*AUTHOR’S NOTE: I used no headings in this piece and I did not plan it out at all. That’s why I tag these sorts of pieces as “rambling.” If you’re used to listicles and nicely separated chunks of writing, I apologize; this is almost a stream-of-consciousness, and I end up using ALL CAPS in the second half. Once again, I apologize. If you don’t mind my rambling ways, or you’re curious about where the hell my brain takes me, please read on.
I wrote the above title a little over two months ago, as my brain feverishly grappled with a few contradictions within the popular video game’s implicit ethos. I have now forgotten most of those feverish thoughts, but this idea has stuck with me; I simply have to write about it, or I won’t be free of this obsession. Yes, I enjoy Animal Crossing. I’ve played the series since its North American inception twenty (yes, 20) years ago. Jesus, I’m aging. In my teenage years, I heard the names Jack Kerouac and Walt Whitman and I still believed in the American Dream (corporations may as well copyright that damn phrase with how much they’ve been selling it). I didn’t quite have the “adult” experience to understand how wild it was that my little avatar (presumably a stand-in for then-thirteen-year-old me) just took a train to a new town and had already agreed to purchase a brand-new home. Maybe this is the first of Animal Crossing’s big capitalist moments. Allow me to explain.
Capitalism is predicated upon exploitation. Some bigwig(s) with a ton of capital (money, property, or a disgusting combination of both) offer shitty jobs and/or products to workers under the very real yet implicit threat of homelessness, starvation, discomfort – really, it’s a disgusting combination of all those threats. Most folks from working-class families (these days, that’s most families) understand pretty early that without money, you’re gonna have a hard time on this planet.
*I’d like to pause real quick and warn folks that I’ve lived in the U.S. all my life and I’m writing from a North American’s perspective. I’m also a white dude. I have a ton of privileges, and I still feel crushed by the pressures of capitalism. Fuck.
Anyway, I was saying that most workers understand that unless they agree to work for wages, they’re not gonna get far in the capitalist world. The American Dream promises that if you work hard (i.e. at least full-time, if not more than full-time – exploitation is a rat bastard) you may one day enjoy the comforts of a house, with a fridge full of food and a garage full of cars, plus a TV in every room, enough bathrooms for your family, and oh yeah, a family. Working within capitalism supposedly nets each hard worker enough capital to afford all these beautiful amenities, and even allows room to float several other people in that sweet sweet house!
Does it sound too good to be true? By golly, it is! These days, working full-time in the U.S. doesn’t even net enough money to cover rent in many places. That’s right, I said “rent” – owning a house is an impossibility for most workers in the U.S. That’s why a few ultra-predatory companies are buying up apartments and homes like hotcakes: they know that workers will rent living spaces, and if corporations own most of them, that’s more money for the property owners.
But shit, I was talking about Animal Crossing. A big capitalist moment is when, near the beginning of the game (and every Animal Crossing game, as far as I recall), you agree to “buy” a house. Except, you don’t have enough money to buy the house outright, so what does the real estate mogul Tom Nook do? He sells you the house anyway, and tells you that you can work for him until it’s paid off. The little opportunist catches you in a bind, and uses your vulnerability to squeeze labor out of you! So yes, you get a place to live, but by signing the deed to the house you’re also agreeing to work super hard to afford the big box of supposed luxury that was just thrust upon you. This is actually not all that different from real life: in most cases, workers don’t have enough money to buy a house outright, so banks and real estate agents and other devotees of capitalism check into your credit history and your work history and decide whether or not you, an exploited worker, are ripe for further exploitation.
If your bank account and your credit score check out, the bank and the real estate parasites understand that you’ll be able to make mortgage payments on the house you just bought. You have agreed to continue working for a bigwig so you may keep the supposed box of luxury you now “own.” You are, arguably, more firmly tied to the capitalist system now: you make those mortgage payments and pay the bills, or you don’t have a big box of luxury. I keep calling houses big boxes of luxury, but sometimes houses aren’t that luxurious … I digress.
You keep giving Tom Nook money in the game. Many of us were kids when we first played Animal Crossing, and it’s funny, in retrospect, to imagine a real estate mogul salivating at the chance to tie a child to wage labor for years on end. I can shrug it off and say that, hey, video games are fun – and they are! – but if I look back on my time with any Animal Crossing game, it’s probably accurate to say that I spent hours upon hours saving up money to pay off my virtual house. Yes, there have been weeks where I managed to play video games for 40 hours; that’s full-time work, in the Animal Crossing world!
Jesus, I was supposed to be talking about contradictions in Animal Crossing and I started ranting about real estate. Let me get into a few of those contradictions.
You move into a village/town where a gaggle of animal folks already lives, and you do your best to integrate into the community. This is where my feverish thoughts first started: in a way, Animal Crossing is a series about community, but it still falls into hierarchical pitfalls of capitalism. You begin on the same financial level as your neighbors, but with time and effort, your house and collection of possessions will dwarf those of your animal friends. You might read the relative material stagnation of your neighbors as a contented appreciation for the few things they have, and this would be a weirdly positive outlook for your animal friends to hold, if they didn’t sometimes profess their amazement at your financial acumen – they eventually notice that you’re making big bucks, and they express their wishes to do the same! Why, then, are your neighbors accruing next to nothing while you make out like a bandit?
It’s never explicitly stated, but it’s implied that you get the good stuff because you’re just WoRkInG hArDeR than everyone else. Now, this is a video game and video games are made with progression in mind – if your early bird animal neighbors went to the store and bought everything before you even booted up the game, well, that wouldn’t be very fun, would it? So there’s a sensible reason for your fellow townsfolk to just neglect buying and selling stuff. Yet the game still highlights the growing disparity between you and your community. This runs parallel to the real-world notion that “anyone can become rich”: this huge lie is one piece of the propaganda machine that convinces workers to submit to exploitation. The caveat to that lie is that you can become rich(er) if you’re already rich, and/or if you choose to exploit the working class for profit. In the game, your neighbors may look to your big-ass house and all your stuff and say “One day, I can have that.” In real life, we and our neighbors are told that we can have what Bill Gates and Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have, if we work hard enough. But hard work doesn’t make billionaires: exploitation of the working class does. Thank the maker(s) that the animals in Animal Crossing never actually fall for the lie: they keep living their relatively cushy lives, content with the few things they have.
I’m not trying to say that everyone should just stop wanting nicer lives; I’m just saying that until everyone is taken care of and given shelter, food, and comfort, then no one should have excess. The sad reality of the world is that we have enough resources to take care of everyone, but a ridiculously small number of capitalists hoard many of those resources for their own gains. In a way, while Animal Crossing eventually builds the player up as a successful capitalist, it’s also portraying most of the non-human characters as community members who live equitably with each other.
Holy shit. Animal Crossing might actually be anti-capitalist, if read a certain way.
Yet the game continues to present the joy of having more and more stuff: your house gets graded depending on how well-decorated it is, and you receive rare items for contributing to the museum. Museums are a whole sub-level of capitalism and colonialism, and I’d love to rant about them here, but I’ll pause that rant for now and just say that the Animal Crossing museum is another place where the game portrays the player as a capitalist and the animal villagers as, well, anti-capitalists. Fuck it, we’ll go whole hog here: the animals are communists. And I love them.
Throughout your time in the Animal Crossing universe, you’ll find fossils, fish, bugs, and works of art that you may donate to the local museum. Keep in mind that you’re never originally from the town in which you now live: you’re an outsider. And you’re digging up bones in lands not your own. Oh boy. I know it’s a video game, but I’m taking it seriously as a portrayal of lifestyles and modes of thought within capitalism. So yeah, Animal Crossing has colonial elements to it. Sweet Jesus. You acquire the works of art from a shady art dealer, so who knows where he got them? All the wealth is stolen! Anywho, in my teenaged completionist brain, I wanted to donate every. Single. Thing. To the museum. I caught all the fish, I caught all the bugs, I eventually bought all the art. Digging up the fossils was a daily ritual for me and many of my friends. And unless you welcomed another player into your town, and that player brought something you hadn’t found yet, you could fill the museum all by yourself. For some reason (read: capitalist propaganda about rugged individualism) I was always proud that I could fill the museum ALONE. NO HELP. NO COMMUNITY. NO GODS OR MASTERS BUT ME. Jesus, I bought into American individualism and I liked it – please send help!
Anyway, perhaps to give individualistic players like myself the satisfaction of having their name plastered all over the museum (as though I own all those animals and artworks, sheesh), Nintendo decided that your villagers will not and cannot donate anything to the museum. They just can’t. As far as I recall, it’s not even possible within the game’s programming for them to donate stuff to the museum. So all the credit and accolades go to you, the player, the human who is already being lauded as some kind of super-successful workaholic with a big house. While the animals who form an actual community literally can’t participate. If we make up our own little headcanon which states that the animals once again CHOOSE NOT to engage with the theft inherent in capitalism, then the animals are further solidified as beautiful communists. They won’t engage with capitalism and colonialism’s rampant insistence that we take stuff from everywhere, and put it in boxes, and sell it to people for a premium. I like this reading. I choose to accept it.
So the player makes all the money, the player buys all the stuff, the player gets all the credit, and the player has all the power. There is actually one game in which the player literally wields all the power as THE MAYOR of the town to which they move. Like, you stroll in, the former mayor has just retired, and you’re the new boss in town. I actually don’t recall if that was the game’s “story,” or if you happened to move in and they made you the mayor just because. Anyhow, the fact remains that you make big decisions about the town’s layout, and what stuff the town has inside it, and all this stuff costs money to build, AND YOU FUND MOST OF IT. Just like the museum, your neighbors won’t pay for public works projects – and once again, I choose to read this as beautiful communist resistance to the capitalist status quo. You, the well-paid and powerful mayor, make all the big decisions about what to build and where it’s built; your neighbors’ only act of agency is to choose whether or not they help you with your power trip! And by god, they don’t help you. They pay next to nothing for those projects, and if they decide to put money in, it’s like, a very small amount. They won’t help you, the bigwig, do whatever you want. They’re gonna go chill in their modest homes and wander around all day and pick fruit from trees.
In my funny little reading of Animal Crossing, the player(s) are participants within capitalism, and the animals/neighbors are the communist resistance to capitalist influence. The animals won’t spend money to get bigger houses or more stuff. They won’t capture wildlife and dig up bones for credit at the museum. They won’t fund the mayor’s selfish and conceited public works projects. They are content. They live their best lives. They might just be free.
I initially imagined this rambling write-up as a critique of Animal Crossing’s dependence on the capitalist framework, and while the game does serve as a bona fide capitalist daydream (I can have a house with HOW MANY rooms?), the contrast between the player and the NPCs highlights the plight of the workers within capitalism. As you read/saw, I had to go out of my way to imagine myself in the animals’ shoes (do they even have shoes?), and I stretched to make some claims, but I do believe it’s fully possible to view the human player as a burgeoning capitalist bigwig hellbent on ownership, and to see the animals as a communist collective whose members mostly refuse to participate in the financial tomfoolery of capitalism. I don’t believe this is the intent of the game’s designers – I think they know what makes players tick and capitalism ensures that we all want more stuff and tons of money, even when it’s virtual – but damn it, I love using this fun little video game series as a tool to examine the systems I despise.
Thanks for putting up with my flitting brain and my weird reliance on all caps near the end. I got carried away, but it was fun. Happy days to all of you!