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In the 1970s, psychologists gave the name affluenza to the spiritual emptiness and guilt that accompanies wealth. John de Graaf and others have recently expanded the concept to cover the feverish drive to acquire more and more debt and material property on the part of all social classes. Shopping as cultural practice, rising debt, and bankruptcies are among the most prominent signs of the condition. Learning how to smartly amass and expend capital is a type of literacy that haunts many adults—frequently we are told we should spend less and save more.
Animal Crossing isn’t the only game that successfully simulates the condition of affluenza. The Sims has been criticized for purportedly modeling consumption as a solution to loneliness and unhappiness. In discussions of that game, chief designer Will Wright has argued that the game’s rules are optimally balanced via equal pursuit of material and social capital, a part of the game’s caricature of American ideals. Sims respond more positively to player characters with more material property; they like friends with big houses and hot tubs.
But Animal Crossing’s NPCs are much less sophisticated. The cute animals who occupy the village sternly berate the player if they have not seen him in town for a while, but they seem to have no concern for the quantity or type of material properties that the players possess. Occasionally animals will express desire for a shirt or furniture item the player carries with him around the village, and they will offer to trade for it. But this type of transaction is both rare and charming; the animals frame their requests in terms of inveterate longing—“I’ve always wanted a Modern Lamp!”—quite different from the affluenza-burdened mallgoer’s “one overriding interest, to spend money.”
Animal Crossing simulates the social dynamics of a small town but sidesteps the material obsession of keeping up with the Joneses. As such, the game serves as a sandbox for experimenting with the ways one can recombine personal wealth that is much more abstract than the economics of The Sims. While the player diligently works to pay off that new upstairs addition, the NPC animals retain their small shacks perpetually. They never cycle their belongings, seemingly unconcerned that their homes are filled only with fish, or rocks, or fruit furniture. One could argue that this asceticism is accidental, the default effect of Nintendo’s disinterest in building a more sophisticated artificial intelligence system for redecoration. But procedural abstraction is also relevant to a videogame’s overall design. Animal Crossing’s animals enjoy walks outdoors. They snooze on their porches at twilight. They stop to watch the player fish. They meander aimlessly and take great care to partake in the community events that transpire on holidays. They are not consumers but naturalists, more Henry David Thoreau than Paris Hilton.
These monastic animals oppose Tom Nook, the town shopkeeper. After a player makes a major payment to his mortgage, Tom Nook closes his shop and upgrades it; the game starts with Nook’s Cranny, a wooden shack general store, and ends with Nookington’s, a two-story department store. Each upgrade allows Tom Nook to sell more goods. None of the townsfolk ever appear in Tom Nook’s shop, although they occasionally refer to it slightly disdainfully; the animals seem to have little drive to consume. In contrast, the player participates in a full consumer regimen; he pays off debt, buys goods, and sells goods. Tom Nook buys goods, which he converts to wealth. As the player pays off debt and upgrades his home to store more goods, he sees Tom Nook convert that wealth into increased commercial leverage. This simple causal link between debt and banking concretizes a dynamic that most mortgage holders fail to recognize: one’s own debt makes someone else very wealthy. Animal Crossing proceduralizes this relationship in a simple yet effective way: lowering one’s own debt increases Tom Nook’s wealth. Tom Nook then leverages that wealth to draw more capital out of the player, whose resources remain effectively constant. While the player spends more, Nook makes more. By condensing all of the environment’s financial transactions into one flow between the player and Tom Nook, the game proceduralizes the redistribution of wealth in a manner even young children can understand. Tom Nook is a kind of condensation of the corporate bourgeoisie.
Other dynamics further develop Animal Crossing’s ambiguous relationship with consumption. Each town comes with a police station that serves as a lost-and-found, and a dump. Occasionally items find their way to both these venues, and the player can take any of them he wants. The player may also drop off items he no longer wants in the dump, and they’ll disappear the next day. The dump and the lost-and-found complement Tom Nook’s store and the player’s debt. Instead of amassing material property, they offer the opportunity to refuse to acquire goods even when those goods are free. The lost-and-found further emphasizes our tendency to acquire even goods we don’t need; the officer stationed inside always asks “That’s yours, right? You can take it…” Of course, none of the items in lost-and-found really belong to the player (even items left randomly throughout the town seem to remain eternally in place without incident). Thus, taking an item from the lost-and-found always foregrounds the player’s questionable need for it. The dump takes this value further. Players can sell just about anything to Tom Nook, but the dump allows the player to rid himself of goods without monetary gain. Even if players rarely use the dump, its presence provides an important balance in the game’s consumer ecology, allowing goods to be divested of value completely.