Incentive to dispose of material goods is provided by one of the game’s most curious features, the Happy Room Academy (HRA). Each day, players receive a letter from the HRA with a numeric rating of their home and a brief, often inscrutable message. The logic of the HRA is based on a complex interior design simulation that is never disclosed in the game or its manual (although players can consult online fan sites to decode its logic). The HRA awards more points for easily testable goals, such as matching furniture in the same series and matching wallpaper to carpet within a single room. But it also ranks them based on position, where the player acquired them, and other intangibles like having started a savings account at the bank. The player can ignore the HRA points, but the daily letter encourages eventual participation.
While much of the HRA’s logic is based on consumerist goals such as the Pokémon-style “collect ’em all” logic of matching furniture, the rating system’s necessary failure to consider the player’s personal preferences quickly offends. The HRA applies a single lifestyle calculus to everyone’s home, assuming certain necessities and certain aesthetics. The HRA’s rating proceduralizes fashion, especially the desire to have the “right” things from the “right” label or catalog. Players often attempt to appease the unseen HRA jury, only to become disenchanted with its elusive endorsement. At times, the HRA’s letter asks the player what’s the point of having all that space if you’re not going to use it?, even when both floors of his home are so cluttered as to prevent walking around. As a simulation of trendiness, the HRA first encourages the player to covet what he does not have, then incites bitterness over the slippery nature of trends. Keeping up with the Joneses is an eternal, unending process.
If the player chooses to reject the influence of the HRA, a related dynamic also urges him to question the collection and retention of goods in general. The second home renovation the player can acquire is a basement—perfect to store all those shirts, carpets, and furniture not currently in use. Tom Nook makes clear that the HRA does not account for the basement in its ratings, so the player should feel free to store unused items there. Unsurprisingly, the addition of storage space encourages its suffusion with possessions. Just as that empty garage or storage closet invites new commercial acquisitions, so does the Animal Crossing basement. However, the game’s rules bind this storage space to HRA ratings. Dr. Richard Swenson has given the name “possession overload” to the stress caused by simply having too much stuff around, a stress he argues does as much physiological damage as any other anxiety. When the player becomes dissatisfied or overburdened with the HRA’s empty pursuit of fashion, he may also reject the storage of unused possessions, by relinquishing them to the dump, selling them, or giving them away.
Even as the HRA and the basement encourage acquisition, the simplicity of rearrangement in the videogame environment breeds increased deliberation about the player’s need for his virtual possessions. To move an item in Animal Crossing, the player can simply stand next to it and press a button on the controller. The item, no matter its size or heft, collapses into a leaf, which the player character carries easily. What may seem like a simple trick to avert the design problem of representing hundreds of different items on-screen offers a convenient shorthand for possible objections to blind consumption. The cliché of the suburban wife staring at the living room with an eye toward rearrangement rarely conjures visions of disposal; furniture may be moved, accessorized, or traded for newer, more fashionable models, but rarely would they be removed entirely. The conversion of furniture into leaves suggests the former’s evanescence—like a leaf, it can blow away in the wind, it can wash away in the river, it can rot and disappear into the ground. Indeed, this is precisely how the player rids himself of unwanted material goods, by dropping the leaves that represent them into the soft soil of the town dump, where they soon vanish. Animal Crossing’s consumerist rhetoric slowly unravels itself, moving from crowded repletion to reasoned minimalism. We can think of Animal Crossing’s houses as simulations of Japanese gardens more than American homes—they are perfect when nothing more can be taken out.