garcia, my friend and student at Mt. San Jacinto College, says playing “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” helped ease the burden of social distancing during quarantine. Madison says that she has loved being able to play with me and other friends. While playing, she would either visit my or someone else’s island, or she would invite me or other friends to her island. Madison says that doing this felt like she was truly hanging out with friends. “Each time we’d do that, I’d never feel alone. It truly felt like I was in this other world full of cute animals with some of my best friends.”

With the obvious stress that the pandemic brought upon everyone, it became hard to relax. Madison says that before she started playing “Animal Crossing,” she would constantly check for updates on the pandemic. “Prior to me getting the game, I was constantly looking up different things about the virus like what was the death rate, how many cases there were, and how did it spread. Once I got the game, I was still keeping tabs on the virus, but now I had an escape. It was a better reality than my current one.”

One of the biggest reasons that I and many other fans around the world fell in love with the Animal Crossing franchise is the original music that plays hourly. On top of the hourly music, a white dog with a guitar named KK Slider will visit the island every Saturday to play live music. KK Slider’s music is sold, allowing players to listen to his entire discography from any of the in-game available stereos.

Vania Medina, a University of La Verne sophomore criminology major, started playing at the height of the game’s release—a few weeks after everyone else—so by the time she started playing with friends and family, they were already starting to build up their islands. This helped give her a boost on her island, but what was important were the interactions she had while playing. “It was that human interaction that I kind of missed. I’d be talking on the phone with them while we played. It wasn’t the same as going to someone’s house and sitting in front of them while talking and playing, but it helped distract my mind from the fact that I hadn’t gone out or seen my friends. At least I’d be playing with them while we asked each other things like, ‘How was your day,’ or ‘How was school’—just generally catching up.”

These games gave Vania the distraction she needed from the pandemic. She says that she would find herself playing the game for at least seven hours a day, almost every day. Vania says that other people could benefit from playing these games by either catching up with real people in the game or having the small interactions from the villagers. “Since we can’t really see people right now, all we have is Zoom, Skype, or FaceTime. I think since we have villagers in the game, it’s kind of like an interaction because they’ll ask you how your day was or give you a gift. It can help people find those small interactions we’re all missing. It isn’t the same, but it’s something,” Vania says.

She says that games like “Animal Crossing” or “The Sims” let people take control of a character and immerse themselves into that fictional world. The games allow players to become another person or even to become an even better version of themselves. Like everyone else, Vania has had her own rituals of becoming her virtual self. “The typical day would be changing clothes, because I like buying a lot of clothes. I would have my little outfits every day, like if it were raining, I’d put on a little coat and a little hat. I would also reorganize the house because you get achievements if you change the layout every now and then. I’d then go gather the crops, pick the weeds and clean up. I’d say ‘hi’ to my villagers and give them gifts. I’d also go fishing; there was a lot of fishing.”

Madison describes “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” as a blessing to play during quarantine. With everything being done at home, it gave Madison something to do with the extra downtime she had. “Everyday I’d wake up then open my game to check in on my villagers and do my daily tasks. And when I was done with that, I’d start decorating my island which was very stress relieving.”

To make the game feel more comfortable and appealing, the game designers allow players to add their own personality to their islands. For me, that meant having a basic island with random pieces of furniture like a stone fountain, a space satellite and flowers everywhere, which created a very chaotic environment. For Vania, that meant having different sections of the island dedicated to themes like nature, music and dance, different cultures’ food and even a theme park. “It wasn’t much of a theme; it was just me. I tried to make it what I would like to see, just something fun, vibrant and just very happy,” she says. Being someone who loves to dance and create music, Vania says she loves the music in the game. “Every day, I would order the new song from the shop so I can collect all the songs. If I felt happy or funky, I’d play a funky track. Or if I felt jazzy, I’d play a jazz track.”

Not only can players customize their islands with decorations and flowers like previous iterations of the “Animal Crossing” franchise, but players in “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” have the ability to change the structure of their island itself through terraforming. This brought even more possibilities to add personality to an island. The possibilities you have with this new ability is insane. You can make your island into anything you want. “Being able to create mountains, rivers and ponds just about anywhere you want is just awesome to see because it wasn’t possible before. Sure, in previous games you could put down paths, but the ability to make a waterfall or a slope just isn’t a bad thing,” says Vania.

After a long day, my biology class ends at 10 p.m. I turn off the Zoom, and turn on Animal Crossing. For me, the game is a different but very real escape from the Covid-19 reality. My island beckons. The fall season is setting in and the leaves on the trees are turning a deep maple color. Maple leaves flow through the chill autumn breeze and brush past me while on a nightly walk. The bright yellow dog “Isabelle” greets me as she does every other islander: “Have yourselves a wonderful Thursday… or as I like to call it, Friday Eve!” she says.

I am home again.