Why I can't go back home for the holidays, even in 'Animal Crossing'

The house was in the same place I'd left it all those months ago — but everything was changed. The flowers grayed, bushes bare, an infestation of weeds now encroached on the pastel-tinted memories that once blossomed in my Animal Crossing town. I stopped visiting Tiddy City (yes, that's my island and proud of it) sometime over the summer. When Animal Crossing: New Horizons serendipitously released right as lockdown orders began sweeping the nation at the end of March, it became a lifeline for me and many others. But "lifeline" is a generous word to describe my Animal Crossing co-dependence, as the hundreds of hours I sunk into completing video game chores, working to pay off imaginary bills, scheming the turnip stalk market, learning honest-to-god botany to crossbreed digital flowers, and celebrating knock-off holidays like Bunny Day (Easter) with friends replaced the real-world interactions that had suddenly became too dangerous to enjoy. Let's be real: Most of us developed pretty unhinged relationships with our Animal Crossing islands during the pandemic. We played the game in ways it was never designed for, turning a wholesome passive friendship simulator into an aggressively competitive MMO where you have to grind in order to keep up with your friends "leveling up" their islands. But like lots of the virtual replacements we flocked to in the early months of the pandemic, wanting desperately to believe they could fill the newfound emptiness in our lives (looking at you, Zoom fatigue) — Animal Crossing lost its luster.  [Announcement]New seasonal events, Reactions, hairstyles, save data transfer, and more! Get ready to celebrate the heartwarming holiday festivities with the free Winter update, coming to #AnimalCrossing: New Horizons on 11/19! pic.twitter.com/pSjVSH6dOd — Isabelle (@animalcrossing) November 17, 2020 By no fault of its own, Nintendo's hit could not cure the worldwide pandemic of loneliness brought on by COVID-19. But with the holidays nearing, and only throwing salt on the gaping wound of isolation, I saw the trailer announcement for new festive ceremonies and activities that'd be added with the latest update. The promise of a communal feast cooked up by Franklin the turkey and Christmas tree light decorations made me forget the lessons I should've already learned.  I booted up my Switch, hoping the cold blue glow of a digital screen would bring some semblance of light to the withered parts of my blackened soul.  A little wiser (or just more jaded) than I was back in March, though, I could tell the mission was a failure from the very minute my avatar stepped out of her house, tousled and sleepy. Dressed in a summery diving suit complete with ill-matched dress shoes — a utility outfit I'd thrown on to quickly check out the big summer update (a similarly disappointing experience) — my character looked like a fish out of water in the dreariness of the game's new Autumnal surroundings. There she was, this avatar who was supposed to be an idealized version of myself. But she was just as much of a hot mess with seasonal depression and no concept of time or normalcy as IRL me. But it was only a passing pang of guilt, I rationalized, an inherent part of returning to your Animal Crossing village after a prolonged period of absence. I've played these games since I was little, so I was accustomed to just pushing past this initial hurdle whenever trying to get back into it after a long time away. I tried to move on. The game just kept reflecting life, though. I didn't have the emotional capacity to go put on a more seasonally appropriate outfit. Honestly, I was too afraid to go back in my house to change, knowing there'd be cockroaches running around all the rooms filled with my half-finished catastrophes of ambitious decoration ideas that I'd gotten too overwhelmed by before abandoning the game entirely.  It turned out I didn't need to step inside my house to face that shame, though. Every corner of my town, I soon remembered, was an equally dilapidated monument to my ineptitude, an amalgamation of every failed attempt to match the extravagant perfection of my friends' beautifully crafted islands. The internalized self-hatred from a lifetime of ADHD followed me everywhere I went from there, the little voice inside my head reminding me what a failure I was, how bad I am at life, that I'm incapable of getting my shit together even in fucking Animal Crossing. Then came the guilt trips from villagers, their passive-aggressive greetings surpassed only by my mother's skill for turning seemingly kind words into attacks on my character.  "If you'd stayed away any longer, I might've forgotten you entirely!" one snooty pig said. While he laughed at his own joke, I anxiety spiraled into worrying about whether my real-life relationships would ever recover from this past year, whether the friends I couldn't summon the energy to keep in touch with could forgive me if not forget me all together. Desperate for

Why I can't go back home for the holidays, even in 'Animal Crossing'

The house was in the same place I'd left it all those months ago — but everything was changed. The flowers grayed, bushes bare, an infestation of weeds now encroached on the pastel-tinted memories that once blossomed in my Animal Crossing town.

I stopped visiting Tiddy City (yes, that's my island and proud of it) sometime over the summer. When Animal Crossing: New Horizons serendipitously released right as lockdown orders began sweeping the nation at the end of March, it became a lifeline for me and many others. But "lifeline" is a generous word to describe my Animal Crossing co-dependence, as the hundreds of hours I sunk into completing video game chores, working to pay off imaginary bills, scheming the turnip stalk market, learning honest-to-god botany to crossbreed digital flowers, and celebrating knock-off holidays like Bunny Day (Easter) with friends replaced the real-world interactions that had suddenly became too dangerous to enjoy.

Let's be real: Most of us developed pretty unhinged relationships with our Animal Crossing islands during the pandemic. We played the game in ways it was never designed for, turning a wholesome passive friendship simulator into an aggressively competitive MMO where you have to grind in order to keep up with your friends "leveling up" their islands. But like lots of the virtual replacements we flocked to in the early months of the pandemic, wanting desperately to believe they could fill the newfound emptiness in our lives (looking at you, Zoom fatigue) — Animal Crossing lost its luster. 

By no fault of its own, Nintendo's hit could not cure the worldwide pandemic of loneliness brought on by COVID-19. But with the holidays nearing, and only throwing salt on the gaping wound of isolation, I saw the trailer announcement for new festive ceremonies and activities that'd be added with the latest update. The promise of a communal feast cooked up by Franklin the turkey and Christmas tree light decorations made me forget the lessons I should've already learned. 

I booted up my Switch, hoping the cold blue glow of a digital screen would bring some semblance of light to the withered parts of my blackened soul. 

A little wiser (or just more jaded) than I was back in March, though, I could tell the mission was a failure from the very minute my avatar stepped out of her house, tousled and sleepy.

Dressed in a summery diving suit complete with ill-matched dress shoes — a utility outfit I'd thrown on to quickly check out the big summer update (a similarly disappointing experience) — my character looked like a fish out of water in the dreariness of the game's new Autumnal surroundings. There she was, this avatar who was supposed to be an idealized version of myself. But she was just as much of a hot mess with seasonal depression and no concept of time or normalcy as IRL me.

But it was only a passing pang of guilt, I rationalized, an inherent part of returning to your Animal Crossing village after a prolonged period of absence. I've played these games since I was little, so I was accustomed to just pushing past this initial hurdle whenever trying to get back into it after a long time away.

I tried to move on.

The game just kept reflecting life, though. I didn't have the emotional capacity to go put on a more seasonally appropriate outfit. Honestly, I was too afraid to go back in my house to change, knowing there'd be cockroaches running around all the rooms filled with my half-finished catastrophes of ambitious decoration ideas that I'd gotten too overwhelmed by before abandoning the game entirely. 

It turned out I didn't need to step inside my house to face that shame, though.

Every corner of my town, I soon remembered, was an equally dilapidated monument to my ineptitude, an amalgamation of every failed attempt to match the extravagant perfection of my friends' beautifully crafted islands. The internalized self-hatred from a lifetime of ADHD followed me everywhere I went from there, the little voice inside my head reminding me what a failure I was, how bad I am at life, that I'm incapable of getting my shit together even in fucking Animal Crossing.

Then came the guilt trips from villagers, their passive-aggressive greetings surpassed only by my mother's skill for turning seemingly kind words into attacks on my character. 

"If you'd stayed away any longer, I might've forgotten you entirely!" one snooty pig said. While he laughed at his own joke, I anxiety spiraled into worrying about whether my real-life relationships would ever recover from this past year, whether the friends I couldn't summon the energy to keep in touch with could forgive me if not forget me all together.

Desperate for some consolation — needing a single productive thing to come out of this disastrous return — I texted my friend group chat, asking if they'd want to do a virtual Friendsgiving in Animal Crossing like we had on Bunny Day. I'd been the host back in April, and spent hours transforming my island into an Easter wonderland. It was one of the only virtual gatherings from these past eight months that felt even close to fulfilling the needs that real-world holiday celebrations usually fulfilled.

Deidre was actually the only nice one but she was new when I left.

Deidre was actually the only nice one but she was new when I left.

Image: nintendo

Nobody in the chat bothered responding to my suggestion. My logical brain knew there were a million reasons why they wouldn't, all of which had nothing to do with me. Yet I still experienced it as an unsurmountable rejection, confirmation that my friends indeed thought me forgettable, unworthy, unreliable.

Making perhaps my first sound decision throughout this ordeal, I cut the self-harm short. I turned my Switch off without saving and chucked it back into the drawer to once again collect dust.

But the damage was done. I was forced to add Animal Crossing, of all things, to the long list of beloved activities now ruined by the pandemic. For some reason, this loss cut deeper than many of the others, making me feel stupid for mourning a goddamn video game while others struggled with far more serious reasons to grieve.

In my defense, I hadn't only lost enjoyment in a video game, though. I'd lost hope in escape, lost belief in the kind of unmitigated wholesomeness that comes with enjoying a game like Animal Crossing.

As a kid, Animal Crossing had been my home when I couldn't bear being home anymore. When real-life Christmases inevitably devolved into the toxic family dynamics inherent to all our holiday gatherings, I got through it by reminding myself that a snow-covered town square with animal friends awaited me once I found a moment to sneak away to my room.

As a kid, Animal Crossing had been my home when I couldn't bear being home anymore.

But in 2020, no escape is immune to coronavirus. Even the most wholesome virtual getaways come with the sinking reminder that, at best, you've put a Band-Aid on a severed limb. Whatever momentary respite from reality it offers is followed by the unavoidable knowledge that it won't be enough — nothing could ever be enough to make this better.

None of us can go home for the holidays this year. But even when we do get to go back home, it's with the understanding that it won't be the same, that no one can ever truly return to how things were when we were young and the world felt brighter, safer. We grow up, and learn to be OK with the bittersweetness of nostalgia, that simultaneous joy in the things we used to love as kids mixed with the inescapable melancholy of not being that kid anymore.

Part of the beauty of play, though, is how you don't have to grow up in video games like Animal Crossing. You can opt in and out of reality as you see fit. The changing of seasons can be controlled by setting your console's clock to whenever you want. If something undesirable happens, you can simply quit without saving (albeit to the utter dismay of Mr. Resetti). Loans only need to be paid when you want, or maybe never at all. Virtual animal friends get mad at you for abandoning them for too long, but you can justify it because you were busy enjoying IRL friendship instead.

But play — the act of experiencing pure joy — feels broken now. Reality is the one that's glitching. I can't go back home for the holidays because of the pandemic. But I worry I'll never be able to really go back home to Animal Crossing either, even after this is over.