Dueling procedural rhetorics collide in Animal Crossing. On the one hand, a rhetoric of affluenza encourages the player toward excess, toward more goods and a larger house in which to store them. In this context, the menial everyday tasks of gardening, fishing, and doing errands for the animals become an occupation, the necessary but undesirable frenzy of work necessary to sustain that lifestyle. On the other hand, a rhetoric of pastoralism encourages the player to tend the land, appreciate the rolling hills and bubbling waterfalls, and to socialize with others before returning to a modest homestead to retire. The game oscillates uncertainly between these two rhetorics, uncomfortably positing one against the other. This discomfort is what I have previously called simulation fever, an internal crisis wrought between the game’s rules and the player’s subjective response to them. Animal Crossing successfully creates identity crises for the player between consumption and introspection.
Animal Crossing’s themes manifest outside the videogame, in its own context as a commercial artifact and franchise. For one part, the game—originally available only for the Nintendo GameCube—includes a tropical island that the player can only reach by plugging in a Nintendo GameBoy Advance, a feat that requires both the handheld console ($79 at its cheapest) and a special GameBoy–GameCube connector cable (another $10 or so). Nintendo also released a set of Animal Crossing trading cards—several hundred in total— sold in packs of ten like baseball or Pokémon cards. The cards can be collected for their own sake, or they can be used to insert the contents they depict on their faces into the game world. However, to do so requires the GameBoy Advance e-Card e-Reader (another $40 purchase). All told, one could spend hundreds of dollars outfitting one’s virtual town, and that’s before buying any of the Animal Crossing licensed products—keychains, resin dolls, plush toys, and so forth.
The e-Reader cards and the GameBoy connection could be seen as Nintendo’s blatant attempt to urge the young player to consume more—and more Nintendo products at that. This is certainly an accurate characterization of Nintendo’s business goals. But the presence of these secondary products further accentuates the tension between consumption and reflection. The cross-platform tie-ins and licensed products create a kind of tendril that applies torsion to the game’s rhetorics. The desire to purchase the GameBoy, the character plush, the e-Cards all test the status of the player’s attitude about consumption, explored in the game itself.
I don’t intend to suggest that all of these commercial goods are mere temptations, such that buying even one means giving in to consumerism. Rather, these products ask the player-consumer to reflect on the relationship between material things and intangible sensations. The GameBoy provides access to Animal Island, on which the player can meet a new character and collect coconuts to plant on the beach back home. Likewise, many of the e-Cards allow the player to introduce new characters into the simulation. Is socialization a valid rationale for acquiring material goods? Are the NPC animals part of a collection, a perverse personal zoo, or do they have personalities the player can admire and even care about? Sometimes animals move away from the town, events that have caused a real sense of loss in my family’s village. Despite its apparently transparent role as a manipulative commercial exploitation of the young children who are its primary audience, these real-world extensions of Animal Crossing allow players to export their in-game commercial attitudes and experiment with them. Animal Crossing can be seen as a critique of contemporary consumer culture that attempts to persuade the player to understand both the intoxication of material acquisition and the subtle pleasures of abstention.