How Animal Crossing Cured My Travel Burnout

My relationship with this complex game is not unlike my relationship with travel

Animal Crossing game at night

To say "Animal Crossing: New Horizons" is popular is a gross understatement. It beat the record for the most units sold in one month on any console. After just six weeks, Nintendo announced that more than 13.4 million copies were sold. Instagram influencers appeared overnight. Players even created an Amazon-like marketplace where you could exchange in-game currency (or even real-world currency) to get coveted DIY recipes and sought-after villagers (an action Nintendo says violates the game's terms of service). A Japanese company attempted to hold a meeting in-game because employees were so enamored with the digital island. I know three people who bought a Switch just to play the game. All of this to say, for at least a month, maybe two, all I did in my free time was play Animal Crossing.

Now, after logging 250 hours on Pangea 2, I can say that my relationship with this complex game is eerily similar to my relationship with travel.

As a travel editor, I've been lucky enough to explore parts of the world I never would've imagined. Last year, especially, was a busy year of planes and press junkets. In November, after what seemed like three months straight of long haul plane rides, packed days, and nights spent working in hotel beds, I was officially burned out.

I vowed no more trips for a few months, and I genuinely enjoyed my time on the ground. Then, just as I was ready to hit the road again, news broke of a never-before-seen viral outbreak in the city of Wuhan. My thoughts of immediate travel were put on hold—oh, how naive I was back then.

Shortly into the start of my work-from-home life and two days before New York's shelter-in-place order began, the game launched. In a stroke of insanely good luck, Nintendo dropped the perfect quarantine game right in the middle of a global pandemic.

From the first moments of the game, the parallels to travel are apparent. Two adorable tanukis named Timmy and Tommy greet you at a travel agent's desk, and together you create the perfect island getaway. Leaving your entire life behind to live on a deserted island? Who wouldn't want to enjoy a permanent island vacation? Orville and Wilbur, two dodo siblings, man a tiny but incredibly detailed airport that even has signs prohibiting liquids on planes—a consideration with some dark implications.

Animal Crossing airport

"AC:NH" is, in many ways, an escapist dream. You want to relax on a beach chair with palms trees swaying overhead? You got it. Want to create a cottagecore haven? Done. Or perhaps you want to recreate a particular Japanese shopping street. Go for it. Because of the mind-boggling number of furniture items you can create or buy (it's genuinely unfathomable), you can turn your Animal Crossing island into whatever you like. I spent hours crafting a Japanese onsen, only to demolish it in favor of an even better one. I created a cliffside party beach, like the ones you can find in Bali. Or at least I started one—all I have for the moment is an oddly shaped plateau with a DJ booth and some lounge chairs on the sand below.

My first few weeks on my island were incredible. Every day was a milestone. I spent hours hunting for ways to make Nook Miles (one of two in-game currencies), plotting to conquer the Sow Joan's stalk market (think turnips, instead of ETFs), or searching for enough resources to craft coveted DIYs. The game kept me so engaged that I had to stop myself from playing the game during office hours.

Every DIY recipe that washed up on the beach was new, traveling to Nook Island getaways meant meeting new possible neighbors, or collecting rare resources. If you had talked to me about the game, then I'd give you the sales pitch of all sales pitches. It reminded me a lot of how I felt when I first started traveling with any sort of regularity.

In the past, I'd get so excited about upcoming trips that I couldn't sleep. My suitcase was packed days, sometimes even a full week, before check-in. I always got to the airport at least two hours before the flight started boarding—what if security takes forever and I don't have time to buy a $17 pretzel?

Back then, I embraced the long days and mild stress because I was traveling. I was going to places I never considered as vacation destinations. Inconveniences, migraines, and micro-aggressions from travel companions rolled off my back like water. But when I was more of a regular, once I enrolled in the coveted Global Entry program, travel suddenly became more of a chore.

Moving through airports wasn't as exciting. My suitcase often lay partially empty until the day before my departure, which, for me, is the equivalent of packing while waiting for the Uber to arrive. Instead of thinking about my trip, I was thinking about work projects I had to finish. I still got the airport fairly early, but only so I could edit and publish an article before being subject to spotty plane Wi-Fi.

animal crossing Japanese onsen

Don't get me wrong: I was thrilled that trips were a part of my work, but after a certain point, it definitely felt like work—the same kind of fatigue set in with Pangea 2.

Maybe it was all the stunning islands I'd see on Instagram's Explore page? Perfectly-cut video compilations of custom designs? Or perhaps I had just spent too much time hunting down every new fish and digging up every fossil to please Blathers, a bug-averse owl who runs the island's museum.

Whatever the cause, I soon wasn't looking forward to opening up the game in the morning. It felt like one in an endless list of chores I had to do each day. Soon, I'd skip whole days opting to read or embroider instead. After a weekend of ignoring my island tasks and villagers, I finally booted the game up. Aside from some weeds and a few villagers convinced I was angry at them, everything looked the same. And then, instead of dread, I suddenly felt excited again. Now, I only play when I feel like it, and I don't fret if I miss turnip day or if I miss the arrival of Jolly Redd, a sly fox who sells questionably-sourced artwork. I even ignore the Instagrammers with islands far more picturesque than mine.

In a lot of ways, with my new, slower approach, life on Pangea 2 has gotten even better—and I think that's how I'll approach my eventual travels, too.