In Animal Crossing, you have the control and time to develop your island exactly the way you want it. (Nintendo)

In Animal Crossing, you have the control and time to develop your island exactly the way you want it. (Nintendo)

Escape to an island of calm — and cuteness — during the pandemic

Stuck at home, millennials have been finding refuge in Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

There is no COVID-19 on Henry Yarsinske Jr.’s island.

No, Yarsinske doesn’t actually own an island. He is one of the millions who play Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the latest in a franchise by Nintendo that has been around since 2001, but New Horizons is the first to be so well-timed to have been released during a pandemic — and therefore has become a phenomenon.

In Animal Crossing, players take on the role of a lone human on an island inhabited by ridiculously adorable animals. The game is played at a relaxed pace, in which the player can go fishing, bug catching, fossil hunting and more. While players are encouraged to develop the island for its anamorphic residents by gathering and crafting items, there are no levels to reach or high scores to beat.

“I joke with my roommates that there is no coronavirus on my island,” said Yarsinske, 33 of Everett. “I can go here and everything is fine.”

New Horizons is the best-selling game in the series, surpassing the lifetime sales of all previous Animal Crossing games. The game has sold nearly 13.5 million copies since its March 20 release — with a jump in sales of Nintendo’s Switch console reflecting the game’s popularity.

Much of the game’s success has been attributed to its release during the COVID-19 emergency, with players seeking an escape amid stay-home orders, including in Snohomish County.

“Since it came out in the first week of our lockdown, it was a perfect place for a lot of people to turn off from the world and forget about things for a while in, I feel, a healthy way, because you’re not doing the typical video-game experience,” Yarsinske said. “You’re not playing a first-person shooter, you’re just giving animals presents and writing letters to them.”

While the overwhelming cuteness of the game might lead you to think it’s geared toward children, it’s actually wildly popular with millennials, some of whom grew up with the franchise. They’re bored, they’re stressed, and Animal Crossing is fun and relaxing.

“I’ve always liked it because it’s so different — in it’s mechanics, in the way that it looks and the way that it makes me feel,” Yarsinske said. “It’s nice to check into this other place and escape into this cutesy world where you’re just talking to animals and rearranging furniture in your house.”

Henry Yarsinske Jr. has played Animal Crossing since the first game, which was released 19 years ago on Nintendo’s GameCube console. Yarsinske, host of the 24/7 internet radio station “The Stereo Wire,” made his island in New Horizons have a downtown vibe with all the villagers living in a close-knit neighborhood. He planted a zen garden right next to the beach. When he logs in, Yarskinske likes to check the store for new items, talk to all of his neighbors, then go fishing.

As coronavirus-related restrictions roll into June — Snohomish County last week got the OK from Gov. Jay Inslee to enter Phase 2 of his reopening plan — Animal Crossers stuck at home continue to escape to their island.

Sierra Rozario, 23, of Everett, also has been an Animal Crosser since 2001, learning the game at age 4. A graphic designer for Milltown Creative Co., Rozario goes through a list of daily tasks on the island that can include chopping down a tree, catching five fish or three bugs, and shooting down balloons. She likes to check her mailbox and go shopping for new items. Rozario is in the process of renovating the three neighborhoods on her island.

“The pandemic stress and boredom is definitely relieved by Animal Crossing,” Rozario said. “It is so delightful. It takes over daily functions, especially when a lot of us aren’t really working. It’s like our new job.”

Johnathan Preshaw, 33, of Edmonds, bought the Animal Crossing: New Horizons game in April. He likes to log into the game to check in with his on-island tailor for new clothes. One of his favorite outfits for his avatar is a hippie-inspired getup with a tie-dye T-shirt, bell-bottoms and leather vest with shades. He also likes to pay off the mortgage on his house so he can upgrade it, by adding another room and taking out another loan. His house has three extra rooms.

“It’s a very chill, relaxed game,” said Preshaw, an attorney who specializes in juvenile law. “There aren’t any goals or timetables to work with. It’s interesting, and it’s very cute. Everything is very sweet and safe. The worst thing that can happen to you is you get stung by a bee. If they sting you twice, you have to go home to take a nap.”

Many Animal Crossers like that they can play as little or as much as they want in any given day.

Yarsinske plays about 10 to 20 minutes per day. Rozario, on the other hand, played the game every day for up to 15 hours per day when she first got it — she had logged nearly 200 hours by May. Now she plays about an hour a day, maybe longer on the weekends. Preshaw plays, at most, two hours per day.

“It’s a slow-life game, so you only play it in little chunks of the day,” Yarsinske said. “That’s what it’s designed for, but with this one and the pandemic, people are going all out and playing this for hours, buying and selling turnips” in the game’s “stalk” market.

Players also like that Animal Crossing follows a real-time clock and calendar. A minute in the game is the same minute in our world.

“No. 1, it’s cute,” Rozario said. “It’s also super relaxing and peaceful. The pacing is nice because with most games you have timed objectives … Animal Crossing is a getaway and you can play it however you want.”

In Animal Crossing, you also can interact with friends and family you can’t otherwise see. Players can host up to seven virtual visitors to their island at a time when, in Phase 2, we’re advised to socialize with no more than five friends not in our household per week. There have been Animal Crossing birthday parties, weddings, graduations and funerals. Even Ramadan found a place in New Horizons.

“I can’t see my friends in person, but I can visit their islands,” Preshaw said. “You chat with them and they show you all the stuff they’re up to. It’s another avenue for socializing.”

The game’s popularity has extended beyond its main platform. The phenomenon has reached social media — the game has been trending on and off on Twitter with millions tweeting the hashtag #AnimalCrossingNewHorizons — and spurred fan-made online markets, like Nookazon, an Amazon-like website where Animal Crossers can buy and sell rare or hard-to-find items.

“It creates this need to play Animal Crossing: ‘I have to experience the cuteness and calmness for myself.’” Rozario said. “I’ve never seen this much attention on it. You see Animal Crossing everywhere now. You see so many memes about Animal Crossing. It exploded. Everybody knows what it is and everybody is playing it.”

If you’re hoping to get in on the Animal Crossing craze, note that the Switch may be hard to come by. The must-have gaming console been sold out for weeks at a time due to manufacturing delays connected to the virus.

But when the coronavirus is gone, players will likely not need the game as much — or have enough spare time to play it.

Yarsinske admits he’s no longer logging in every day.

“I’ve noticed I’m playing it less as I’ve gotten used to this world more,” he said. “I don’t need that escape as much, but it was definitely good for my mental health that first month.”

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