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What Exactly is 'Animal Crossing: New Horizons' and Why is it the Perfect Game for Neoliberalism-Scarred Millennials

By Petr Knava | Miscellaneous | March 25, 2020 |

By Petr Knava | Miscellaneous | March 25, 2020 |


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Endless wars of imperial aggression perpetrated in our name. A grotesquely financialised economy making it clear that the needs of humanity will always be subordinated to the needs of capital. The imposition of a precarious, gig economy, zero-hour contracts job market. The hollowing out of the welfare state and dismantling of the social safety net. Home ownership a distant, mad fever dream. A globalised capitalist chain of consequence in which it is nigh-on impossible to live free of cruelty as our comforts and amenities are built on top of an unimaginably dire mass of misery inflicted largely upon the Global South. Climate change transforming from suppressed ‘fringe’ issue to an imminent existential crisis threatening our continued existence on this planet, an impenetrable shadow cast over ours and our children’s lives. The complete and utter failure of the electoral process and the political class at alleviating any of these problems or at providing a real alternative. An oligarchic elite so brazen in its contempt for the world that it subjugates and a servile media completely unfit for purpose at holding power to account. False promises, cheap rhetoric, hopelessness, manufactured consent and politicised apathy, all playing out parts in a doomed theatre beneath a growing and impossible-to-ignore menace.

That paints a picture of the only world I have ever known. I’m turning 32 in April and the same will be true for most people of my generation, and of the generations that have come since. By the time we appeared on this Earth, the triumph of neoliberalism had been not just assured, but long baked-in to the fabric of our societies. I was born almost exactly a decade after the high priestess of neoliberalism herself Maggie Thatcher proclaimed that, ‘There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.’ Individualised, atomised, self-interested—that was the profile of humanity Thatcher and Reagan and all that followed in their consensus forced upon us all. Cold, cruel, and devoid of the solidarity that might challenge power. All the worst impulses of capitalism, pushed to their extreme. That was the neoliberal legacy left to us, and the unforgiving landscape we were told to thrive in.

Now let me paint a different picture.

You wake up on a small, idyllic, sun-kissed island. The warm morning light glints of the gently lapping waves and glistens on the dewy leaves. The local community leader stands in the shared plaza and he gives a cheery morning announcement to start the day off. He’s wearing a light Hawaiian shirt and the news he delivers ranges from giving progress reports on the construction of some small, new local businesses—the reasonably priced store ran by his nephews, the beautiful museum now accepting fossil or wildlife donations from all island residents—to updates about any new arrivals to the island. He’ll read out their names, and express his warm welcome to them, asking all current residents to do the same, in person if they can. And then the announcement ends, and you are left with all the free time you could possibly want on this verdant island paradise, and the bountiful agency that comes with it. You could go catching butterflies, or fishing. You could de-weed some of the wilder parts of the train. You could spend the day (and night) gathering materials from the rocks and the trees in order to upgrade your initially modest house. You could sell those materials at the store and use the money to buy decorations for your home, or you could use some of it to chip away at the sizeable debt you’ve incurred from the community leader who financed the building of your home in the first place.

The thing about that guy: He’s an anthropomorphic raccoon—or more accurately a tanuki, a Japanese raccoon dog. And he’s called Tom Nook. His nephews who run the store are also tanukis, and they are called Timmy and Tommy. They, along with literally every single damn thing in the new Nintendo Switch game Animal Crossing: New Horizons, are so cute your jaw will clench every time they give you a cheery wave when you pass by them. They look like this:

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Animal Crossing is a game series that, despite my long, involved history with the medium, I had never picked up before. More than that, I had never understood what it was even about. From the little details I gleaned, I didn’t understand why it was a game. I’d heard pithy, humorous descriptions, often clearly designed as inside jokes by devoted players aimed at making the game seem like an exercise in anti-fun. In a medium crowded with adrenaline-pumping excitement and imagination stretching escapism, Animal Crossing seemed like a kind of digitisation of real-life banality. ‘You slave away at endless manual labour in an effort to pay off a mountainous debt to a ruthless racoon tycoon.’ ‘You move furniture and you look after flowers while watching out for wasps that will sting you.’ ‘You can’t die, there is no game over, but if you don’t save properly the next time you load the game a rage-filled mole will berate you until he’s red in the face.’

Despite being bemused at best by the premise of the series, I ended up pre-ordering the latest edition in it. My girlfriend had always been a huge fan of the games, and despite my bemused face and nonplussed questions about the nature of the game, she had sold it to me over the course of a few weeks and piqued my curiosity. My copy arrived last Friday and it has been an uphill battle to try and prevent it from consuming every waking hour of my life. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is—like every main entry in the series before it—a ‘community sim’. That’s by far the best way of describing it. You, a cute little human, newly arrive to a community full of anthropomorphic animals, and you integrate into that community, enriching it with your hard work and reaping the rewards both aesthetic and emotional. That’s it. There’s no death, no firepower, no chasm jumping. Instead there’s a fishing rod, a butterfly net, and a wooden stick used to pole vault across narrow streams, among many, many other things. It is supremely low impact, casual in the best way while also being backed by rock-solid mechanics and an incredibly well-developed and rewarding progression system, and it is exactly the perfect game for soothing the nerves of people raised under and scarred by the cruelties of neoliberalism.

Part of the reason I never let myself get into the series is, I think, that all the surface level descriptions didn’t just sound so banal, but so damn capitalist. You pay off the debt on a house. You sell your labour. You buy endless amounts of physical tat with which to decorate your house and your land. The reason I have now fallen completely in love with it is that I’ve seen what actually hums underneath the surface: A vision of a kinder, less exploitative, more ecologically friendly capitalism. A dream of something sustainable and beautiful, built on community and shared space. Because even Tom Nook—that entrepreneurial tycoon at the heart of the Animal Crossing games who runs the island services hub and whose nephews run the only general store on New Horizons’ island—is a figure straight out of fantasy: A kind and caring rentier. Even as the one main task quietly underpinning everything else you do in New Horizons remains paying off the huge debts on your house, Tom Nook remains cheery and understanding. It doesn’t matter to him how long it takes for you to pay it off. No interest accumulates on your debts. If instead of paying Tom Nook you choose to spend your hard-earned money on house decorations, or on making tools to better hunt down fossils for the local museum, or on buying presents for the other residents of the island, that is perfectly fine with Nook. There will be no stern letters, no utilities shut off, and no evictions or bailiffs. He always greets you with a smile and is ready for a chat, genuinely caring about you and the island. Doesn’t that by itself just seem like paradise right now?

And that’s another way Animal Crossing refutes neoliberalism, that extremist endpoint of capitalism aimed at ensuring that we all care just about ourselves alone and foster no sense of community: The community in this game is the be all and end all. When I load up the game after a night of not playing the first thing I do after listening to Tom Nook’s morning announcement—and the thing you are very much encouraged and rewarded for doing—is check in on all my neighbours. I do my rounds and run across the island to visit with everyone. Animal Crossing has consistently great writing, so the character development of all these uber-cute animal characters is top notch, full of individuality and humour. I genuinely want to know how Buck—the fitness-obsessed bro-y donkey—is doing. The same goes for Renee, the slightly insecure yet easily excitable pink hippo. And for Blathers, the delightfully knowledgeable and insect-phobic owl who runs the island’s museum, and who you continuously help out by catching those insects, as well as fish and other fauna, to fill out his museum. As a reward he’ll always give you a short speech about the history of whatever fossilised species you brought him or some biological notes on the living fauna you have retrieved. Every players island will have a different set of characters (apart from Nook and his nephews, Blathers, and a few other key people) and very quickly you come to care a lot about them. They become an integral part of your everyday routine, their wellbeing tied to yours. You want their day to go well. You’ll check in, and buy them presents, and ask how they are doing. They, in turn, will give you stuff that might help out with whatever island-enhancing task you are up to at that moment, and they will ask about you.

If this still sounds like a too-vague description of the gameplay loop in New Horizons then let me boil it down even more: You are turning a deserted, weed-infested island into a welcoming and well-maintained residence for you and a few neighbours. And here too, again, that might sound on the surface of things like something depressingly resembling real life. The cruel, extractive and destructive settler capitalism that has burned the green Earth’s surface and choked its skies with poisonous effluent. Except there’s none of that here in New Horizons. The game goes out of its way to encourage sustainability and biodiversity. Harvest wood from trees, but not too much, because otherwise you will chop them down, leaving a barren and lonely stump in place of a lovingly animated bouquet of leaves. Plant flowers, and watch the insect numbers multiply, their shimmering wings glinting in the sun as they flutter here and there. In its affectionate and detailed depiction, nature is venerated in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The sun rises and sets, the seasons turn as the real world year progresses, and the animal life responds in turn: Some species only come out at certain times, or during certain parts of the year, and animals scatter if you are too disruptive. You are encouraged always to beautify your landscape in a way that retains the sacred but too often forgotten balance between humanity and nature. The game instills in you a rhythm and an appreciation of that most fundamental of facts: Humanity is a part of nature, not apart from it. It is a game that loves nature, community, and cooperation. It is still capitalism, but it’s of a form so totally unrecognisable especially to those of us born and raised in the last four decades that in many ways it feels like utter fantasy. Many would say that even in the real world a form like that remains exactly just that, but if you are tired, exhausted, and your nerves stretched to breaking point by the world and its cruel machinations, Animal Crossing: New Horizons may well be exactly the right type of soul balm for you.

Plus, you know, stuff happens in it that looks like this and this:

My fiance and I had to cancel our upcoming wedding due to Covid-19, so our best friends gave us a surprise animal crossing wedding instead from r/AnimalCrossing

via GIPHY




Petr is a staff contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.



Header Image Source: Nintendo