A Grad Student Explores the Psychology behind a Video Game Megahit in the COVID-19 Era

The video game “Animal Crossings: New Horizons," is shown on a colorful widescreen iPhone

ALBANY, N.Y. (Nov. 24, 2020) — As we know all too well, there have been many more losers than winners during the COVID-19 pandemic. One clear winner has been Nintendo, particularly with its life simulation video game released in March, “Animal Crossings: New Horizons,” selling more than 26 million copies to date, the best showing in the Animal Crossing series and the 28th best-selling video game in history.

Lin Zhu, a master’s student in Educational and Psychology and Methodology, decided to look at the psychological basis for the game’s success. Her findings and writing were strong enough to be published in the journal Human Behavior and Emerging Technologies, part of the Wiley Online Library, a worldwide resource of articles from around the world dealing with the sciences and the humanities.

The piece garnered immediate interest from the BBC, Lifewire and Global Toronto, Wikipedia and researchers from around the world, including from the universities of Ireland and New Zealand.

Escapism and Interaction

Zhu writes that, with the self‐quarantine at home imposed by the pandemic, it was not hard to discover the two main psychological successes behind the New Horizons phenomenon. “First, it captures people's instinct to escape from realistic difficulties and their yearning to chase a peaceful and harmonious life; then, it satisfies people's unwillingness to be lonely and their deep inner desire for the social interaction to get rid of the loneliness.”

Lin Zhu pauses on a hilltop overlooking Ocean Park in Hong Kong in the summer of 2017

New Horizons not only is a nonlinear life simulation game (allowing the freedom to accomplish challenges of the player’s choice in whatever ever order) played in real-time, but one which allows free interaction with other players.

“On the one hand, New Horizons provides a dreamland for the players to temporally escape from the cruel reality with a risk of losing,” writes Zhu. “On the other, the New Horizons world becomes a perfect social platform to keep social interaction with others to get rid of the loneliness and anxiety imposed by the pandemic.”

In the game, players are characters who move to a deserted island to build and expand their home, explore their surroundings and interact with a cast of adorable animal villagers. They catch bugs, collect fish, design their own fashions, grow flowers, participate in the island’s annual events, and more. There is no disaster or disease. Zhu writes that it is “like a haven that keeps you away from COVID‐19.”

She notes that life simulation video games may temporarily play a “shelter” role to provide a simple happy life to the players. Such escapism can often have negative psychological effects but that may be balanced in New Horizons, she said, by the game’s social interaction, a factor highly related to ones' psychological well‐being.

“Even being the only human on the island in the game does not mean that you have to live alone there,” she writes. “The most fascinating part of the game is that the players can continue to socialize virtually, even as they remain in physical isolation for long periods during the COVID‐19 pandemic.”

A Multifaceted Background, a Hopeful Future

Zhu, who holds bachelor's degrees in management and informatics sciences from two universities in China and Japan, worked in the marketing departments of several companies in East Asia and the Middle East before coming to UAlbany in the summer of 2019. She hopes to continue her work as a PhD student at UAlbany.

“For years I have been interested in all aspects of the human mind, feeling, brain and behavior,” she said. “The Educational Psychology and Methodology M.S. program provides me the ideal academic and research foundation for my career.”

She plans on continuing her investigations into the complex relationship between video games and psychological well‐being. “New Horizons made us realize the psychology behind video games has far more than we have already known.”