Animal Crossing as utopia

Even prior to the March 20 release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the 2020 Nintendo Switch sequel to the popular 2012 3DS title Animal Crossing: New Leaf, the game was heavily associated with the COVID-19 crisis. Fans petitioned Nintendo for an earlier release, explicitly drawing an argument around its calming nature. Unlike Doom Eternal, another big-name, long-awaited sequel in a popular franchise that came out on the same day, New Horizons centres on the Zen-like, almost ritual performance of what is often misinterpreted as pointless labour.

I bought Doom Eternal on release but it was Animal Crossing that I ended up playing the longest, an experience that many players might relate to. The combination of the lower stress gameplay and the focus on improving the lives of a random assortment of cutely designed animals was a wonderful distraction from the anxiety and isolation caused by the pandemic. But I’d argue that the game is more than that: it’s a template for a better world, one that’s even more important now than it was upon release. 

It’s hard work playing Animal Crossing, and I say that without irony. Your character is personally responsible for all your island’s infrastructure, including hand-placing and either sourcing or designing any paths or roads, the harvesting of all resources, even marketing to new potential residents, all while slowly paying off an ever-increasing bank loan to the tanuki entrepreneur and business mogul Tom Nook, owner and financier of your society.

My money problems are over now, yet I’m still playing. My loan is paid off, the rooms inside my house are comfortable and filled with objects I enjoy, while my island has been transformed from a rustic campground to a semi-urban paradise. Yet I’m still performing daily labour, designing clothes or hanging decorations, harvesting resources for my crafts, or catching fish or insects for display inside my museum. This is because, unlike real-world societies, Animal Crossing doesn’t try to motivate its residents with money alone. Even if you never expand past the starting tent, your character will never lack a roof or food to eat, and while the drive for luxuries may push you into collecting fruit for sale or similarly low-effort activities, you’re fundamentally working to improve your town, or increase the services available to everyone around you, regardless the labour they perform as individuals. This distinction is important as the game is built on labour. 

Without work, there are no shops and only the most basic of amenities, and while the player is abstracted from the physical exertion of these tasks by a controller, this work still needs a real-world effort in the form of time and tolerance of repetition. The tools I use to do a job eventually break, requiring me to either buy new tools or mine the resources to make them for myself. I will fill my inventory then run across the island, to either sell or stash the things I’m carrying to make space for some more. These actions are not only a form of labour, but motivators towards future labour, too: I will mine from rocks to get a piece of gold ore to create the gold slingshot over the wooden one, creating surplus stone and clay which must be sold, crafted, or otherwise disposed of, depending on my interests and aptitudes. The important part is that I always have a choice: not just to stop playing or put down the controller, but to stop the task, or change it for another one, an example of what Anarchist theorist Bob Black described in his 1991 essay ‘The Abolition of Work as ‘work turned into play’, or work where ‘the irrationalities and distortions which afflict’ productive action have been removed, while work continues to exist without compulsion. 

This is how labour functions in Animal Crossing, and a significant part of the comfort of the game involves the simulation of a world that runs according to those principles. This simulation doesn’t require the removal of the ‘need’ for work, replicated in the way the features of the game will expand only when a player chooses to complete it, but the force we presently employ to motivate it. Evidence that productivity exists without authoritarian control is vital as COVID-19 continues to affect our national and international economies, as it’s usually the first response of even nominally left-wing governments to any kind of existential threat. While both of our largest political parties are so concerned about the possibility of a ‘too generous’ welfare system serving as a disincentive against finding work that they are both refusing to maintain it at its current, merely adequate level, the utopian appeal of Animal Crossing presents us with a fictional economy where people are allowed to choose to work to better their society, rather than being forced to work in order to live in it.

Economists are warning that the government will need to increase spending in response to rising unemployment, as Labor did during the GFC and the Coalition was forced to do during the first wave of the pandemic. But the use of poverty to motivate employment is ingrained in our current social policies, even though a healthy welfare system is a vital human right, helping to alleviate the mental health and social problems that poverty unnecessarily creates. The government was underspending on our welfare budget even prior to the crisis, and it’s obvious it will continue to make ideological budgetary decisions to the detriment of our economy.

Labor still seems hesitant offer up a strong alternative. While New Zealand talks about the possibility of a four-day work week – a move that would increase the accessibility of the workplace to disabled people, reduce the risk and cost of overwork, as well as improve the economy and put the country one step closer to the anarchist ideal of work as play – our main opposition party still seems hesitant to offer a cohesive counter-narrative to neo-liberal austerity. Instead, it promises a smaller increase to the old rate, which would still be a reduction to the current payment and the myriad of socio-economic benefits that it provides, while refusing to commit to any wider systematic change. Worse still, Labor’s refusal to critique the underlying logic of the need to compel people to work, while ultimately a populist decision, does little to improve the lack of public trust that helped them lose the last election, or even prove they have the vision necessary to make the radical and sweeping reforms needed in response to this and future crises. In doing so, the party is practically ensuring the rhetoric and material dominance of conservative ideologies for decades to come.

Animal Crossing shows us there is an alternative. Rather than just paying lip service to the idea of community responsibility, or cynically employing it to dismiss suggestions that the government is capable of doing more, the game suggests that it can be cultivated without force. That people will work willingly for themselves and their community, when they’re allowed to choose the length and nature of their labour, for results which they will see directly in their neighborhood, and the impact that they make on other people’s lives. Realise that this means there’s nothing to fear from even the most generous state welfare program, and the untold social benefits it could provide, that even basic income aims too low. Then you’ll start to see it, maybe while you’re shaking bells down from your daily money tree: Animal Crossing is a model for a better world, and all of us can live in it.

Maddison Stoff

Maddison Stoff is a writer, critic and independent musician from Melbourne, Australia. Follow her on Twitter: @thedescenters.

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