Up till now this blog has talked about how we can use movies and video games, in general, to help us gain self-knowledge and deepen our emotional intelligence. Today’s post will be the first in another series of posts that focuses on one title at a time. These posts will be something like reviews or critiques, but with the focused lens of finding the possible therapeutic uses of a particular game.
For this first post I wanted to focus on a game that has helped me, personally:
Nintendo’s Animal Crossing series has been around for a while. The original was released in 2001 and the latest was the 2016 Welcome Amiibo update for Animal Crossing: New Leaf. It’s a surprisingly popular game, given that it is a game that has no goal. The “goal” is simply to live the quiet life you want as a mayor of a tiny town inhabited by animal characters.
Despite this strange and, perhaps, unexciting premise for a game there is a large and growing community of devoted players. And, precisely because of its strange nature, it can offer quite a few therapeutic uses for a player – especially those struggling with depression or anxiety disorders.
Let’s take a look at key elements of the game how they can help us.
Depression and Routine:
Routine isn’t necessarily a hot word that make us pick up a game with excitement. However, routine and predictability are central to Animal Crossing‘s design and therapeutic capabilities.
Anyone who is or has ever been depressed knows how the first thing we lose is our ability to maintain a steady routine. We slowly let one thing after another slide until we hardly take care of ourselves. Healthcare professionals suggest that one of the first steps towards developing a mentally healthier lifestyle is to reinstate a routine. Depression is characterized by our disconnection from hope and enthusiasm for our future, which takes a toll on our routine. Routine is our way of meditating on the relationship we have between our present day and the future we’re planning for.
If we suffer from an inability to create a healthy routine we might benefit from first practicing in a game like Animal Crossing. As we log in every day we can develop the daily itinerary of finding all four possible fossils, donating them, shopping, saying hello to all our villagers, watering our flowers, finding the hidden gem, and shaking all the trees for free furniture. These details sound ridiculous, but they can be very rewarding and are reset every day.
By making a routine in Animal Crossing, we can slowly introduce the skill of maintaining a positive routine back into our lives by practicing in this virtual world where there are far fewer things to consider and where our lives are far less complex.
Anxiety and Predictability:
When we struggle with anxiety disorders we deal with bouts of panic and dread. We are anxious because we feel hopelessly lost in the currents of life and reality. We feel exposed and vulnerable and, worse, a victim to circumstance.
The routine and predictable nature of Animal Crossing make it a perfect oasis for someone struggling with anxiety or post-traumatic stress. Whether we start up the game the 4th or 5th or 250th time we know exactly what to expect. When we feel otherwise anchor-less in real life, allowing ourselves to escape to a small world where we know what to expect can be a godsend.
Anxiety can leave us frayed and constantly jumpy and nervous about our own overthinking. Blogger Boo Wholefoods wrote a wonderful post on exactly how she uses Animal Crossing to disrupt anxious or stressful thinking when her thoughts are too active to meditate.
Although escapism is generally viewed as a negative thing, it can be incredibly therapeutic for an anxious person to escape for an hour or two to let their cortisol levels stabilize and to train their mind and thoughts how to be calm again.
Endlessness and Stress-Relief:
Animal Crossing is weirdly… eternal.
Just as there is no goal, there is no deadline in Animal Crossing. There is no looming finish line and no bittersweet close, not unless you choose to restart your town. Otherwise, your town will continuously flourish as long as you poke around every so often to clean up the weeds and say hello to your villagers.
This can be very helpful for high stress levels.
When we’re particularly hounded by life and feel the closing jaws of time on our projects and our own perfectionist deadlines are getting too close for comfort, we should remind ourselves of how life could feel without unnecessary time pressure. It is important to give ourselves doses of different time-perspectives. If we are particularly ambitious and often prioritize our own comfort last, we might play this game as an exercise in how to calm down and do what we would like to do for ourselves once in a while instead of listening to deadlines or outward expectations.
Simple and nice aren’t hot words either. They’re often disregarded. In fact, many of us might not want to admit we’re playing this game if we’re older than 15 or 16 because simplicity is misinterpreted as stupidity/basic and its niceness as childishness. This is a disservice to ourselves. We all need (and quietly, desperately crave) some straightforward sweetness.
Animal Crossing is like a still painting of a sunny meadow that we might want to hang in our houses, but we can walk into it. Often games usher us from point A to B and although we can enjoy certain pleasant levels, they are rarely places our characters can spend very much time in.
We all remember levels from games we played as a kid that we wished could be bigger, levels that we wanted to live in. Games like Animal Crossing gives us this chance – it feels like a level of a really good game that has been made endless for us to play in.
In the same way we might want to simply enjoy a lovely painting or a sweet and simple movie after a difficult day or week or month, we might want to submerge ourselves in the uncomplicated niceness of Animal Crossing. No surprises, no ends, just a beautiful arena where we are being asked to experience and perpetuate kindness and beauty.
Mindfulness: Make a Big Deal Out of “Small” Things
In Animal Crossing: New Leaf you can open a cafe in your village.
You can work at the cafe as a part-time job for a simple, 5-minute mini-game you can play only once a day. Other than that you can only sit, order only one daily coffee (for which you pay 200 bells), and… drink it. The cafe gives you nothing much else. Many gamers who are looking for more excitement to meet their current emotional needs might find this very dull.
But for the invested player this is a meditation on mindfulness.
You only need to go to the cafe if you want to appreciate the idea of sitting and listening to the cafe music as you drink down virtual coffee.
There are many scenarios like this in Animal Crossing. Now, of course, maximized interaction capabilities is the lifeblood of gaming – but in these purposefully quiet and reward-less moments we are being invited to enjoy something without a reward, we are being invited to make a big deal out of something very small and pleasant.
This is a skill we all could strengthen. Often we want things bigger and better and all the time. When we relax we often think about how we could’ve been relaxing better if only this or that wasn’t happening or if we had this gadget or that snack.
Making a big deal out of very small activities or even chores and celebrating the intrinsic calm and joy we get from them is a crucial, but hard-won, skill for mindful living.
Thank you for reading!
Animal Crossing has actually been my go-to game for years when I’ve been feeling overwhelmingly stressed or anxious. I recommend it to anyone who feels they need some quiet, calm, and tenderness in their lives.
This blog, Screen Therapy, is dedicated to exploring how we can mindfully use games and movies to strengthen our emotional intelligence – which is so crucial when we face the everyday stresses and anxieties we all endure (such as the fear of failure, traumas or sorrows, the fear of death, self-estrangement, or rampant perfectionism, etc.). We receive very little education or help in processing these difficult feelings, but by strengthening our self-knowledge and emotional intelligence (using movies and games as cultural tools, like art) we can better pursue our personal balance.