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Tom Nook and Isabelle

Animal Crossing is a slow, mundane, boring video game. It’s essentially a life simulator, akin to The Sims or maybe even Minecraft (with a much smaller map and far fewer monsters to worry about, though the tarantulas have given me a good jump once or twice, if we’re being honest), but unlike other simulators, there’s no way to speed things up.

Animal Crossing’s signature feature is that it’s real-time, meaning it runs on the system clock of the console being played on. If it’s 12:30 when you boot up the game, it’s 12:30 on your island, and when you’re told something will be ready tomorrow, that means it will be ready at 5am your time the following day. So a project I’ve been working on has taken me almost two weeks now, because it requires moving each of the fifteen buildings and homes that eventually populate your island, and you can only move one building a day.

Despite this most recent installment’s soaring popularity (much of which can likely be attributed to a release date that ended up coinciding with the entire world going into quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic), the agonizingly slow pace has become quite divisive among players. The game, in many regards, is antithetical to the common gaming experience. It’s repetitive, without much direction or conflict or narrative, encumbered by clunky menus and characters who never shut up, and quite frankly, there’s just not that much to do.

And that’s really the beauty of the game. Everything about its design reminds me to just. slow. down. Yes, having to hear Wisp’s entire spiel about his spirit pieces every time he visits your island gets tiresome; yes, having to click through three different menus to tell Tom Nook I want to move a building or Orville I want to use a Nook Miles Ticket gets cumbersome. But what am I in a rush for? While it could be said that the game’s central mechanic is what’s called “grinding” (doing the same task over and over again to collect materials), the game is clearly not designed to be played as obsessively as some gamers might be used to. It’s designed to be played a few hours a day, at most, and is most effective as a tool for decompressing from real-world stressors. The laid-back, carefree serenity of virtual island life is the perfect escape from the regular world, let alone a world stuck at home avoiding an extremely infectious virus, and while there are achievements and milestones to reach in the game, grinding your way to a platinum trophy is not its driving force; it’s a game driven by the simple joy of experience, expression, and creativity, not achievement.

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Orville, dedicated Dodo Airlines employee

Regardless of how much value I personally find in the slowness of the game as an exercise in patience, though, it still boils down to preference and I can’t begrudge anyone that. Where I can, and do, take issue, however, is with many players’ misguided attempts at reading the game through a capitalist lens. It’s become an ongoing internet joke to call Tom Nook a “capitalist” and playfully re-interpret him as a much more nefarious “landlord”. In his own hilarious but extremely informative way, QueerXicanoChisme actually uses this topic as a fun jumping off point for a vital discussion on landlords, mortgages and rent, and rent strikes, and I highly recommend giving it a watch and checking out the many resources he provides. Much like he does in his video, I think it’s a lot more fun (and maybe even constructive) to use the world of Animal Crossing as a way of imagining life outside of capitalism.

Maybe Tom Nook isn’t a capitalist overlord extracting labor from you in order to build his own wealth, at your expense. Maybe, instead, interpret him as a contractor who doesn’t claim ownership of the land, but instead provides the tools and labor of construction that you request, and all he asks in return is a reasonable fee paid back at your convenience. Perhaps the land, which was legitimately deserted and not swept of an indigenous population to make way for this new colony, actually belongs to the people of the island. You, the Resident Representative, are allowed creative control via democratic election by a people who’re genuinely enthused by the leadership you display, and yet their consent still matters when you want to, say, move a building that they occupy. Food is readily available, housing is provided upon arrival to the island without exception, population is capped low to avoid overcrowding, bells are easy to come by, and thus building wealth does not require exploiting others, and everyone chips into the betterment of the land and community, whether it’s watering flowers, sweeping the plaza, donating to the construction of bridges and inclines, or even just gifting each other clothing and furniture.

The infamous loan comes with no exorbitant interest rates or late penalty fees, so it can’t really be compared to real-world predatory loans that make themselves impossible to pay off. Nook never hounds you about it, you never receive nagging Payment Due reminders nor eviction notices in your mailbox. On the contrary, he rewards the many experiences you can enjoy with Nook Miles, a second form of currency earned simply by doing things, which can be turned in for gameplay improvements or island-specific items, or even converted directly into bells. It’s not much, of course, but the principle here is that he makes it as easy as possible to pay off your loans because it’s not about keeping you indebted to him, it’s about encouraging you to enjoy the many experiences available to you in the game.

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A community celebrates continued growth and prosperity

Dug up a fossil? You get a reward for that. Put an item into storage? Reward. Talked to a few neighbors? Reward. Planted a flower? Reward. And it’s not just the positive experiences. Accidentally popped a balloon over water and lost the attached present in the river? Reward. Got stung by wasps twice in a row before you were able to take medicine, causing you to faint? Wake up to a reward! That’s what the game is really about. Enjoying all the little things. And maybe that’s what life outside of capitalism could be, once we’re relieved of the constant pressure to monetize every little thing we enjoy so we can try and make a living. With that gone, all that’s left is a canvas for players to endlessly stretch their creativity and boy, have some players gotten creative!

Even beyond what the game directly rewards you for, there’s so much there to enjoy once you stop projecting your real-world frustrations with capitalism onto a game that doesn’t quite reflect that reality. The calming sound of the ocean waves and the breeze blowing through the trees. The cutesy designs of the villagers and the silly little things they say. Watching Orville read a book while he waits for a traveler to approach. The little flourishes Blathers adds to his spiels about the specimen you’re donating because he’s really passionate about his work (even pushing through a hatred of bugs in order to properly curate and display them). Passing by your neighbors as they sing in the plaza, rest under trees, and work out next to the river, or a bunch of other little activities that infuse your island with life and vibrancy.

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A lovely evening at sea

While it can be fun and even constructive to vent frustrations with capitalism through playful interpretations of a rather harmless game, if that’s how you’re choosing to engage the game, I think it’s even more constructive to use it as a way of imagining better worlds and more equitable systems. Imagination is the game’s driving factor, after all. How you decorate your house, dress your characters, terraform the land, and interpret the economic model of your virtual island paradise is completely up to you, and there’s a lot of fun to be had in that.

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