Animal Crossing's Strange, Unresolved ConflictBy Ian Bogost
While some are learning about the peculiar pleasure of Animal Crossing thanks to the series’ latest release on Nintendo 3DS, the game has long charmed and puzzled players and critics. In this excerpt from his 2007 book Persuasive Games, Ian Bogost discusses the game’s first edition (released for the GameCube in 2002) in relation to his theory of “procedural rhetoric,” the act of expressing ideas through rules. While some details have changed over the years, Animal Crossing’s overall themes remain constant: the strange, unresolved conflict between consumption and naturalism.
The Nintendo GameCube videogame Animal Crossing is an “animal village simulator.” Players move into a town filled with cartoonish animal characters and buy a house, then work, trade, and personalize their microenvionment. The game offers a series of innocuous, even mundane activities like bug catching, gardening, and wallpaper designing; like The Sims, Animal Crossing’s primary metaphors are social interaction and household customization.
Although the GameCube supports simultaneous play with up to four players, Animal Crossing only allows one player at a time. The game can store up to four player profiles in one shared town, and human players can interact with friends or family members who play the game, but only indirectly, by leaving notes or gifts, completing tasks, or even planting flowers or trees. Furthermore, Animal Crossing binds the game world to the real world, synchronizing its date and time to the console clock. Time passes in real time in Animal Crossing—it gets dark at night, snows in the winter, and the animals go trick-or-treating on Halloween. Since game time is linked to real time, a player can conceptualize the game as a part of his daily life rather than a split out of it.
This binding of the real world to the game world creates opportunities for families or friends to collaborate in a way that might be impossible in a simultaneous multiplayer game. Since the whole family shares a single GameCube, the game’s persistent state facilitates natural collaboration between family members with different schedules. For example, a child might find a fossil during the afternoon, then mail it to her father’s character in the game. At bedtime, she could let Dad know that she needs to have it analyzed at the central museum so she can take it to the local gallery the next day. As critics Kurt Squire and Henry Jenkins wrote of the game, “Families (of all types) live increasingly disjointed lives, but the whole family can play Animal Crossing even if they can rarely all sit down to dinner together.”
One of the most challenging projects in the game is paying off the mortgage on one’s house. Animal Crossing allows players to upgrade their homes, but doing so requires paying off a large note the player must take out to start the game in the first place. Then the player must pay renovation mortgages for even larger sums. While the game mercifully omits some of the more punitive intricacies of long-term debt, such as compounding interest, improving one’s home does require consistent work in the game world. Catching fish, hunting for fossils, finding insects, and doing jobs for other townsfolk all produce income that can be used to pay off mortgage debt—or to buy carpets, furniture, and objects to decorate one’s house.
Animal Crossing deploys a procedural rhetoric about the repetition of mundane work as a consequence of contemporary material property ideals. When my (then) five-year-old began playing the game seriously, he quickly recognized the dilemma he faced. On the one hand, he wanted to spend the money he had earned from collecting fruit and bugs on new furniture, carpets, and shirts. On the other hand, he wanted to pay off his house so he could get a bigger one like mine. Then, once he did amass enough savings to pay off his mortgage, the local shopkeeper and real estate tycoon Tom Nook offered to expand his house. While it is possible to refrain from upgrading, Nook, an unassuming raccoon, continues to offer renovations as frequently as the player visits his store. My son began to realize the trap he was in: the more material possessions he took on, the more space he needed, and the more debt he had to take on to provide that space. And the additional space just fueled more material acquisitions, continuing the cycle.
In the 1970s, psychologists gave the name affluenza to the spiritual emptiness and guilt that accompanies wealth. John de Graaf and others have recently expanded the concept to cover the feverish drive to acquire more and more debt and material property on the part of all social classes. Shopping as cultural practice, rising debt, and bankruptcies are among the most prominent signs of the condition. Learning how to smartly amass and expend capital is a type of literacy that haunts many adults—frequently we are told we should spend less and save more.
Animal Crossing isn’t the only game that successfully simulates the condition of affluenza. The Sims has been criticized for purportedly modeling consumption as a solution to loneliness and unhappiness. In discussions of that game, chief designer Will Wright has argued that the game’s rules are optimally balanced via equal pursuit of material and social capital, a part of the game’s caricature of American ideals. Sims respond more positively to player characters with more material property; they like friends with big houses and hot tubs.
But Animal Crossing’s NPCs are much less sophisticated. The cute animals who occupy the village sternly berate the player if they have not seen him in town for a while, but they seem to have no concern for the quantity or type of material properties that the players possess. Occasionally animals will express desire for a shirt or furniture item the player carries with him around the village, and they will offer to trade for it. But this type of transaction is both rare and charming; the animals frame their requests in terms of inveterate longing—“I’ve always wanted a Modern Lamp!”—quite different from the affluenza-burdened mallgoer’s “one overriding interest, to spend money.”
Animal Crossing simulates the social dynamics of a small town but sidesteps the material obsession of keeping up with the Joneses. As such, the game serves as a sandbox for experimenting with the ways one can recombine personal wealth that is much more abstract than the economics of The Sims. While the player diligently works to pay off that new upstairs addition, the NPC animals retain their small shacks perpetually. They never cycle their belongings, seemingly unconcerned that their homes are filled only with fish, or rocks, or fruit furniture. One could argue that this asceticism is accidental, the default effect of Nintendo’s disinterest in building a more sophisticated artificial intelligence system for redecoration. But procedural abstraction is also relevant to a videogame’s overall design. Animal Crossing’s animals enjoy walks outdoors. They snooze on their porches at twilight. They stop to watch the player fish. They meander aimlessly and take great care to partake in the community events that transpire on holidays. They are not consumers but naturalists, more Henry David Thoreau than Paris Hilton.
These monastic animals oppose Tom Nook, the town shopkeeper. After a player makes a major payment to his mortgage, Tom Nook closes his shop and upgrades it; the game starts with Nook’s Cranny, a wooden shack general store, and ends with Nookington’s, a two-story department store. Each upgrade allows Tom Nook to sell more goods. None of the townsfolk ever appear in Tom Nook’s shop, although they occasionally refer to it slightly disdainfully; the animals seem to have little drive to consume. In contrast, the player participates in a full consumer regimen; he pays off debt, buys goods, and sells goods. Tom Nook buys goods, which he converts to wealth. As the player pays off debt and upgrades his home to store more goods, he sees Tom Nook convert that wealth into increased commercial leverage. This simple causal link between debt and banking concretizes a dynamic that most mortgage holders fail to recognize: one’s own debt makes someone else very wealthy. Animal Crossing proceduralizes this relationship in a simple yet effective way: lowering one’s own debt increases Tom Nook’s wealth. Tom Nook then leverages that wealth to draw more capital out of the player, whose resources remain effectively constant. While the player spends more, Nook makes more. By condensing all of the environment’s financial transactions into one flow between the player and Tom Nook, the game proceduralizes the redistribution of wealth in a manner even young children can understand. Tom Nook is a kind of condensation of the corporate bourgeoisie.
Other dynamics further develop Animal Crossing’s ambiguous relationship with consumption. Each town comes with a police station that serves as a lost-and-found, and a dump. Occasionally items find their way to both these venues, and the player can take any of them he wants. The player may also drop off items he no longer wants in the dump, and they’ll disappear the next day. The dump and the lost-and-found complement Tom Nook’s store and the player’s debt. Instead of amassing material property, they offer the opportunity to refuse to acquire goods even when those goods are free. The lost-and-found further emphasizes our tendency to acquire even goods we don’t need; the officer stationed inside always asks “That’s yours, right? You can take it…” Of course, none of the items in lost-and-found really belong to the player (even items left randomly throughout the town seem to remain eternally in place without incident). Thus, taking an item from the lost-and-found always foregrounds the player’s questionable need for it. The dump takes this value further. Players can sell just about anything to Tom Nook, but the dump allows the player to rid himself of goods without monetary gain. Even if players rarely use the dump, its presence provides an important balance in the game’s consumer ecology, allowing goods to be divested of value completely.
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.
Animal Crossing’s focus on naturalism continues in its procedural representation of the town’s outdoor environment. The village is lined with trees, cliffs, rivers, waterfalls, flowerbeds, and a sandy beach. Thanks to the real-time synchronization between the game and the console clock, golden hour rises in the early evening, darkness falls at night, leaves blush and fall in autumn, and snow covers the ground in winter. The simulation of seasonal cycles creates a persistent, living world that is always in flux. On some spring days it rains and the animals don umbrellas. The townsfolk sleep at night, and the crickets chirp. The fish and insects that live in the rivers and under the rocks also change seasonally. Life is scarce in wintertime, plentiful in spring, and certain animals can only be found during two-week periods throughout the year. The living outdoor world opposes the dead indoors, where purchased products sit idle and unchanging.
As with a Japanese garden, the player has the ability to make thoughtful alterations to the landscape. He can plant trees and flowers, or cut down trees to create open spaces. Weeds appear in inverse proportion to the frequency of play; a player returning to his town after weeks or months away will spend many days gardening the town to its previous sanctity. Just as the HRA codified consumerism, Animal Crossing’s eco-pastoralist rules are codified in the game’s wishing well. Each town has an outdoor clearing with a bubbling fountain. The player can ask the wishing well about the state of the town, and it will reply with cryptic clues about the landscape—too many trees in a particular acre, not enough greenery in another, too many weeds, and so forth. Players can then perform appropriate gardening to return the village to balance. HRA provides immediate feedback, a new letter arriving each day. But the wishing well’s opinion changes much more slowly, taking weeks to alter its overall opinion of the town. After two weeks of “perfect” conditions according to the wishing well, the player is rewarded with a golden axe, an appropriate symbol of refinement through elimination rather than acquisition.
Both the HRA and the wishing well sometimes offer inscrutable advice, but each enforces a different logic of bewilderment. The HRA sends letters, suggesting human judgment by an unseen body of rational actors. Their absence speaks to the inaccessibility of the fashion calculus, and the player must measure his taste against the imposed and seemingly changing whims of fashionistas. The HRA’s letter is the Animal Crossing equivalent of Cosmopolitan or Dwell magazine, which do less to document than to create trends in fashion and interior design by delivering advertising. The wishing well’s messages arrive immediately, but their source is also concealed from the player. If the HRA represents consumer trends, the wishing well depicts spirituality. The player measures his town’s livability against a semi-transcendental other-worldliness, accessed through the mystery of the well. Ideally, the wishing well invites the player to consider the town’s outdoor environment as a communal place that affects everyone in the town, both other human player characters and the NPC animals.
The tension between wealth and community develops further in the town museum. The museum accepts donations of fish, insects, fossils, and paintings for each of its galleries. All of these items must be found or hunted by the player. To complete each exhibit, the players in the town must collaborate to donate all the items; each item can be donated only once, and a record of its donor is inscribed on a plaque near the item, just as one might find in a real museum.
Donating to the museum imposes a difficult decision on the player. Some fish, insects, and paintings are very valuable, yielding enormous profit when sold to Tom Nook. But once sold, the items disappear into Nook’s unseen market; fish, insects, and fossils can never be bought at the town store. The museum forces the player to balance personal material gain against communal gain. Although the NPC animals never appear inside the museum, the fact that game time continues when the console is switched off implies that activity continues. The animals might enjoy browsing the museum when the player logs out. This dynamic is especially useful for children, whose rich imaginations are much more capable of filling in the game’s gaps. Even if the player chooses to sell his first arapaima or giant stag beetle with the intention of donating the next one, favoring material wealth over communal benefit may cast a guilty shadow over his future fishing and insect-hunting expeditions.
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.
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