Parents Coping with Pandemic Stress with Animal Crossing
July 7, 2021
Throughout the past year, everyone has experienced pandemic stress. But parents have been particularly vulnerable because of the additional work associated with managing children, especially for those parents trying to continue to work at their jobs. There have been many new studies about the ways that pandemic stress has impacted parents’ mental health.
While people turn to a variety of tools to cope with pandemic stress, our study focuses on using entertainment media, specifically video games, as a coping tool. Using Leonard Reinecke and Diana Rieger’s Recovery and Resilience in Entertaining Media Use Model, we look at how video games help parents recover from stress in the short term, and develop resilience for more long-term coping. In this model, recovery happens through replenishing depleted resources through psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery experiences, and control. Psychological detachment is disengaging mentally. Relaxation is getting into a low activity state. Mastery experiences a sense of accomplishment and achievement outside of one’s work domain. Control is a sense of autonomy in one’s life. All of these have been tied to recovery and coping more broadly.
WHY ANIMAL CROSSING?
Animal Crossing New Horizons was released in March 2020 on the Nintendo Switch. Animal Crossing is a leisurely simulation game where the player builds a life on an island with animal villagers without firm goals. This game was highly touted in the media as the perfect pandemic game that appeals to children and their parents. As such, it was a great opportunity to explore media reports that this game was “pandemic therapy”. Our research team has works in progress about how families used Animal Crossing to cope with pandemic stress together. But in this current paper, we focus on parents’ individual coping.
We conducted 27 family interviews, including with 33 parents, in the summer and early fall of 2020 via Zoom. Families of school-aged children were recruited from Animal Crossing social media groups. We coded the transcripts with the categories from the aforementioned model.
Almost every parent participant explicitly tied the game to coping with pandemic stress.
Participant Flora, for instance, shared that “[AC:NH] just looked so fun and relaxing and as soon as I started playing it, I just felt so relieved of the stress of all of the stuff going on with the pandemic.”
Some parents reported using the game to keep their children busy while they had to work. Ashley explained that handing 8-year-old Beatrice the AC:NH game “would help her be occupied so I could do my job.” Steve also used AC:NH to occupy 10-year-old Jake: “My wife and I both work and we had to work from home, so he really was on his own a lot, so we agreed to relax rules in terms of screen time and have him play Animal Crossing.”
The first aspect of the Recovery and Resilience in Entertaining Media Use Model was psychological detachment. Many participants described the game as a getaway, an escape from reality, or a diversion. For example, Meesh explained her escape as such: “There’s something really therapeutic about having your own private island that you can escape to when you can’t go anywhere so I think it helps in the mental health aspect of what we’re going through now.”
Several parents also told us that the game provided a distraction from explicit pandemic-related stressors. Many participants in our sample had experienced job loss, illness, and death in their families. For example, two parents had their beloved workplaces close, but re-created them within the game.
We also found that a lot of people said that they found the game to be relaxing. The mundane in-game tasks in Animal Crossing seemed to be particularly soothing for adults.
We have a good example here from Marie: “[AC:NH] is stress-free, I would totally claim Animal Crossing as a coping mechanism for me because I was way stressed out during the whole pandemic and I feel like I definitely was depressed and I know I struggled a lot. It was not a happy few months here. So to be able to finally get the kids in bed and I could just, you know, play the game for an hour—that was my relaxation.”
We also had a number of examples of parents who felt that the game provided the opportunity to feel a sense of accomplishment. Moreover, the game gave them a routine and some little achievements throughout the day. Gemma said: “Early in Animal Crossing there’s so much you have to do, you have to get the whole town established, you have to get everything set up, and you have to get out of your shack into a house . . . .So I felt like there were lots of easy-to-achieve concrete goals that took just enough work and were things I could finish and be like oh look I did a thing, as opposed to when you’re home with your whole family during a pandemic there’s always more dishes, there’s always more people who need feeding, there’s always more laundry . . . these [AC:NH tasks] were things I could do.”
The smaller tasks in particular allowed for a sense of accomplishment, expressed by Odie: “During the pandemic, we didn’t have goals, you know, we were kind of left without knowing what do we do, and I think it was nice to have something to grasp onto.” Or Steve, who “gravitated” toward the “predictability” of his daily in-game tasks.
Control, the final aspect of the model, provides a sense of autonomy. Parents expressed how the game facilitated this, especially tied to the uncertainty of the pandemic. This game allowed our parent participants to have a place in which they had control over something. Emma said: “It was like everything outside was so chaotic and that [AC:NH] was one place that I had control over things, so I think that helped with the stress a little bit.” Later in the interview, she touched back on this idea when asked what she found to be the greatest benefit. “I think it was the control, it probably would be the big one, you know, having control over this island when I had no control over anything else.”
A recurring theme in our interviews was that for many, many parents, the game helped facilitate their adult social connections. Parents were using the game to find connections with other adults, whether they were existing friends, or finding new friends to play the game with. Some research from Emily Collins and Anna Cox suggests that the more social aspects of video gameplay can contribute to coping and recovery.
Marie appreciated the ability to connect with others. “I’m a stay-at-home mom so the only time that I would really deal with people was going to the grocery store or going to my gym or going to school as a volunteer and then that was all gone. So this [AC:NH] was my biggest outlet for being able to communicate with other people.”
Similarly, Flora described AC:NH as “a social activity I play it not just with my family, but I actually have friends that play it and so I regularly have meetings with them where we visit each other’s island and we’re freaking out [about the pandemic] so it’s been kind of replacing the social needs that I have because I’m kind of hanging out with people.”
Some participants also feel that their social needs were met by the in-game villager characters.
Michelle said, “It was exciting to talk with ‘people,’ which sounds weird, talking with computer characters, but I could have a discussion [with the AI].”
Pandemic stress is a tremendous area of concern, and we are glad that we were able to look at how this particular video game helped parents cope with that stress. But we also emphasize that the stressors that people experience are not exclusive to pandemic times: social isolation, loss, and general stress are perpetual concerns.
Also, given recent research that shows that food and alcohol have been common pandemic parenting strategies, we highlight that playing Animal Crossing is a possibly healthier and more social way to cope with stress.
Long-term resilience is harder to study. But we know that greater short-term coping does tend to facilitate resilience in the long term. Pandemic parenting stress is not going away any time soon, and we hope that parents continue to find ways to cope in the short- and long term.
Pearce, K. E., Yip, J. C., Lee, J., Martinez, J., Windleharth, T., Li, Q., & Bhattacharya, A. (2021, May). I just need to have a White Claw and Play Animal Crossing tonight: Parents coping with video games during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Top paper, Games Studies Division). Paper presented to the International Communication Association Conference, Denver, CO. [Virtual COVID19] (Game Studies Division)
Katy E. Pearce, Associate Professor, researches social and political uses of technologies and digital content in non-democratic contexts, specifically in the semi- and fully authoritarian states of the former Soviet Union. Her current research areas include digital divides and inequalities; the affordances of information and communication technologies for social and opposition movements; and online impression management. Pearce also holds an affiliation with the Ellison Center for Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies.
Jason Yip is an assistant professor at the Information School and an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Human-Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington. His research examines how technologies can support parents and children learning together. He is a co-principal investigator on a National Science Foundation Cyberlearning project on designing social media technologies to support neighborhoods learning science together. He is the director of KidsTeam UW, an intergenerational group of children (ages 7 – 11) and researchers co-designing new technologies and learning activities for children, with children. Dr. Yip is the principal investigator of a Google Faculty Research Award project that examines how Latino children search and broker online information for their English-language learning parents. He is a senior research fellow at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. He holds a B.A. (2001) in chemistry and M.S.Ed (2002) in science and math education from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Ph.D. (2014) in curriculum and instruction from the University of Maryland.
Jin Ha Lee is an Associate Professor at the Information School at University of Washington and the director of the GAMER (GAME Research) Group. Her research interests include music, game, and multimedia information seeking and retrieval, information organization and access, and knowledge representation. The GAMER Group explores new ideas and approaches for organizing and providing access to video games and interactive media, understanding user behavior related to video games, and using video games for informal learning. She is a recipient of the Fulbright Award for Graduate Study as well as the Jean Tague-Sutcliffe Award and the Berner-Nash Memorial Award for her dissertation research, “Analysis of Information Features in Natural Language Queries for Music Information Retrieval: Use Patterns and Accuracy.” She holds an M.S. (2002) and a Ph.D. (2008) from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Bogost, I. (2020, April 15). The quiet revolution of Animal Crossing. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2020/04/animal-crossing-isnt-escapist-its-political/610012/
Calarco, J. M., Anderson, E. M., Meanwell, E. V., & Knopf, A. (2020, October 4). “Let’s Not Pretend It’s Fun”: How COVID-19-Related School and Childcare Closures are Damaging Mothers’ Well-Being. https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/jyvk4
Collins, E. & Cox, A.L. (2014). “Switch on to games: Can digital games aid post-work recovery?” International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 72 (8-9) 654-662. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijhcs.2013.12.006