Hey, friend. I hope you are feeling well today. Time for a #checkyourheart mental health check-up: How are your relationships? Have you spoken to anyone today?
I’m not just referring to only hearing a human voice, but have you actually listened to someone whose very existence fills your soul with joy? Someone who improves your mental health most every time you are around them?
I received a Nintendo Switch with Animal Crossing New Horizons for for Christmas in December of 2020. I was so very excited to begin my new Animal Crossing relationships with all of my villagers. Little did I know, a few days later I would experience the beginning of an major depressive episode after being emotionally triggered at work.
This episode would last much longer than any other I had ever experienced. This led to intense feelings of fear and shame, as well as helplessness as I felt that I had no physical, mental, or emotional energy to live, much less go back to work. I had to take a 2 month leave of absence from work.
More shame, more doubt, more fear.
Insert Chaos here.
However... Enter Animal Crossing
It has been two and a half months since Christmas, and my nearly two month medical leave. I am relieved to report that I am slowly getting back to where I want to be regarding my own mental health. A lot of that journey I have to credit to my Animal Crossing relationships.
Here are the reasons my Animal Crossing relationships have almost definitely helped save my life, and my relationships.
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1. Your Animal Crossing Relationships are Predictable
Villagers are always excited to see you. Or at the very least, pleasant that you showed your face. They tend to offer both in person compliments as well as encouraging letters.
They also always show appreciation if you give them gifts, and sometimes reciprocate on the spot.
The only time you risk making them angry or sad is if you say something blatantly ugly to them, or hit them in the head with your net or something else that hurts. There is no wondering “Will I be accepted today? Will I feel like I belong?” Don’t worry, you will. Every time.
2. All Villagers are Empathetic
They commiserate with you when you get hurt- i.e. stung by wasps in the eye, and are openly celebratory of you when you succeed- i.e. when you catch a bug or a fish in their presence. Sometimes, they even give you medicine when you talk to them after getting stung by wasps.
Animal Crossing relationships with villagers are the definition of rejoicing with those with joy and weeping with those who weep.
3. Two words: Dopamine Release
Because your own interactions with the villagers tend to be pleasant (unless you go out of your way to be mean to them), your brain lets off small amounts of dopamine every time you interact with your villagers. Even the anticipation of talking to your villagers and bonding with them is enough for a dopamine boost before you even go and talk to them! Our brains are pretty stinking cool.
4. Animal Crossing Relationships are never toxic
Their relationships among each other are all (generally) healthy. The only experience I have of them talking about each other behind their backs to me was only to brag about that villager. Sure, there are some instances of different personality types not getting along (as in real life), but there are no instances of long held grudges.
It seems that (perhaps behind closed doors), they resolve their disagreements in a civil way. At least, that’s what I like to imagine. Because true intimacy does not exist without repair from conflict.
5. The villagers are REAL about who they are without shame
They are who they are unapologetically, even if others don’t necessarily understand or approve. The different personality types- Normal, Lazy, Sisterly, Snooty, Cranky, Jock, Peppy, and Smug- all have their place and are able to live amicably among each other. They stay true to who they are and what they like to do.
6. They aren't afraid to express how they feel
They don’t feel the need to hide what they are feeling. All of their emotions are just like ours. They are just more honest in sharing them.
There is no aspect of shame in Animal Crossing. They often emote how they are feeling openly in public, and often can teach the player a different emotional “reaction” that allows the player the ability to emote that emotion as well.
6. They ask for what they need without fear
They aren’t afraid to ask to have their needs/desires met, nor are they openly afraid of being rejected. If you are carrying something that they feel like they want, they will kindly ask if they can purchase it from you (ABOVE asking price from what you could sell it for at Nook’s store). And if you refuse, they don’t retaliate or become angry with you- your boundaries and ability to say no is respected.
7. The store owners respect your boundaries
You never have to fear disappointing the shop owners- no matter how many times you refuse their services. Should you decline their services, they take it with grace, always stating “Okay! Maybe next time!” or “That’s all right! I’ll be here should you need me later!” They don’t waste time in self-loathing or wondering why their services were not “good enough” for you to accept.
The shop owners know that their product (and they themselves) are worthy regardless of how many bells they get at the end of the day. With this being the case, there is no need to fear retaliation should we reach out to them again in need of their services.
Why this is important
If you have ever struggled with a mental illness, you know that there are times when socialization feels downright painful, if not impossible. Sometimes, people have so much pain in their lives, they need to find very safe relationships to build the confidence back to have in person relationships again.
Regarding his concept of “reparenting” as a step towards emotional healing, Pete Walker stated on page 63 of his book Complex PTSD: from Surviving to Thriving:
“Reparenting sometimes needs to be initiated and modeled by someone else, such as a therapist, a sponsor, a kind friend or supportive group to show us how to self-reparent ourselves.”
I am all for people using whatever healthy tools they have access to in order to heal. Video gaming can sometimes be seen as an “isolating” activity, but Animal Crossing allows for those of us who have struggled with feelings of fear of rejection to receive what Carl Jung calls “unconditional positive regard.” Just because it’s scripted doesn’t make it any less true, friend. YOU are worthy of love and healthy relationships.
When I was gifted a Nintendo Switch this Christmas, bittersweet nostalgia came rushing back to me. My heart and mind were flooded with memories of playing the original Animal Crossing for gamecube on both gamecube and later my Nintendo Wii with my then boyfriend, now husband.
Now, we could build another empire that our kids could help us cultivate and enjoy. Most importantly, this game will serve as an example of how healthy friendships should look, and how we should treat others, all the while having fun.
What about you, friend- has there been any video game that has gotten you through a hard time? If so, which was it, and what was helpful? Please let me know in the comments. I would love to hear from you.
Thank you so very much for being with me today! I hope you found something helpful from our visit. As always, it was great to be with you. Until we meet again, friend.