[Nintendad Coffeehouse] Contentment with Capitalism in Animal Crossing

Written by Anna Karasik

Making the big Bells

You wake up in your modest home, and set out to make your rounds in town: watering plants, greeting neighbors, and checking out local businesses to see what’s in stock. Along the way, you hunt down a few bugs and fish to sell at the market – the funds for which you are excited to take to a certain shopkeeper: he’s the raccoon who expanded your house, and will do it again when you finish paying back your loan. 

It all sounds innocent enough – and simple, too, when you boil it down. The recipe for Animal Crossing is one that yields plenty of relaxation for players patient enough to spend their time in this real-time world. But most fans jokingly – and accurately – acknowledge that the driving force of the games is your constant, crushing debt to Tom Nook. His grip over your financial freedom entices a daily grind for Bells. 

Now, Tom isn’t a bad guy, but he is “The Man.” Shoveling Bells at him is the crux of the game. Money-making as a main activity isn’t uncommon in simulation games, and by its nature, it’s innocent enough. However, the way it’s implemented in Animal Crossing can be specifically tied back to the tenets of Capitalism – and that contributes to why so many of us are content to spend months on end repeating tedious tasks to earn our keep.

Hoarding the wealth

Let’s begin with the most obvious examples. When Joan rolls into town on Sundays selling Turnips, you aren’t buying them for your health – you’re going to hoard them all and speculate the best time to sell on the Stalk Market. This kind of behavior is textbook Capitalism: hoarding supplies to sell them for a profit. It’s arguably the least “fun” way to gain Bells in these games.

Slightly more thrilling is the hunt for wildlife and fossils. As you frolic through a peaceful forest, you can gather creatures at your leisure and sell them for Bells. While fishing may be relaxing in its simplicity, one might also argue that it’s tedious work that yields little profit. So it goes, though, in a Capitalist’s world: low work earns low wages, but one can theoretically build themselves up to prosperity as an individual if they put their money and effort in the right places. 

When you make a good chunk of change, you’re sure to either spend it on your mortgage loan, items, or save it in the ABD. Have you ever questioned why there is a savings account in a game where you don’t run the risk of dying, or otherwise losing your Bells? The clear perk is that the player can gain interest over time, turning a large amount of Bells into a disgusting amount, especially if the player takes an extended hiatus from their town – as many are wont to do. Hoarding wealth in order to gain wealth might seem selfish, especially when it could be spent on Public Works projects that benefit everyone – but what more can be expected of players in a society that rewards such behavior?

Speaking of Public Works projects, although they’re a communal effort on paper, we all know that in practice, these “publicly-funded” bridges, benches, and what-have-yous are actually solely funded by you, the player. Day after day, you toss a couple of Bells at the project until it’s finally finished – and it ultimately belongs to you, not the town. Although these beautification projects don’t turn a profit, the fact that they’re all owned by one private citizen is another testament to Animal Crossing’s Capitalist model. 

The one who holds the pursestrings 

It’s time to address the raccoon in the room.

From the very first game, the main “goal” is presented as paying off your ever-increasing mortgage loans to Tom Nook. Each completed payment is met with fanfare, and when it’s all said and done, you’re rewarded with a fully paid-off mansion. It’s easy to point to this and say, “see, that’s what makes Nook a Capitalist!” If you take a step back, though, you’ll see that the wallet runs much deeper.

Sure, Nook is a home improver. He – or his little twin employees, depending on the game – also run the general store. There is no other place to buy essential tools, not to mention a full catalog of furniture; it also serves as the only pharmacy, so if your neighbor is running a fever – better pay up! No matter where you earned your Bells, you’ll ultimately be spending them with him in some manner if you want to get by (or apparently survive) in this town. 

Is there change on the Horizon?

The latest addition to the Animal Crossing family invites players to create their own deserted island paradise, customizable to the last square foot. This unprecedented amount of creative license doesn’t take away from the fact that one Mr. Tom Nook sells the player this getaway package, and once you’ve settled into your tent, you can upgrade it into a house with the help of… guess who? That’s right, folks. Even in the middle of the ocean, you can’t escape his golden paw. 

Crafting items takes a lot of Nook’s power away, though, as for the first time ever, he isn’t the sole source of essentials like tools or medicine anymore. (Although, he is the one who owns the main workbench that you need to use for DIY…) He makes up for this power deficit in New Horizons by giving out “Nook Miles” – a currency that Tom Nook controls, which you can only spend with him. A competing currency doesn’t water down this Capitalist system, but rather enrich it.

A notable Nook Miles-exclusive items is the Nook Miles Ticket, which grants entry to random deserted islands. There, the player finds abundant resources, new flowers and fruits, and even new villagers. This serves as a huge incentive to slave away at menial tasks, fill your pockets with items, and eventually turn it all around for a profit in Bells. It’s a vicious – but lucrative – cycle.

The Animal Crossing dream

A Capitalist society allows individuals to generate their own prosperity, be it by hard work or by cleverly buying and selling; in the real world, this plays out in a dog-eat-dog world, where the lower class is often left in the dust, and big-wigs garner monopolies on essential products and services. It’s hard to be content in a world like this, where there’s always the possibility of more just out of reach. 

In Animal Crossing, though, there is no competition, and the world yields infinite wealth. That’s what makes these games so relaxing: as we’re living this real-time second life, working every which way to chip away at a loan – we stand absolutely no risk of financial ruin. There aren’t bills, taxes, or deadlines. You can’t be fired or evicted. No “Game Over” to speak of. Even if you spend every last Bell, the only possible direction to go in these games is up – whether it’s at a blistering sprint, or a meandering pace. There’s always a veritable mansion waiting for you at the end of the line. When they call Animal Crossing an “escape” – this is what they mean. 

If you enjoyed this Coffeehouse feature, consider checking out Mel Curtis’ Nintendad Coffeehouse piece: “I was once a Time Traveler”

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