tomorrow's calling - studying the world of Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing as a Dystopia

"be careful what you wish for..."

At first glance, Animal Crossing's games seem to take place in a utopia, and indeed I've already covered this in my earlier section. But as I have studied and thought about it further, I've come to realize that in several significant ways, this fictional world is a dystopia, and a horribly depressing one at that.

Here's what I mean:

Paints Friendship as Shallow and Gift-Based

The friendships between fellow AI villagers and other human players alike are both based in transactions. In game, even your human friends can't really do much besides trade items, chat, or just hang out in various spaces. And your AI villagers are completely unsatisfying in this realm if you're like me and have no one else to play Animal Crossing with. After a while, such connections feel meaningless and ridiculous.

Now, I am aware that cultivating friendships with computers IS ultimately meaningless, but I'm driving at a deeper point here. In Animal Crossing, the value of interactions with other people lies solely in what you can GET out of those interactions, whether it be favors, gifts, or transactional fun. Thus, it teaches a dangerous philosophy about the nature and purpose of friendship.

Encourages Accumulation of Things (Capitalism Run Amok)

In Animal Crossing, you can never "win" too much. You can always get MORE furniture, MORE money, MORE event swag, MORE...everything. There's never a point at which your achievements are enough, until you decide it. That can be a good thing, I suppose, but I find it strangely oppressive. I'm left wondering: "When do I deem it reasonable to lay this game aside? When am I officially an addict, always seeking the next big thing? Where does my minimalist philosophy fit in here?"

The fact is, the ideas of minimalism and being content with what one already has is just plain out of alignment with Animal Crossing's culture. In a game of MORE MORE MORE, having less is more like "losing," and being content is unheard of. The game's encouragement of using natural resources (such as bugs, fish, fruit, shells) for profit also fits in here--it is a philosophy our real world runs on, but will not be able to run on much longer. (This Gamasutra article refers to this phenomenon as "affluenza," and I agree.) To some degree all video games suffer from these two damaging philosophies, but in Animal Crossing they are systemic diseases.

Romanticizes "Wilderness" while Still Suffering from "Civilization Mindset"

Though Animal Crossing is set in an idyllic rural woodland (among ANIMAL friends, no less!), it still is trapped in the mindset of civilization--that is, a mindset of conformity. Homes have to be decorated just so for maximum points; user-designed clothing has to be widely marketable to be considering "fashionable" among villagers; more money means more success, etc. There are no points for just living day to day as one will. There are no achievements for merely existing, like a tree or animal does--one must put in work to achieve certain society-set goals. I find this insidious: it implies that people in a society must be capable of doing something useful or entertaining in order to be considered worthwhile individuals.

No Conflicts

This might seem utopian, and I even argued as such before, but I'm going to play devil's advocate here and show how a world without conflict can be dystopian as well.

I posit that a world without conflict is a world without real, honest interaction and growth. How can we be honest with each other and experience less stress if we're always trying so hard not to disagree and to keep the peace? How can we grow and change together as a people unless we have something to grow against and obstacles to figure out? How can we grow without challenge, which is in itself a conflict between us and the environment (which needs us to try harder)?

Animal Crossing's world rewards grinding hard work, too, but in this way, it rewards peace at all costs. And peace, though beautiful in theory, is boring to the human mind and spirit after a while because there is no challenge, no motivation to do better and be better. I'm certainly not saying the world of Animal Crossing needs war or hatred, but inevitably the game ends up based in competing with oneself rather than learning how to cooperate with others for goals bigger than oneself. It becomes a very lonely existence over time.

Encourages Conformity Sometimes (esp. the HRA)

To get maximum points in this game series, you have to conform to someone else's standards--either the standards of your fellow AI villagers to like and wear your shirts, or the HRA's standards for your home's design to get the most luck. And to get the "most" money, you have to do a lot of what looks like MMO-style "grinding" for resources to get what you want. (This isn't as big an issue if you're not looking to get the "most" and the "best," but if you are, it can quickly become an addictive trap of thinking.)

Ends Up Being Predictable

In a game where you're competing against yourself, you are eventually able to predict everything that will happen in the near and far future. Nobody wants to live a life like that. That's why after about a year of gameplay, I quit most AC games--after I'd experienced all the year's events, watched some villagers come and go, and completed most of my personal objectives for my collections and house designs, what was the point of playing any further?

Personalities are Reduced to Bullet Points

This is more of an annoyance factor, I admit, but I get tired of seeing basic personality profiles with one set way of behaving. There are more than just Peppy and Cranky people in the world, after all. How about people who are Peppy later in the day, but Cranky when they've been woken up at the butt-crack of dawn and they haven't had good sleep? (Not like that's me or anything... LOL)

This simplication seems harmless, but can also indicate a similar simplification of real people's personalities in our minds. If we only see the people around us like static cardboard cutouts instead of complex and constantly-evolving souls, that will definitely impact the way we treat them, whether we forgive them, and whether we allow for them to learn from their mistakes and grow as people.

Collecting All This Stuff...What's the Point?

Animal Crossing's world rewards collecting stuff as if it's the most important thing we'll ever do in-game, and indeed our real lives do this as well--tips on how to acquire more money, luxurious possessions, and even exotic experiences is the stuff of many a blog, YouTube channel, and self-help book. But what does "collecting" really mean? In my experiences, it leads to months and months of cleaning out a loved one's house after they have died and left all these jumbled possessions behind, a snakeskin of a life shed in papers, gadgets, trinkets, and half-used toiletries.

In AC, death is not a factor in living life, of course, and so the unfortunate truth of "you can't take it with you" never comes into play. But in our real lives death is most certainly a factor, and disposal of personal effects and estates after death can lead to many family troubles and strife. The game therefore teaches another pair of strange ideas--that collecting items is what makes life fun, and that there are no consequences for accumulating too much. If we don't already know that these philosophies are in fact unworkable and will lead to suffering later, we will painfully learn them over the course of our own lifetimes.