Earlier this year, I worked at a locally-owned pet food store. Three days a week I would drive there after school and work till closing, and I loved it so much. When it hit about 7 p.m, the ebb and flow of customers would die out, and I would wander around the store, looking for something to do. After a minute, I would always pull the paper towels and the Windex out of the back and start wiping the windows down. There was something so peaceful about watching the fingerprints wash away while I listened to my coworker tell a story. If the whole store was quiet, though, I could hear the voices in the coffee shop next door; they were laughing, happy, and full of warmth. I couldn’t help but smile as I wiped the dirt away. For a while, this private ritual was my favorite part about working.
Then, one Monday in March, I had to quit my job because of the coronavirus pandemic. It was a decision I made willingly; I felt I was endangering my parents by continuing to come into contact with upwards of a hundred customers each day & going home afterward, and however much I valued the structure that my job gave me, it was more important to me to keep myself and the people around me safe. The rest of the week, I felt an overwhelming wave of emotions; sadness that this thing I loved so much was gone from my life, fear that this was a sign that no one’s life was going to be the same after this, and guilt that I was feeling sorry for myself while so many others were suffering tenfold. And underneath all that was a deep and painful empathy; every article I read about all the awful things that were going on felt like a gut-punch, and the worst part was realizing that as a seventeen year old, I couldn’t do anything about it; when faced with the regular complexities of the world, I was powerless, but in a situation such as this, I felt like an ant.
That weekend, Animal Crossing: New Horizons released. I played Animal Crossing: City Folk and New Leaf when I was younger, so naturally, I bought it, and those first few hours felt like a pain reliever.. It was a much needed distraction from the news and I welcomed perhaps a bit too readily. If you could play Animal Crossing, a game centered around making friends with cartoon deer & buying cute little furniture sets for your house, violently, then I deserved criminal charges. I would spend hours fishing on the dock to the point where I had caught every single fish available at that time. I spent days making an orchard with each type of fruit tree in the game, taking care to place fences and plant saplings with excruciating attention to detail. I fixated on things like fossils and flowers and other collectables to the point where I would get headaches from staring at the screen for too long. The point of Nintendo’s whimsical life-simulator is that there is no wrong way to play it, but my increasing dependence on a virtual town proved that there was definitely something flawed about my approach.
I ended up taking a break from the game for a week because school was starting back up, and in that time, I thought about why a game which others praised as soothing made me feel like I was rushing against the clock. Evidently, I had felt a hole in my life where there was order when I quit my job, and I replaced it with Animal Crossing. Alone that concept is fine, but I was overcompensating by holding myself to impossible standards in a video game. So, yes, I had to cut down on how much I played it, but there was something else – I used the game as an escape from the cruel outside world, and something about that seemed wrong to me. Animal Crossing’s thesis is that being kind to yourself and the people around you is the most important part of being alive, and disappearing for hours into a game is not in line with that idea.
So, I started to take it slow. I would play the game for only an hour at a time, using the rest of my day to do homework, talk to my family, call my friends, and take walks. It was then that Animal Crossing began to work the healing magic that I had heard of from others. It provided the sense of structure I was missing, but instead of treating its world like something to binge, I took small doses of its peaceful atmosphere, and it set the right tone for me – instead of reading the news and immediately letting all that sadness go to my head, I went outside to play with my dogs, or I helped my dad cook dinner, or I FaceTimed my friend so we could do homework together. Instead of reading the news and worrying about the insignificant amount of impact I can make on this situation, I did things that were small but helpful to myself and others, because that’s all that I can do right now.
Yesterday, I was playing Animal Crossing pretty late into the night. In the game, I was watering my flowers while two of my villagers chatted with each other in the background. As I played, making sure to get each flower and listening to my villagers’ voices, I realized how familiar this scene was. Simultaneously, I realized what exactly I liked so much about that ritual I had. It was such a small but significant way of connecting – listening to its people as they talked – while taking a minute to take care of the world around me. I miss that routine so much, but there are always little things I can do to help others & keep myself happy – even if it’s watering virtual flowers.
By Madeline Tredway, Staff Writer