How Playing Animal Crossing Taught Me to Slow Down

No one who has ever known me would describe me as patient. I do not like to wait for things. I like next-day delivery * and Just Fucking Googling It and other forms of instant gratification as much as anyone whose brain developed during the internet age.

I guess I just feel behind constantly. There’s a whole lot of world out there and it’s moving faster every day. I feel a sense of urgency, a compulsive drive to suck the marrow out of everything I can before rushing off to the next one like a swarm of locusts sweeping through farmland. What if I die before I learn to play the kalimba or own my first salad spinner? What will I do then???

Another important thing you should know about me is that, while I love playing video games, I’m not actually good at them. Puzzles and turn-based combat are easy enough but I completely flounder with anything that requires any physical skill.

What I’m getting at here is I use a lot of walkthroughs and cheat codes when I play video games. Like, a lot. I cheat like HELL when I play video games. Including when I played Animal Crossing: New Leaf.

I was a casual player who toed the obsessive line with New Leaf for a few months. I did enjoy it a lot but it was something I could only commit to in bite-size moments between college classes and work, so I didn’t know much and had a pretty unremarkable and under-developed town

When I found the Tumblr community, I dove in head-first, which opened up a fountain of knowledge and people willing to give me golden tools, dump millions of bells into my account, and basically give me whatever items I asked for. I experienced an economic boom and started developing my town like crazy, and I went from toeing that obsessive line to launching myself over it and landing head-first on the other side.

Then I discovered hacking.

To make a very long story short, hacking my New Leaf game turned out to be a tremendous pain in the ass. But I did get it to work, and it was a whole new world all over again. I’d gone beyond just being able to accelerate my game progress. I could now actually break the New Leaf laws of physics and alter my terrain, move buildings, edit my avatar, and swap out villagers. I could unlock any public works project I hadn’t already unlocked. I could have any items I wanted. I had complete control over my game.

I went apeshit bananas the first time I hacked my town. The map editor was dangerously clunky and I didn’t trust myself, so I mostly stuck to things acceptable to change within the New Leaf laws of physics, like trees, and filling up my pockets with bells.

The results were kind of a mess (lol). Hacking it again ended up being too much trouble, so I gave up and decided I’d tidy it in-game. I started. Then I slowed down. Then I stopped.

Fast forward to May 14th of this year, when I finally got my hands on a copy of New Horizons. I am virtually unspoiled in terms of how the game works or how you progress through it. Everything is novel to me. The characters are familiar (most of them anyway!) but so, so much of it is new.

As I’ve played through it, I realized how much it reminds me of how I felt playing New Leaf for the first time. I feel the same sense of wonder and bone-aching affection for these nonsensical bundle of pixels that I did the first time I picked up an Animal Crossing game and wondered what the hell all the hype was about.

The more I play New Horizons, the more I reflect on my time with New Leaf and what happened to my original infatuation with it. When did the love run out? When did the spark fade?

I figured it out today: it was after I hacked my town. Once I unlocked everything, catalogued everything, and maxed out my savings, I had everything I ever wanted except a reason to open the game the next day. There was nothing to look forward to anymore.

I don’t want this to read like a knock against people who utilize things like hacking and time travel and other non-standard gameplay mechanics when playing games like Animal Crossing to do things like accelerate progress and development. It really makes no difference to me how you play the video game you bought with your money on the console you also bought with your money. As the kids say, you do you.

But I think with games like Animal Crossing in particular, something is lost when you try to rush the process. Animal Crossing runs in real time because it wants you to wait for things. Life is not fast. It runs just as slow in the real world as it does on your little island. It only feels fast because we don’t slow down to take it in. We don’t give ourselves time to make the memories. We’re too busy trying to escape the past or play catch-up with the future. Or both. Or maybe that’s just me.

I started playing Animal Crossing right around the time I started teaching myself mindfulness. It didn’t notice then, but I think Animal Crossing also helped to teach me mindfulness, because mindfulness is so deeply rooted in how the game is meant to be played.

Animal Crossing was also very good at teaching me how to take small steps with big projects. Imagine having to complete the whole museum—all four wings of it—overnight. I’d throw up at the thought. But doing it in small chunks over the course of months? That’s not nearly as threatening. And you can see your progress. You see your little fish swimming around and the fossils being assembled.

It taught me that there will be days when all you get are your four daily fossils and there will be days when you get like twelve new species of fish and bugs. There will be days when all you want to do is gather crafting supplies and days when you want to work on infrastructure and island beautification. There is always just the right amount of work to be done. Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.

And it also taught me that getting to the end goal really isn’t the goal at all. It really is the journey, not the destination. Once I had everything, the game felt empty. It was the gathering, the hustling, the working, the doing of New Leaf that I enjoyed so much. Once I took all the work out, I took out the purpose.

I used to be really awestruck and intimidated by the highly-developed towns in New Horizons on social media. I feel so far behind with my empty little nothing island and know there’s so much I’ve yet to discover and do.

But you know what? I can wait to find out what’s next.

Because that’s the other thing Animal Crossing taught me: that looking forward to something is just another way of enjoying it. Anticipation is its own enjoyment. There is pleasure in waiting. Having to wait is good.

It means there’s time to enjoy what’s going on right now.

*I do, however , also recognize the amorality of current business practices that make it so convenient for me and, as such, avoid it, and do so while angrily shaking my fist at capitalism, because I REALLY HATE HAVING TO WAIT FOR THINGS (HASHTAG PRIVILEGED PROBLEMS).

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