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Animal Crossing's Strange, Unresolved Conflict
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Animal Crossing's Strange, Unresolved Conflict

September 5, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

While some are learning about the peculiar pleasure of Animal Crossing thanks to the series’ latest release on Nintendo 3DS, the game has long charmed and puzzled players and critics. In this excerpt from his 2007 book Persuasive Games, Ian Bogost discusses the game’s first edition (released for the GameCube in 2002) in relation to his theory of “procedural rhetoric,” the act of expressing ideas through rules. While some details have changed over the years, Animal Crossing’s overall themes remain constant: the strange, unresolved conflict between consumption and naturalism.

The Nintendo GameCube videogame Animal Crossing is an “animal village simulator.” Players move into a town filled with cartoonish animal characters and buy a house, then work, trade, and personalize their microenvionment. The game offers a series of innocuous, even mundane activities like bug catching, gardening, and wallpaper designing; like The Sims, Animal Crossing’s primary metaphors are social interaction and household customization.

Although the GameCube supports simultaneous play with up to four players, Animal Crossing only allows one player at a time. The game can store up to four player profiles in one shared town, and human players can interact with friends or family members who play the game, but only indirectly, by leaving notes or gifts, completing tasks, or even planting flowers or trees. Furthermore, Animal Crossing binds the game world to the real world, synchronizing its date and time to the console clock. Time passes in real time in Animal Crossing—it gets dark at night, snows in the winter, and the animals go trick-or-treating on Halloween. Since game time is linked to real time, a player can conceptualize the game as a part of his daily life rather than a split out of it.

This binding of the real world to the game world creates opportunities for families or friends to collaborate in a way that might be impossible in a simultaneous multiplayer game. Since the whole family shares a single GameCube, the game’s persistent state facilitates natural collaboration between family members with different schedules. For example, a child might find a fossil during the afternoon, then mail it to her father’s character in the game. At bedtime, she could let Dad know that she needs to have it analyzed at the central museum so she can take it to the local gallery the next day. As critics Kurt Squire and Henry Jenkins wrote of the game, “Families (of all types) live increasingly disjointed lives, but the whole family can play Animal Crossing even if they can rarely all sit down to dinner together.”

One of the most challenging projects in the game is paying off the mortgage on one’s house. Animal Crossing allows players to upgrade their homes, but doing so requires paying off a large note the player must take out to start the game in the first place. Then the player must pay renovation mortgages for even larger sums. While the game mercifully omits some of the more punitive intricacies of long-term debt, such as compounding interest, improving one’s home does require consistent work in the game world. Catching fish, hunting for fossils, finding insects, and doing jobs for other townsfolk all produce income that can be used to pay off mortgage debt—or to buy carpets, furniture, and objects to decorate one’s house.

Animal Crossing deploys a procedural rhetoric about the repetition of mundane work as a consequence of contemporary material property ideals. When my (then) five-year-old began playing the game seriously, he quickly recognized the dilemma he faced. On the one hand, he wanted to spend the money he had earned from collecting fruit and bugs on new furniture, carpets, and shirts. On the other hand, he wanted to pay off his house so he could get a bigger one like mine. Then, once he did amass enough savings to pay off his mortgage, the local shopkeeper and real estate tycoon Tom Nook offered to expand his house. While it is possible to refrain from upgrading, Nook, an unassuming raccoon, continues to offer renovations as frequently as the player visits his store. My son began to realize the trap he was in: the more material possessions he took on, the more space he needed, and the more debt he had to take on to provide that space. And the additional space just fueled more material acquisitions, continuing the cycle.

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Harry Fields
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Wow. Nice write-up. Not a player of it, but my mother is hooked on the DS/3DS versions. Now I can understand why a bit more.

Jonathan Michalik
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This assessment is really interesting. I've kind of caught onto a lot of what you mentioned here while playing each of the games, but your point about the game (in most of its playability and goals) is very reflective of a Japanese garden. It's true that the game has these unseen forces pushing the player from what they immediately want their "garden" to look like, but it really falls upon the player to decide whether following these forces are really worth it. It definitely tells a bit about a person looking back on your decisions in retrospect.

A couple of the parts of the games that linked real-world consumerism to me, that kind of broke veil of game vs. reality, were K.K. Slider and the NES games the player would receive from Tortimer or other events while playing the game. K.K. Slider stuck with me because back in the Gamecube game, he would comment on not wanting his music put down by the man, and sneaks the player a bootleg of the song to play through a radio at their house. This is back when the whole Napster hot-button-issue was around and had the opportunity to speak to the player through a musician (dog though he may be) that detests the capitalist label, wanting to share his music with the people who took the time to come out and listen to him play live.

The NES games were interesting to me in that they were Nintendo's own products being freely given by playing the game. A handful of them were gifts from characters in the game like Tortimer and Jingle, but the player could speed up that process using the e-Reader system to get the games that Animal Crossing was willing to reward you with given time by spending that extra money up-front. I can't remember exactly if some of those games were exclusive to the e-Reader, but the thought of Nintendo offering their own products in game unrelated to them spoke to me about their feel on capitalism/consumerism in much the same way K.K. Slider did.

Great article, though. Really cool analysis on the underlying motives of a game that continues to capture huge crowds of players even today.

Ian Bogost
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Good points about KK Slider and the NES games. The NES games were really, really hard to get without the e-Reader, and even then you were subject to the randomness of the game packs, so even then the NES games were working against Nintendo's corporate logic. Of course, at that time, there was no Virtual Console, etc., essentially no way to get those games anyway.

Jonathan Michalik
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Yeah, Virtual Console really helped do away with that NES games perk in the original Animal Crossing. The extent that I've seen of including "retro" games like that in another game context was Super Smash Bros. Brawl, where the game included short, time-boxed play periods of older games. Though, that was right around the time Virtual Console was getting started, so it was a good method of giving demos to the players and encourage buying of the full game through the Virtual Console service. Really very different from the Animal Crossing mentality since they had no service to profit off of older games, they were available without much thought of profit (outside of the e-Reader which provided a shortcut to getting them as we've said, and in some cases the only way to get them). Much agreed, however. Definitely a different time in Nintendo's life.

nicholas ralabate
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It's interesting, Tom Nook is easily Nintendo's most sinister villain especially for adults who have dealt with debt. I've never beat Animal Crossing (is that possible?), but assumedly Tom Nook can never loses and the bank always wins.

Also, "procedural rhetoric" is a fascinating neologism. It's something I've often looked for the words to describe (especially in the Mechner-Chahi-Ueda-Rorher-Chen cycle). But -- is there maybe another way to put it? Procedural is so often associated with randomly generated sounds, graphics, maps, etc. It sounds like it might describe a perlin-noise-of-fiction rather than the very intentional placement of rules. Has there been another word to describe this since 2007?

Ian Bogost
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The book this was excerpted from introduces this term in enormous detail and talks about some alternatives and historical precedents and so forth. Generativity is one kind of procedurality, for sure, but procedurality more generally is just the fundamental representational mode of computation, which is why I adopt it.

Trae Bailey
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This was a very nice reading and provided me with a very helpful perspective of the design of this game. Thank you Mr. Bogost.