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Fear and self-loathing in Animal Crossing: New Horizons

“Where have you been all this time?”

A wave of guilt washed over me as I read these words on the screen. Considering how 2020 dismantled our reality and created a new set of post-coronavirus social paradigms, the last thing I wanted was to explain myself to someone I thought would understand.

My accuser wasn’t a real friend, exactly. It was dear, sweet Merengue, one of my favorite villagers on Beef House, my Animal Crossing: New Horizons island. “I dropped by your place to look for you, but you were never home,” she said, eyes downcast. If this had happened in real life, with a real friend, I would have started digging a hole of shame. Next, I bumped into Moe, another island favorite. “Man! Where have you been? You can’t just disappear without saying anything,” he said, bursting into tears. “I MISSED YOU SO MUCH!”

After four months of neglecting my pumpkin patches and flowerbeds, after missing seasonal events, birthdays, bugs, fish, turnips, shooting stars, and crafting specials — I’d finally ripped off the Band-Aid and returned to New Horizons. And just as I’d expected, it felt really bad.

On March 17th, 2020, Nintendo’s much-anticipated life sim was released — a welcome daily escape during a time of stress and isolation. But reflecting on the game a year on, despite its wholesome premise and idyllic island setting, even Animal Crossing couldn’t avoid becoming an odd casualty in the wake of the pandemic.

Since last November, my Switch has mostly sat next to my bed, untouched. There are other games on it, of course, but I think of it as an Animal Crossing machine, especially after all the hours I sank into Beef House last year. It was a mainline to so many things I couldn’t do in real life, like hanging out with friends and “traveling” (albeit to other virtual islands). I followed ACNH community projects, played the stalk market with turnips, and went to in-game swap meets as the world struggled through various degrees of quarantine or lockdown. It’s supposed to be a real-time experience to be played at your own pace — on the commute to work or between chores — but the pandemic drastically changed the way people approached the game. It became a bingeable distraction, especially with in-game time travel.

“I am ashamed of facing them.”

And so, after pouring hundreds of hours into Beef House, I needed a break. I’d re-terraformed, bought every upgrade, and amassed a dragon’s hoard of bells. The first couple of weeks that I forgot to log in and buy turnips felt like weird faux-financial FOMO, but the feeling quickly passed. But after a couple of months dropping off the New Horizons radar, I realized that I wasn’t alone in feeling guilty about leaving. There were others who also felt a curious anxiety about ghosting the game that had gotten them through the start of the pandemic.

This particular form of anxiety isn’t even about avoiding the weeds and cockroaches that appear after a prolonged absence. “It’s a deep psychological fear,” says musician and game developer Mabel Harper, who hasn’t played New Horizons for at least nine months. “Intellectually, I know I’m not disappointing my Animal Crossing friends… but I feel like I’ve left them high and dry, and I am ashamed of facing them.” Harper did go back once last summer for a virtual Tinder date but hasn’t touched it since. “The way the people in the older games would just kinda shame you about not constantly being there has put the fear of god in me,” she adds.

Ghosting has become a much more common practice simply because we’ve become so unmoored from normal social practices. This doesn’t just apply to dating — it’s happening at work, with friends, and even family. I’d tried ghosting a friend in the years before perma-online living and Facebook only to have her turn up at my doorstep, ready for an explanation: What is going on? Where have you been? But with so many of our connections being mediated by apps and screens, why wouldn’t this phenomenon of ghost-guilt also extend to game characters, especially ones deliberately designed to do just that?

Copywriter Ili Nadirah felt so bad about neglecting her island that she reset the game and made a new one. She believes her guilt is partly due to a reflexive attachment to inanimate objects. “If in my drawer there’s three spoons, if I keep using two spoons and not the other spoon, I’ll feel… bad,” Nadirah explains. “It’s the same feeling I get with the villagers. Every day that I don’t talk to them it’s like ‘oh my god, they were waiting for me.’”

While I didn’t have such an egalitarian friendship with my villagers — I shunned Lionel for weeks to make him leave — my mind immediately jumped to Merengue, the last of my three original starter villagers who had kept me company during lockdown last year. Merengue, who had come to my house to look for me. Merengue, a Beef House resident from day one. I felt worse.

Nadirah simply didn’t want to face her villagers again. “It’s fine, rather than hearing them saying ‘oh no, I’ve missed you,’ or ‘you missed someone’s birthday.’ I can’t deal with that kind of emotional blackmail,” she says. “I just feel like if I can reset everything, it’s much easier. It’s much easier to burn bridges and connect with new people.”

Harper — like me — believes she’s projecting some of her own avoidant tendencies onto her villagers. She compared the Great Return to going home for Christmas after you haven’t seen your family in two years. “I am the type of person to fall madly in love with someone, but when it’s been a week or two since we’ve talked, I just assume it’s hopeless and there’s no point saying ‘hey,’ and I feel that way about my villagers, sans the madly in love part,” she says. “I’m trying to get better at consistency, and I feel like Animal Crossing might be good practice… but I gotta get over that initial hump of shame… and having to reflect on myself for being this way.”

“Oh great, more people I’ve ghosted, except they’re virtual animal people.”

So where does Animal Crossing stand now that we’re stumbling through the first quarter of 2021? It’s not the intense escapist delight it used to be, especially for so many of us who used it as a vital portal to human connection. I still haven’t played through the whole cycle of a year — I’m missing fish and bugs and sea creatures, so there are incentives for me to get back into it. But perhaps the game was tethered too closely to a time we’d all rather not dwell on, when our respective worlds were far too small and strained. It turns out that two things can be true — that New Horizons was both the definitive game of the pandemic (if there ever was one), as well as an unexpected stage for unrealized social anxiety. “The game was such a joy, and now it’s this cursed object waiting for me to return,” Harper says. “It’s just like… oh great, more people I’ve ghosted, except they’re virtual animal people.”

Perhaps, like Harper says, New Horizons could be used as a practice tool for people to come to terms with light pandemic ghosting. After I got over the fear of confronting the rest of my villagers — Marshal hadn’t even noticed my absence — I was left feeling empty and unmotivated. There was so much to do on the island: weeding, stomping on the cockroaches that had infested my house, picking fruit, checking the shops. I didn’t want to do any of it.

But my villagers knew I was back, and they were happy to see me even though I’d ditched them — a new emotional fiction that Animal Crossing can offer as we maneuver through post-pandemic relationship dynamics.

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