Animal Crossing and virtual gardening have kept me sane during the coronavirus pandemic

Commentary: Whether shaking trees on Animal Crossing or rising up the Botanist career ladder in The Sims 4, staying indoors has turned me into a virtual plant mom.

Steph Panecasio Former Editor
Steph Panecasio was an Editor based in Sydney, Australia. She knows a lot about the intersection of death, technology and culture. She's a fantasy geek who covers science, digital trends, video games, subcultures and more. Outside work, you'll most likely find her rewatching Lord of the Rings or listening to D&D podcasts.
Steph Panecasio
4 min read

Shovel in hand, anything is possible.

Steph Panecasio/CNET

I've never professed to have any kind of green thumb. 

I forget to water plants. I don't have the patience for herbs. I've accidentally destroyed synthetic ferns I bought in a failed attempt at interior decorating. The first gift my partner ever gave me was a long-lasting succulent, which I took as a symbol of something growing between us, yet somehow I killed it in less than a fortnight.

Online, however, my greenhouses and gardens are flourishing. While my real world self should be kept a safe distance away from any greenery, my virtual self isn't just a green thumb -- she's basically Johnny Appleseed. 

Read more: Build a real-life garden and grow your own food

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First, there's Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Animal Crossing is a social simulation game. You're dropped on a deserted island alongside a few anthropomorphic neighbours and directed to make it a home. Every day there are more challenges -- like building a museum, or inviting new people to become your neighbours and decking out your house with crafted items. 

It's designed to be played as a game you come back to. Except, well, I've barely left.

Watch this: Maximize your time in Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Each island has its own native fruit, so in order to truly make your island paradise well rounded, you have to scour mystery islands or visit your friends to pick up all the different fruits and plant them back home.

Do the fruit trees grow at an unnatural rate? Yes. Am I somehow powerful enough to shake their mighty branches to let loose fruit from their trunks? Yes. Am I obsessed with curating separate but well-maintained orchards of exotic fruits arranged in geometric patterns? Strong yes.

And I'm not the only one. According to NintendoLife, more Switches were sold to play Animal Crossing than were sold at the console's launch. I've noticed more of my friends online lately than I've seen in the entire time I've owned a Switch. It's a mindfulness game on steroids and it's exactly what we need right now.

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I've also been revisiting an old favourite: The Sims 4.

I've always been a casual Sims player. As a general rule, my playthroughs have always followed a relatively simple pattern: Create a Sim in my likeness, make her a journalist, profit. Until recently. 

All journalistic dreams have fallen by the wayside for my suddenly botanical Sims. Basic needs? The Sim can sleep when it's done. Because I've now spent countless Sim hours -- and a not insignificant amount of real world hours -- creating a functional greenhouse.

Without cheats it's taken three generations of Sims, cost hundreds of thousands of Simoleons and somehow not robbed me entirely of my sanity. The greenhouse is bigger than the family's actual house -- and yes, grandma had to flip burgers to afford it in the early days.

Each family member does their job in developing their Gardening skill to level 10. Any that fail? An unpredictable Cow Plant eats them alive. Yes, Cow Plant. It's a plant-eat-Sim world and the cow needs to feed.

It's wonderful. I can now live entirely off the plants. If anything, the plants are the real characters I'm playing and the Sims are arbitrary caretakers. I care not who waters them, so long as they are watered.

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When I'm done shaking fruit trees on Animal Crossing and watering my plants on the Sims, I lie in bed and take care of the last of my green pixel babies.

For the last year or so, I've been the doting plant mother to a pot of succulents I've curated on the free mobile app, Viridi

It's a simple premise: You get one pot (which you can name), adorned with a snail (which you can name) and an assortment of succulents to keep alive (they have scientific names already, but there's nothing stopping you from bestowing your own).

They, like Animal Crossing, operate on a day-to-day growth mechanic -- so it's just a little mindfulness check each day to log on and give them a spritz. 

To be abundantly clear: Viridi is a forgiving game. There was a while when I didn't log on at all and, after months of neglect, my plants were parched but salvageable. Two spritzes later and those bad boys were back to full health. 

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The music is soothing, the color palette is muted and the vibe is chill -- all factors that make it the perfect low-effort game to play when you need a moment of peace. When I'm anxious or stressed, I boot it up on my phone to spend some quality succulent time. 

Given everything that's going on, it's made a huge difference to my mental health. Let's not beat around the proverbial bush: We're all a lot more online than we were all of a few weeks ago. With social distancing and lockdowns in effect, there's little opportunity to venture outside for a cheeky gardening session. 

But gardening has been shown to have a positive impact on your health. So every time I've been anxious, I've logged on and picked up a shovel. When I get dark thoughts, I spend an hour doing some weeding. Instead of peering longingly outside, I'm googling the best ways to cross-pollinate and breed hybrid flowers on my Animal Crossing island.

I am elbows-deep in virtual soil. 

Whether consciously or not, we're seeking the outdoors. We crave the things we can't have. It's why there are so many people out there texting their exes and panic-cutting their own bangs. If anything, I'm lucky that what I crave most is a watering can and as many turnips as my character can physically carry.

So if you're an accidental plant-killer like me, I say grab some virtual seeds. Give yourself something to tend to. In doing so, you might even weed out some of your own unsettled thoughts. 

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