In my day-to-day life, I am usually a creature of habit. I thrive on daily routine, structure, and things being exactly how I expect them to be over time. I tend to get up the same time every morning, go and grab breakfast from a local cafe, enjoy a nice morning walk, go back to my home office to get some work done, take a walk over lunch to listen to some podcasts, do the washing up shortly before my partner gets home from work, and go for a run at night. I like my routine, but like many people right now, that sense of predictable routine is a little up in the air for me.
At the time of writing this, I am living in the UK, around a week into what is planned to be a three-week nationwide coronavirus lockdown. People are not allowed to physically socialize with people who they don't live with, are limited to only essential shopping trips, and scrutinized for going outside to exercise. I recognize the lockdown is important, and am respecting it, but I'm also struggling with how it has impacted my sense of routine.
My morning walks for breakfast are non-essential, so those are canceled. My partner is working from home, so my usual mental markers of when the workday starts and ends are gone. I don't have the option of going out to see my friends, social events I had planned my calendar around are being canceled, work trips are being postponed, and my sense of routine is all but gone. I know I'm not alone in finding this change in routine tough to manage, and honestly, I'm just glad to have a wholesome video game to help me cope.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out a couple of weeks ago on the Nintendo Switch, and it's everything I need in a video game right now. The core idea is that you move to a deserted island full of cute anthropomorphic animal villagers and slowly build it up into a thriving community. You can plant flowers, pick where homes go, build bridges, build furniture, give gifts to your animal friends, dress up in cute outfits, and slowly build a museum over weeks of daily short bursts of gameplay. It's not a game full of consequences; it's just a game about relaxing and organizing your surroundings.
Over the week or so I've not had my usual routine to rely on, I have been making a point to spend a little time daily creating and maintaining a routine in this virtual little video game. I'll do a circuit of the island collecting fruit off the trees to sell, then collecting minerals from rocks. I'll check in on the shops, see if there's anything new to buy for my virtual house, then visit all my villagers and see how things are going for them. With those tasks done, I spend a little time organizing the island itself, reveling in the sense of control available to me.
I can listen to gentle pleasant music while building a path between the town center and the shops, planting flowers on either side. I can cultivate an orchard of fruit trees and help a seagull who has washed ashore to get home. I can open the gates to my island, and welcome people to take things they need, and leave what they don't need. I can watch people explore and smile and clap at a town I've built in little 30-minute bursts of positivity.
Given that I currently can't leave the house to go and see my friends in person, Animal Crossing has become a real window to the outside world and a way to keep those friendships active. Yesterday I sat down with a friend over Discord and we spent hours just chatting as we planted flowers around my town. We were still just as physically far away from each other, but by running around doing nice tasks together it felt almost like we were back in the same room. I know I could have called them, heard their voice, but it was somehow different having a pleasant space in which to putter around with them. Our characters were near each other while we caught up on how things were going, and that somehow helped me feel less trapped. It lessened the feeling that I wasn't allowed to leave my home.
At a time when many of us, myself included, are struggling with our mental health in the face of losing our usual routine and structure, Animal Crossing is a wholesome space to make friends with cute animals, catch back up with real-world friends, organize as much as desired, and experience the joy of being outside without going anywhere at all. Animal Crossing was released at a time when a lot of people were being told to stay indoors for weeks at a time, and it is exactly the kind of game I needed to keep myself feeling positive and in control — now more than ever.