OPINION: Saved by a racoon with the name of Tom Nook

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Hailey Stessman
OPINION EDITOR 

UNO student Hannah Meckna and her two friends enjoy each other’s company in their island’s museum. Photo courtesy of Hannah Meckna.

I can’t look back at my childhood without thinking of a little racoon named Tom Nook who exchanged the seashells I pocketed on the shore for Bells and the thrill of catching a praying mantis lazily resting on a patch of flowers. Whenever I heard my mother’s familiar footsteps making their way to my bedroom in the night, I would quickly hide my hot pink Nintendo DS underneath my covers, (as I assume many children did when they were young), so she couldn’t catch me visiting my favorite villagers. I mean, how could my mother deny me the joy I felt when the leaves on my peach trees turned a burning golden color when fall arrived? Or when the bobber on my wooden fishing pole would plunk down beneath the river’s surface from the bite of a fish? Or even when I had to shield myself from a rain shower with my leaf umbrella?

My friends were a peppy cat named Tangy, a friendly dog named Daisy and even a cranky frog named Wart Jr. The villagers that inhabited my town gave me gifts, celebrated in excitement when I managed to catch a butterfly nearby and wrote me sweet notes. My older sister and I would sit on our beds across the hallway from one another while visiting and playing hide-and-seek in each other’s towns.

As the shy kid I was, Animal Crossing gave me the comfort of a friendly community without the fear of judgement, loss or drama in the confines of my own home. Even if I have grown out of my shyness as a college student along with the dedication I had for my old virtual village, there’s another predicament that I’ve recently learned how to face.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, people across the globe, including myself, are having to isolate themselves and practice social distancing in order to flatten the curve of the virus’ spread. What I have realized while staying inside my home is that the hours of my day are no longer taken up by walking to and fro between classes on campus or by my daily commute. I decided to do what everyone else has been suggesting: going for walks, reading long forgotten books, trying a new hobby. I successfully accomplished all of those things, but quickly I found myself falling into a monotonous routine that I didn’t enjoy as much as I did when I began.

And then, as if some unknown force from above (or my mom) heard my cries of boredom, a small thin plastic case fell into my hands. I had been counting down the days for that very moment. I immediately recognized the font, the image of villagers smiling underneath the blue sky and my dear old racoon friend Tom Nook.

It read “Animal Crossing: New Horizons.”

I anxiously waited for my sister to return from work so we could start this new journey in each other’s presence. I thought of everything I would be able to do now that I used to do as a child. Would the same villagers be there? Would I still be able to collect and plant different types of fruit trees? Would I still have to run for shelter from a swarm of wasps? Eventually my sister raced up the stairs and without a second thought I fired up our Nintendo Switch and stared at the TV screen in anticipation.

It was instantaneous. The incomprehensible gibberish of the village folk and the wave of nostalgia that washed over me. I felt like a kid again.

It seemed like nothing had changed. I still raced up and down the shore for seashells I could sell to Tom Nook. I still shook every tree with the hope that some Bells, furniture or insects would fall. (But, please no wasp nest. Please. I can only make so much medicine.) I still talked to the wandering villagers. I still decorated my house to my heart’s content.

My sister and I take turns roaming our little island named “Ivy Spring” collecting fallen branches or catching fluttering yellow butterflies. We scream when we’re chased by those terrifying tarantulas. (I caught one before her, by the way. Finally something I can brag about.)  Sometimes it even turns into a competition. A friendly one at least, you ask? I would probably be lying if I said yes.

As dawns turned to dusks over our island, I came to the realization that I wasn’t feeling that heavy sense of boredom anymore. There’s always fish to be caught, furniture to be collected, cute villagers to be talked to, rooms to be decorated. Rather than dreading the day for lack of mental stimulation, I found that same comfort I felt as a child when playing “Animal Crossing: Wild World” underneath the safety of my covers.

While scrolling on Twitter, I quickly learned that so many other people were experiencing this same joy over the little details in the game. The freedom of expression through clothing and home decor. The intense adrenaline rush when running away from a tarantula. The companionship shared between friends who can no longer see each other in person but can visit each other’s islands.

“My friends and I have been hanging out on each others’ islands every day,” third-year UNO student Hannah Meckna said. “It’s also really nice to sit down and grind away at little tasks for a while. Completion feels good.”

Not only does the remote social interaction ability help friends to connect, but small activities such as watering flowers or picking weeds aren’t as mundane for people as they might be in day-to-day life.

Second-year UNO student Annika Kuchar said that Animal Crossing “gives me a creative outlet, helps me de-stress and helps me feel productive while still relaxing.”

If only those sweet smiling islanders could understand how much they are helping us right now. It is such a strange time to be alive. I never thought I would be digging up fossils to bring to an owl named Blathers or befriending a ghost named Wisp or even enjoying music from a white dog playing an acoustic guitar in the midst of a global pandemic. But I am so happy that friends, families and strangers are finding a special kind of joy from spending their days on an island brimming with life and love.

Even though no one could have known months ago that we would be in a state of isolation and panic from COVID-19 right now, I am incredibly grateful that “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” came to the rescue to save us from seemingly perpetual boredom.

Thank you Tom Nook, even though you take all of my Bells.

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