Author’s note: This article contains descriptions of suicidal ideation.
Depression Expert, Video Game Novice
I had never heard of Animal Crossing before the day my husband excitedly told me how much I would love it. A new title in the series was set to release soon, and he urged me to get it. I had never really played many video games. My family had a Super Nintendo in the ’90s, and my older brother would occasionally pass off a controller for Mario Kart. But I was terrible, could never quite manage to stay on the track. Little did I know, it would prove to be an apt metaphor for my mental health as I grew older.
By the time I was in fifth grade, my hands were too atrophied from Charcot Marie Tooth to use a pair of scissors, let alone maneuver a controller. Video games were just not for me, I decided. It was another club I couldn’t be a part of. Add it to the list of sports, gym class, class camping trips, dance, and all the other activities my body just couldn’t do.
My First Video Game
There was just one problem with my decision: I married a man who loves video games. Alec loves the art of games, the music most of all. He buys soundtracks from Japan and follows every piece of news about the upcoming releases he’s excited about. He knows details about the creators, the studios, the voice actors, and musicians. The video game industry was a world of total darkness to me. But Alec shone a light on it that was so bright, it was hard not to find myself caught up in it.
He knew–does know–the limitations of my hands. So he found an adapted controller that would allow me to play games with him. Coincidentally, the first game I was able to play with that controller was Mario Kart. I managed to stay on the track slightly better than I had when I was six. Encouraged, he began searching for games that I could play by myself. He just wanted me to be a part of his world, and it made me feel so loved. We struck gold with Professor Layton, a puzzle adventure game for the Nintendo DS that required little button pressing or dexterous hand movement. He lent me his DS to test drive it, and I was immediately hooked, experiencing storytelling in a brand new, interactive way. For my birthday, Alec bought me my own Nintendo 3DS and a copy of another Professor Layton game.
So as he excitedly chattered about the new Animal Crossing title coming to the 3DS, my own excitement grew. I had played my way through two more Professor Layton titles and was ready for a new story.
The First Deliverance: Animal Crossing New Leaf
Animal Crossing New Leaf released on June 9, 2013. Alec and I downloaded the game, and I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t really know what the game was about. All I hoped for was to escape my own head.
I was in the depths of depression that summer. My progressive disability was progressing rapidly, and I’d dropped out of college, finding it too difficult to commute to campus. Soon after, I lost the ability to drive altogether. My ability to stand wasn’t far behind. Each day, I felt my muscles getting weaker. Soon I felt trapped in my own body, too tired to claw my way out. So I followed the darkness down, cloaked myself in it like a weighted blanket. The depression was heavy, pinning me to the couch for hours every day. In my mind there was always a running list of things that needed done: the laundry, the towering dishes, washing my hair. But alongside the list was a feeling of utter futility. What was the point? I just couldn’t seem to locate the energy to complete any task.
Animal Crossing, it would turn out, was all about completing tasks. In Animal Crossing New Leaf, you arrive by train to a village. And, surprise! You’re the mayor. The village is populated by anthropomorphic animals. It is your job to curate relationships, maintain the village, and collect. So much collecting.
A Trial Balloon for Life
As I worked my way through the game in those first few weeks, checking off tasks in the impossibly cute environment, my brain began to crave the gameplay as a reprieve from depression. It didn’t seem to matter that it wasn’t “real”. It just felt good to be checking items off a list, to feel as though I was accomplishing something, imaginary world or not. I also built relationships with my villagers and had a particular fondness for a cranky bear named Grizzly. Honestly, he seemed as depressed as I was, and I felt a kind of kinship with him. Essentially, the game became a test environment, a low-stakes place to involve myself in a kind of life again.
The summer ticked on, and I kept up with my daily tasks in the game. I planted and watered flowers, fished, caught bugs, built a coffee shop, bought presents for my villagers to make them happy. I realized, with near sudden clarity that depression rarely afforded me, that it might feel good to complete a task in real life. So I got up from the couch and tossed in a load of laundry. This simple thing stopped feeling overwhelming. I’d been practicing.
I played New Leaf for two years. I collected everything there was to collect, upgraded my home and the shops to their maximum capacity. What had begun as an empty village was now full of life because of my efforts. The metaphor wasn’t lost on me. In those two years, I got my life back. Participating in life seemed much less daunting than it had that summer of 2013. The task-completing patterns were now engrained in my psyche. I didn’t need the game to get me through anymore. For the time being, my depression seemed quieted.
Eventually, I stopped logging on every day. My visits to my village became weeks apart. One day, I put it down and just never picked it up again. I had gotten everything I’d needed from New Leaf–every bug, every fish, every upgrade, and most importantly, my life.
Major Surgery, Major Depression
In February 2020, I went under the knife for a TTC ankle fusion. It was the last stop at the end of a long road of ankle pain, caused by my foot turning inward. Just a few weeks into recovery, COVID-19 began its rapid fire spread across the United States. I hadn’t exactly expected to be a social butterfly during my recovery. But recovering during a pandemic was the most isolating experience of my life.
There was only one thing I was looking forward to. After seven years, a new Animal Crossing title was set to release on March 20, 2020. I could think of no better way to spend my countless hours in bed than with a brand new village to start. Only this time, it was an island. I watched every new game trailer that dropped, eagerly parsing each frame for information. It seemed that New Horizons had even more to offer than its predecessor. I would be able to completely customize outdoor spaces with furniture, craft materials, and terraform my entire island to my liking. The possibilities seemed endless. And possibilities were exactly what my brain needed.
I had been in bed for four weeks. The depression-fighting patterns, engrained since New Leaf, had nowhere to assert themselves as I laid there in anguish, the days impossibly long, depression opening its jaws to swallow me whole. I knew that having things to accomplish, even in a virtual world, would satisfy that part of my brain that longed to feel useful.
I laid in my usual spot, leg propped on an enormous wedge pillow as I downloaded Animal Crossing New Horizons at last. As the progress bar inched forward, I couldn’t help but think of where I’d been exactly one week prior.
On an exam table pushed flush against a large window, I stared down at the wet pavement five stories below and wondered what it might be like to plummet. It was my second time at the hospital that week. The pain beneath my cast was unbearable, and I spent every moment of every day in inescapable agony. I’d experienced suicidal ideation before. But never like this. I wanted out. It was a desperate feeling, like I was a wild animal caged by my own body.
Moments before, a nurse and a physician’s assistant had removed my cast to investigate the source of my pain. Brows furrowed, they hurried from the exam room to phone my surgeon. I looked from the window to my foot, bloody and leaking brown fluid onto the crinkly paper covering the exam table. My wounds were infected. Delicately, they cleaned the area and wrapped my foot in thin layers of gauze. Only four weeks into what was supposed to be ten weeks of wearing a cast, they were sending me home without one, surgeon’s orders. I was given strict instructions to wash and rebandage my wounds twice a day and a massive brace to wear while I slept.
The past week had been nothing but pain. I looked at my foot in my own bed now, swollen and wrapped in gauze, and winced. How could it look so innocuous on the outside and feel like a concrete shoe on fire? My hands shook wildly each time I had to touch my wounds with soap and water. But they were steady now, on either side of my teal Nintendo Switch. The progress bar moved forward.
Much as I had the first time around, I jumped (hah!) into this new Animal Crossing game with both feet (again…hah!). My brain was starved for stimulation. I set off completing daily tasks, building items that would convince residents to move in, and saving bells to repay that nefarious Tom Nook. When Nook’s Cranny, the island’s shop, opened the for the first time, the first item for sale was a wheelchair. I gasped at the small piece of representation in the game I cherished so much and bought it immediately.
I wasn’t alone in my excitement. Millions of people began playing New Horizons as lock downs went into effect across the country. My isolated world began to feel a little wider as more and more people posted about the game. My friends and I texted about our burgeoning islands–what we’d accomplished so far, the crafting recipes we’d been able to snag. Alec and I played online with the best man in our wedding who now lived in Colorado. Over speakerphone, we laughed and strategized during the game’s first fishing tourney, maximizing our rewards. We played for hours. After weeks of pain, I finally had something else to focus on.
When Alec came home from work, stressed from working retail during a pandemic, I had something else to talk about beside my never-ending pain. I told him about the things I had accomplished in the game, how close I was reaching to the goals I’d set. In the beginning of New Horizons, your goal is to get your island to a five star rating. Once this happens, more parts of the game unlock. When I could manage it, my focus shifted from the burning concrete shoe to meeting this specific goal. Relief washed over Alec’s face each day as my pain became lower on the list of conversation topics.
Months passed and my wounds closed. I spent less time in bed and started doing a little more around our home. Depression unwound itself from my ribs, and I began to feel hopeful, despite the pain that would never really go away. I’d gotten more used to the concrete shoe. My dark thoughts the day I’d stared down at the pavement became a distant memory.
I logged hundreds of hours into New Horizons. More than once, I told Alec that I had no idea what I would have done without this game getting me through my darkest days. I meant it. Without scratching the itch in my brain that was begging me to do something, I know my depression would have continued to spiral to a dangerous place. I couldn’t binge watch my way out of it, and I couldn’t just get up and be physically active. I needed this very specific, goal-oriented game to help me heal. Sometimes I still can’t believe it released at the exact moment I needed it the most.
What’s on the Horizon
A little over a year after my surgery and Animal Crossing New Horizon’s release, I have logged over 500 hours into the game. Some might look at that number and think it’s a waste. But that number represents all of the painful hours I spent wanting to escape my own body, and a game that allowed me to do just that.
I haven’t played in a few weeks, but I know I’ll come back to it. My residents will be waiting for me, wondering where I’ve been but happy to see me. My penguin villager, Puck, will say something weird and hilarious that will make me laugh out loud. There will be weeds to pick and flowers to water, gifts to deliver and recipes to gather. It will all be waiting for me. I find immense comfort in that. No matter how far away I feel–how we all feel–from the world outside our front doors after this past year, we can always go back. The world will be waiting for us, wondering where we’ve been, but happy to see us.