Updated at 10:30 a.m. ET on April 15, 2020.
Many years ago, when my son was 5, he got upside down on a long-term loan in Animal Crossing, Nintendo’s 2002 video game about running away from home to lead a prosaic life in an adorable animal village. The problem was familiar, although perhaps not to a kindergartner: He had spent his income on the trappings of consumer life—furniture, garments, accessories, even video games. But now he had no room for all that stuff, he explained to me. He also had no cash to pay off the mortgage, which the local real-estate tycoon, a raccoon named Tom Nook, had forced him to take out upon arrival. Until the note was paid, my son reasoned, he wouldn’t be able to take out another loan—to fund a home expansion that would finally make room for all his purchases. “What should I do?” he asked.
For years, I spun this story as an example of games’ special ability to teach complexity. What the hell kind of video game consigns you to a mortgage when you boot it up? But Animal Crossing had taught my young son about the trap of long-term debt before he ever had a bank account.
Animal Crossing is back, and what a time for it to arrive. A new title in the franchise, New Horizons, launched in late March, just as many Americans were settling into quarantine; its players have since found comfort and relief in the game’s cute pastoralism, a reprieve from uncertainty. The title has become so popular, in fact, that Nintendo Switch consoles have become about as hard to find as hand sanitizer. Amid social and economic chaos, with most people holed up inside, the days having melted into a shapeless slurry, Animal Crossing serves up unexpected consolation by offering surrogate habits—a structured, if fictional, alternative to normal life.
Days pass in real time, and the seasons change too, along with the calendar. You can fish and catch bugs, plant trees or chop them down for wood. You can buy clothing, furniture, and other goods, or do 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. 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 shows 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 game, not 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. He’s back home now, because his school closed down, playing the new Animal Crossing with the rest of us. Its lessons don’t seem so useful anymore.
Maybe I had it all wrong all those years ago. 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 for escapism, which any form of entertainment might provide. Neither interpretation seems quite right. Even though it can function as escapism, Animal Crossing isn’t a fantasy-world replacement from real life, absent all its burdens. 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. 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 idea 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. The game, she argued, is a nostalgic fantasy for the Japanese furusato, a pastoral hometown.* Before industrialization, a seaside fishing village or hillside paddy-field farm might have sustained a simple, deliberate life of basic subsistence and straightforward agricultural trade, much like the life the player leads in Animal Crossing.
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. They didn’t have the money! Instead, it would bind the locals to their village—you owed something to the collective, so how could you ever leave? And so the community would persist, a tableau of georgic calm sealed inside the bottle of a company town.
Nintendo is a traditional, Japanese company, so Clark’s interpretation is convincing. 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 picture), a 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 kneading 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.
The furusato fantasy offers one view on the fusion of commerce and the countryside, but it doesn’t really land in the West, especially in America. Here, capitalism and pastoralism 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 and 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 taken 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 1950s-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 moon 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.
This ambivalence extends to labor and commerce on Tom Nook’s island. To make the game’s economy operate, players can sell raw materials and manufactured items for currency (called “bells”), which can be used to buy other goods. Nook’s apprentices, Timmy and Tommy, run a shop that stocks a few things each day, but the two critters will also buy literally anything the player wants to get rid of: Fruit shaken off trees, insects snared from stumps, old cans or tires fished from the deep, lamps or tables fashioned from found wood and ore, garments that no longer spark joy.
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. But Animal Crossing players are mostly foragers, and Tom Nook doesn’t seem that interested in capitalism. You can’t become an investor or much of a financier; a “stalk market” for turnip commodities is mostly a loser’s game best avoided. Nook never seems to benefit from his profits; he seems more like a reforming ecological collectivist, working behind the scenes to maintain the village’s fecund repleteness.
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? That’s fine. Want to travel abroad to mine iron for crafting park benches? They’ll buy those too. 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? That’s fine too; there are no consequences for not earning “bells.” Nobody cares in Animal Crossing. You are okay.
For Americans playing the game as coronavirus lockdowns produce historic spikes in unemployment, the idea that 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. 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 cartoonish shores of a video game. But now they feel like dreams worth dreaming.
Conspicuous consumption still haunts the animal village. 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 drive to acquire virtual space and then fill it with virtual goods comes with a powerful injection of situational absurdity. What’s the rush to make progress in Animal Crossing when there’s nothing else to do, stuck at home as we are for an unknown, possibly interminable duration?
The consumerists will snare themselves in the end, anyway. After personal accomplishments run dry, well-off villagers will have nothing interesting to do with their money except to contribute to public-works projects in the village, like the construction of bridges and ramps that allow players to traverse the island’s rivers and mountains more easily. 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.
That said, the game has added some features that risk undermining Animal Crossing’s careful balance of the market and the countryside. One is crafting, a video-game design 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 nets 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. But though it is a toy world, the island is not a microcosm; its own resources are limited, and the greater the local population (eight human players can “live” on one console), the more competition exists for those resources. Is it better to omit this truth, to pretend that resources are infinite, as many games do, or to force the 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. And yet, Animal Crossing doesn’t decry the practice either. 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 series in this title. Tom Nook gives it to players to store crafting recipes and design custom clothing in virtual apps. There’s also a loyalty-program app, called Nook Miles, which doles out a scrip currency for player accomplishments, such as catching 10 bugs or chatting with three animal neighbors in a day.
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 assigned favors to complete. But now the smartphone serves up infinite ideas: One completed task just spawns another in its place. 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.
And yet, isn’t this exactly the trade-off that real smartphones demand, a constant lifeline to new options, all more or less the same in nature, judged valuable by how many likes or hearts they accrue? 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. Perhaps the problem with real life isn’t the devices, but the hyperemployment that turns every activity conducted upon them into secret labor from the start.
“I hate Animal Crossing,” Lantz’s opening message read.
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. “It is the most boring, long-winded, repetitive, condescending, infantile bullshit we’ve ever seen.” After a few more invectives, he posed a question: “Do people find comfort in tedious, bureaucratic, pandering authoritarianism?”
The answer, which Lantz knew before he asked, is: Of course they do. Americans in particular are addicted to bureaucracy’s directed control even as they cry yawps of independence and self-actualization.
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. Nobody really wants to live a pastoral-capitalist equilibrium of humdrum labor—unless that’s what everyone wants, actually, and not even so secretly. 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. But few make it feel like freedom.
* This article previously misspelled the Japanese word for "pastoral hometown." It is furusato, not furatsu.