Animal Crossing is Exactly What We Need Right Now
I recently came across Lewis Gordon’s piece in The Nation titled “Animal Crossing’s Embrace of Cute, Capitalist Perfection is Not What We Need.” In it, Gordon derides Animal Crossing: New Horizons as a hollow, uncritical work simulator — akin to “clicker” games where empty progress is made by, as the name implies, repeatedly clicking one’s mouse without any other opportunity for meaningful input. At best, the game is “welcomingly pointless.” At worst, it is monotony incarnate, with “stultifying” islands as the only near-tangible reward for the player’s labor.
My PhD dissertation looks at the ways that video games, like Animal Crossing, can increase political participation and civic attitudes. Any serious take that emphasizes the work being done in the game without understanding its purpose is missing the point. Animal Crossing is not a shallow work simulator. It’s about community building — both literally and figuratively.
All Work and No (Meaningful) Play
At the crux of Gordon’s critique of the game is the fact that everything, “even the most banal [task],” is oriented towards goals with no real meaning other than providing “an endorphin kick.” In his own words:
My avatar has a cell phone that comes with an app called Nook Miles, which tracks and records all my actions; for every fish I catch or weed I pull, I’m rewarded with points accompanied by a bright melody and sharp endorphin kick. The game also features a crafting system where players can transform harvested materials into new objects: Chopping down trees produces wood, while hacking at geologic formations results in rock and pieces of ore, each of which can be used to create tools, furniture, and buildings. But shovels, axes, and other implements are designed to break regularly, necessitating regular resource gathering and sustaining a near-endless loop of crafting. Meanwhile, when a task is completed to earn Nook Miles, a new objective simply appears in its place — another continuous cycle. As the days unfold, everything on the island, myself included, begins to feel like a stockpile of standing-reserve waiting to be transformed into capital or tokens.
Gordon’s not the only one to notice that “real” work (or at least real effort) is being exerted to maintain our virtual islands. If I had a bell for every meme or joke about how people happily do the same chores in-game that they loathe to do in reality, I’d never have to worry about my debt to Tom Nook. (I’ll get around to paying off my mortgage eventually…). And there is definitely something to be said about the ways that video games tap-into the reward circuitry in our brains — especially when we’re talking about elements that are a bit too close to gambling for comfort. But literally any video game can be reduced down to a bare-bones system of inputs, feedback that triggers neurological/physiological responses, followed-by more inputs; that loop is at the heart of most theories of what it means for games to be engaging. But when we’re trying to determine what kind of meaning emerges from these loops (or when we’re trying to argue that they are fundamentally meaningless), we have to understand them in context.
The Importance of Context
Gordon’s articulation of the day-to-day life in Animal Crossing totally sterilizes the actions of both their mechanical and narrative meanings. And the way that the games presents what we’re fundamentally doing matters a great deal for what we take away from the games — and how they affect us in reality.
I know that I’m stepping into some controversial ground here — but let’s talk about the effects of violent video games on real-world violence. The latest meta-analyses (scientific studies that aggregate and review lots of other studies) suggest that there is a statistically significant link between playing violent games and violent/anti-social attitudes as well as violent/anti-social behaviors. These effects are very small but they are there — contingent and conditional upon a host of different factors.
(Before you gear-up to send virulent hate-mail, remember I’m a guy who argues that games on balance are good for political participation and civic attitudes. There’s a “but” coming).
But that “contingent and conditional upon a host of different factors” is carrying a lot of weight. If the acts of violence are framed in a pro-social light — you are saving the world from a dastardly villain and their amoral accomplices — or you are doing so in the company of friends — those who play slayer together stay together — the relationship is statistically significant but reversed. In these contexts, with these narrative frames and contextual circumstances, games actually increase pro-social attitudes and behaviors. How the actions we perform are characterized — the visible purposes they serve — matter deeply in how we’re affected by the experience.
The Meaning in Animal Crossing’s Work
When Gordon cleaves away the context from the mechanics, he’s removing a huge part of the game’s overall meaning. When we put the context back in, we can see that these actions are intended to serve a purpose: And that purpose is serving the community you help build on your island. After all, your character is deigned the “resident representative” early on — and you’re exemplifying that role in the game’s first few moments. After you put down the tent that will eventually become your in-game home, you’re asked to help the other two characters you travel with theirs. These early interactions sets-up the entire premise of the game: Using your personal investment as a means of encouraging you to be invested in your community.
When you go to Tom Nook to talk about expanding your house (and taking out hundreds of thousands of Bells in debt), he often provides you with tasks that are intended to better the community. You gather materials to build a bridge to help others cross your island’s river, to help Timmy and Tommy get their business off the ground, and to help new residents feel at home. When he presents something as benefiting you, it’s usually a means of teaching you something that will often be used for the sake of the entire island. Even the breakdown of tools serves a purpose: It keeps people playing, yes — but it also encourages them to learn and construct new DIY projects to further both their personal and social investment in the space.
Much of the same can be said about all of the activities Gordon derides. The weeds that you pull? You’re told that it’s to help maintain and beautify the island. The fish and bugs you catch? You’re encouraged to donate them to the island’s museum to help it thrive, culturally. The points you earn? They’re to help you earn tickets to visit other deserted islands — which lets you meet new characters to invite to your island and gain materials to further furnish it. And a regular visitor on the “continuous cycle” of objectives in the Nook Miles app is an objective to simply talk to your neighbors. Many of who, as Vice’s Gita Jackson describes, “tell you what makes your island special is your presence, your outreach to [them], your kindness. [Animal Crossing is] as much about community organizing as it is about claiming new lands.”
The Digital Meets the Physical
And that community extends beyond the in-game characters: Animal Crossing is an incredibly social game. Your friends and family can visit your island and you can visit theirs. While you’re there, you can leave comments on their island’s bulletin board, leave gifts in their mail, and just simply exist together. In a time where the majority of Americans do not feel comfortable visiting their friends and family face-to-face thanks to a raging pandemic, it offers a chance to feel connected. Even celebrities and politicians are getting in on this part of the game. Danny Trejo recently asked fans for their “Dodo Codes.” T-Pain invited fans onto his wife’s island to shower her with gifts. AOC is using the game for constituent outreach, even giving a commencement address in an in-game graduation.
Even the “free advertising” on social media that Gordon points to serves a purpose. Social media platforms like Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook serve as nexus points for quasi-IRL communities. They’re places where people can make new connections based upon a shared interest in the game and feel like they’re part of a broader group. Social scientists refer to this as “bridging social capital” — and my research shows that the this kind of activity can actually make people more likely to be engaged in their real-world communities as well. People who played games with friends and strangers online more frequently were more likely to engage in a host of civic activities compared to non-gamers, including engaging in a boycott, writing to a representative, donating time and money to charity, and engaging in a protest. (Coincidentally, Animal Crossing’s servers are actually limited in China because players were using the game as a means of protesting the state’s actions towards Hong Kong).
To be sure, the Animal Crossing isn’t perfect on this front. While it provides ample opportunity to connect with others outside your home, it does a pretty bad job at helping deepen relationships within your home. The couch co-op is patently awful; each console is afforded only one island and only the primary player is empowered to actually make any progress in the game. In my house, my wife is our island’s resident representative — so I didn’t get the chance to help build Nook’s Cranny or the homes of our island’s new residents (even those I had invited myself!). As a middle child, I know what it’s like to play as “player two” — but those woes are even more acute in this game. It’s a known point of contention with New Horizons. I personally hope that a future update makes it better for this purpose — but the game’s flaws do not remove its many, many virtues.
Animal Crossing is About Working for the Sake of Others
Is Animal Crossing a perfect game? No. No game is perfect. But it is a stunningly well-suited game for the moment we find ourselves in. Even before COVID-19, our society was wrestling with what it meant to belong to a larger community in a time where capitalism makes us feel both isolated and irrevocably interconnected. It’s why The Good Place kept referencing back to T.M. Scanlon’s On What We Owe to Each Other throughout the show— there’s a palpable hunger for experiences that help us feel like we belong, that our participation and efforts have a meaning that extends beyond ourselves. Gordon may not see anything but monotony and work in Animal Crossings: New Horizons, but it’s important to realize the purpose behind this work. The labor isn’t just about you; it’s intended to be works of service for both you and your community — digital and real. And if there ever was a time for a game like that, it’s now.