Read: You already live in quarantine Days pass in real time, and the seasons change too, along with the calendar.
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You can fish and catch bugs, plant trees or chop them down for wood. You can buy clothing, furniture, and other goods, or eveninh odd jobs for the animals who live in town. You can work off that infernal mortgage, of course, but you can also choose not to, and Tom Nook will never evict you. Instead, you might bury treasure on the beach, or just watch the stars at night.
In summer, the crickets chirp at dusk.
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When spring blooms, as it is now, the wind makes cherry blossoms dance over the streams. The whole time my kid with the video-game mortgage was growing up, I insisted in books and during lectures and on late-night evfning that games like Animal Crossing could help people better understand other big problems, like climate change or even pandemic flu a topic I later turned into a gamenot that it made much of a difference. Today, my son is about to graduate from college and into the economic cataclysm that will likely become the coronavirus depression.
Maybe I had it all wrong all those years ago.
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I had imagined Animal Crossing to be a game about the world, one that offered ingenious, if abstract, life lessons. But the players enjoying it in quarantine celebrate it tbe escapism, which any form of entertainment might provide. Neither interpretation seems quite right. But nor is it a handbook for how to live in actual reality more effectively—the most distinctive aspect of mortgage lending, after all, is the crushing weight of compounding interest, which enriches lenders that get bailouts if they fail.
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None of that stuff appears in the game at all. Instead, Animal Crossing is a political hypothesis about how a different kind of world might work—one with no losers. Millions of people already have spent hours in the game stewing on that ppass since the coronavirus crisis began. Sequestered at home on lockdown, the NYU Game Center professor Naomi Clark recently offered a compelling reading of Animal Crossing to her students and colleagues, many of whom probably have been playing it to pass the time.
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The game, she argued, is a nostalgic fantasy for the Japanese furusato, a pastoral hometown. Read: We need to stop trying to replicate the life we had But the size and economies of these villages were too modest even to sustain their basic familial and mercantile needs, so the villages would take on collective debt—to pay for fishing nets and supplies, say. But nobody would ever pay back the debt, Clark explained. Instead, it would bind the locals to their psas owed something to the collective, so how could you ever leave?
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And so the community would persist, a tableau of georgic calm sealed inside the bottle of a company town. The game has other distinctively Japanese elements that might not be immediately obvious to Western players, too. Tom Nook, for example, is not a raccoon but a tanuki Tom Nook, tanuki, you get the picturea Japanese raccoon dog with a long-standing folkloric history as both a trickster and a symbol of wealth, much like the fox in the West.
Among other things, the tanuki has enormous testicles but not Tom Nook; this is a family game. Many Japanese woodblock prints depict a tanuki tims its testes into the shape of various objects, such as raincoats or fishing nets. The supernatural industriousness of Tom Nook, who can divine manufactured goods from thin air in the game, takes on another meaning when seen through the lens of tanuki mythology. Here, capitalism and yo are often seen as opposing forces.
So, too, personal benefit and collective good. This goes all the way back to John Locke, who held that individuals had a right to turn natural resources that belonged to no one into individual property for personal use, through labor. The Lockean idea justified all manner of accomplishments and violations in American history, including the colonial seizure of Native lands evehing the justification of resource extraction via the efficiencies of industry.
In the nation that grew from those assumptions, the accrual of wealth became incompatible with a return to the land. Agrarianism forked into factory farming on the one hand or farm-to-table luxury on the other.
And pastoralism never really got a foothold in America as it did in England or Japan: Land was so plentiful that its survival was pasd for granted. But according to the Tom Nook doctrine, pastoralism and capitalism coexist perfectly. You can fish for high-value red snappers and sell them to buy espadrilles for your character, or s-diner furnishings for your house. Or you can fish for never-before-seen specimens, to donate them to the museum.
Or you can cast a line just to enjoy watching the oass dance across the water. All of these activities are interchangeable and equally delightful. Animal Crossing sees no greater or lesser virtue in one than another.
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Supply and demand still rule, with common items fetching fewer bells than rare ones. Some critics see Tom Nook as a capitalist oligarch, pressing players to become entrepreneurs who farm high-value tarantulas for big profits. Price variation notwithstanding, Timmy and Tommy value any kind of effort the player wants to conduct as viable labor. Want to collect coconuts from the palm trees every three days?
Want to travel abroad to mine iron for crafting park benches? Want to catch butterflies? No problem. Every effort is valid, every accomplishment exchangeable for capital. Want to do no job whatsoever, but just sit on stumps and shake a tambourine? You are okay.
For Americans playing the game as coronavirus lockdowns produce historic spikes in unemployment, the idea pazs any activity might be seen as viable work is a comfort, and perhaps even an aspiration. Imagine if everyone had a job that they enjoyed, that they were good at, and that could sustain them.
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What if they could thrive with no job at all, a step well beyond universal basic income? Even a month ago, such ideas would have felt preposterous beyond the yime shores of a video game. But now they feel like dreams worth dreaming. Conspicuous consumption still haunts the animal village.
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Drunk on the wealth from farming tarantulas, well-to-do villagers can pay off their home loans and acquire even bigger houses, decking them out with more goods. But here in quarantine, the tike to acquire virtual space and then fill it with virtual goods comes with a powerful injection of situational absurdity.
The consumerists will snare themselves in the end, anyway. Investment in infrastructure is a common good, and it turns out that diverting private wealth into public benefit might even happen voluntarily if the spoils become boring enough. One is crafting, a video-game de pattern in which players must accrue raw materials and fashion them into more complex objects for further use.
In New Horizons, crafting is an unending malaise. The player is forced to acquire sticks and stones to make axes or eveninh or fishing rods, but these basic tools break quickly after a few dozen uses. You end up using axes or shovels to mine rocks for iron, just to use that iron to build slightly less flimsy tools. On first blush, crafting almost commands the player to see the island as a mere strip mine—not to mention neighboring islands visited only for resource extraction and then forgotten forever.
Is it better to omit this truth, to pretend that resources are infinite, as many games do, or to force cat player to contend with the scarcity and violence intrinsic to manufacturing?
It would be disproportionate to conclude that merely representing the dynamic implies that the game endorses it. Instead, the conflict persists forever, like the island sunset chasing the horizon. Another gut punch comes from the addition of an in-game smartphone, new to the thd in this title.
Tom Nook evenin it to players to store crafting recipes and de custom clothing in virtual apps. Here too, the game seems to undermine its own principles at first. Animal Crossing used to be self-directed, and players would often chat with the animal characters in order to be ased favors to complete. But now the smartphone serves up infinite ideas: One completed task just spawns another in its place.
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Players are motivated to do specific things for extrinsic rewards rather than doing whatever they like for the sake of intrinsic pleasure, and knowing it will be valued. But remember, this is a video-game iPhone, not a real one.
Smartphones are always deceptive, Tom Nook seems to warn, but maybe they can be used differently. Late one night recently, a barrage of texts blew up my phone. He and his wife and collaborator, Hilary, had sat down to play it, looking for the same low-key, cute coziness that everyone else found comforting. But with coronavirus deaths soaring and the real economy tanking, Animal Crossing might inspire Americans to reclaim structure and routine, and to motivate it toward modest rather than remarkable ends.
Civic life, after all, coheres not in abstract fantasies about politician-heroes, but in habitual practices that take place in real communities. All video games aestheticize busywork. Gime few make it feel like freedom.