The Glass Floor is Not For Sale: Simulating Middle Class Stability in Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Updated: Apr 27, 2020
As the proud owner of a Nook Inc. Deserted Island Getaway Package, you step out of the airport and get a first look at the pristine beaches, forests, and grassy hills that will become your new home. The founder and president of Nook Inc., a raccoon named Tom Nook, welcomes your group of travellers (customers?) to the island. You are the only human, but it is clear that these anthropomorphic animals have purchased a similar getaway package and will be your neighbours. Nook delivers a hopeful speech about the life you’ll all be building together — only briefly mentioning his connections in construction and real estate — before sending you off to set up your tent. After a night’s rest, Nook returns to happily present you with an itemized bill for supplies and services rendered, including accommodations, airfare, labour, tax, and your very own Nook brand smartphone. The cost is steep but, as Nook informs you, this initial payment can be made using the Nook Mileage Program. Once you’ve saved enough Nook Miles to pay your housing fees, Nook strongly suggests that you upgrade your modest tent into something more comfortable. Building a custom house on a deserted island seems like an arduous task, but he reassures you: “We don’t do things because they are easy. We do them because they are profitable!” For a zero-interest loan of 98,000 bells (the in-game currency) and a relaxed, pressure-free payment plan, the world is your oyster. In Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons, players are tasked with building their dream island from the ground up. Each island is home to a wealth of natural resources that can be harvested and sold or used to craft various items. Apart from tools, which can be equipped and used to perform various tasks, the majority of items are put toward the customization and personalization of a macro-environment (the community) and a micro-environment (the home) or sold in order to accumulate capital. As new residents move in, players are tasked with expanding and improving their settlement by investing their hard-earned bells in housing and infrastructure (constructed by Nook Inc., of course), which improves the island’s rating on a five-star scale. Meanwhile, as their collections of material goods grow larger, players are incentivized to add rooms to their homes by taking out a series of increasingly exorbitant loans. A starter home may be valued at 98,000 bells, but building a basement addition to store all your possessions will set you back millions (Lee, 2020).
Screenshot of a conversation with Tom Nook in the resident services building in Animal Crossing: New Norizons
Animal Crossing’s cycle of collecting, buying, selling, and development expresses an overt capitalist logic that can be traced back to its first instalment in 2001. As Ian Bogost notes in Persuasive Games, Animal Crossing presents players with “the repetition of mundane work as a consequence of contemporary material property ideals” (2007, p.268). He argues that this is accomplished through the deployment of two conflicting procedural rhetorics: the rhetoric of “affluenza” — the drive to acquire and accumulate material property — is coupled with a rhetoric of naturalism that encourages the quiet appreciation of a simple, small-town, life (2013). The resulting tension between consumption and reflection provides players with opportunities to “experiment” with their “commercial attitudes” (Bogost, 2007, p. 275; Scully-Blaker, 2019, p. 98). Turning their attention to Animal Crossing’s capitalist temporalities, Rainforest Scully-Blaker notes that Animal Crossing reproduces “the same capitalist rhythms of labour and debt that many feel in their daily lives” (2019, p. 91). However, while the series’ focus on repetitive tasks such as collecting bugs, digging up fossils, and planting flowers makes interactions with the game-as-leisure-object closely resemble work — resulting in a hybrid “playbour” (Kücklich) and encouraging an “instrumental” approach to play that prioritizes mastery and efficient progress (Taylor, 2006, p. 74) — the labour of maintaining a virtual world and self often affords players with opportunities to experience leisure for its own sake. Taking time to stargaze or sit on the beach and listen to the waves are just a couple of ways to embody a “radical slowness” by engaging in “virtual refusal of virtual labour” (Scully-Blaker, 2019, p. 92). Evidently, Animal Crossing can be seen as “a critique of contemporary consumer culture” that persuades players to “understand both the intoxication of material acquisition and the subtle pleasures of abstention” (Bogost, 2013). Popular discourse surrounding Animal Crossing supports these scholars' claims that players are somewhat aware of the games’ capitalist logics and do not necessarily engage with them passively. Fans' attitudes toward Tom Nook’s business practices exemplify this awareness; over the course of nearly two decades, Nook has earned himself a reputation as an exploitative, capitalist crook that makes him the closest thing this laid-back life simulator has to an actual villain (Earp, 2020). Whether players take on the role of mayor, campsite manager, or resident representative as they do in New Horizons, a significant portion of the literal and metaphorical fruits of their labour are used to pad the raccoon entrepreneur’s seemingly bottomless pockets. Still, despite the series’ firm grounding in the establishment and maintenance of private properties and its use of material exchange as the impetus for continuous capital accumulation, there is a gentleness to Nook’s exploitation. Fully participating and investing one’s resources in Nook’s business is curiously forgiving. According to Scully-Blaker, the self-contained nature of Animal Crossing “allows players to experience acquisition and debt without the threat of financial precarity” (2016, p. 98). There is a sort of safety in the way the game “mercifully omits some of the more punitive intricacies of long-term debt” such as compounding interest or payment deadlines (Bogost, 2013). No wonder, then, that recent discussions surrounding New Horizons frame the game’s depiction of starting from nothing and progressing toward luxurious home ownership as a sort of millennial class fantasy (Chinn, 2020; Noah 2020). In an article for Medium’s Permanent Nerd Network, Brandon Chinn writes, “while Animal Crossing eschews swinging giant swords or mowing down zombies with a handgun, it allows us to come together as a community and share our most ludicrous dream: a stable adulthood” (2020). By sanitizing the more alarming realities of actual capitalism, such as poverty, the challenges of living with long-term debt, or human need more generally, New Horizons simulates upward momentum in society without any friction. One concrete example of this appears early in New Horizons. Once players have cleared their housing fees, they get full access to the Nook Mileage Program through their virtual smart phones and can visit the Nook Terminal (essentially an ATM) to exchange their Miles for rewards such as clothing, accessories, furniture, infrastructure, and travel to other deserted islands using Nook Miles Tickets. Since Nook Miles are earned by participating in just about any facet of island life — from spending money at Nook’s Cranny (the local shop) to wearing out tools — players earn and maintain “good” credit as part of their daily in-game routines. Moreover, they are rewarded for regular engagement without any chance of overspending and going into (more) debt. Another example is home ownership. In actuality, many people are stuck renting rather than buying homes, but New Horizons allows players to purchase starter homes. The game then steers players toward upgrades without any risk of failing to make mortgage payments or losing the property.
Screenshot of a late evening tour of my island and home with a visiting friend.
In a sense, we can regard New Horizons as a sort of simulation of middle-classness. This is not because actual socioeconomic class stratifications can be mapped cleanly onto the game’s simulated utopian capitalist system; New Horizons does not overtly represent distinct classes so much as it tracks and measures progress, for example, through Happy Home Academy evaluations and the island rating system. However, middle-classness is embodied in what Reeves refers to as constant protection against the threat of downward mobility (2017). On their island paradise, players can attain anything with enough time and effort — pull up those proverbial bootstraps! — and become successful without ever struggling against the resistance of a glass ceiling. Simultaneously, a systemic cushioning stops players from reversing course and crashing through a “glass floor” into working-class or working poor class status (Reeves, 2017, p. 10). Since there is no precarity, no failure, and no punishment, the game simulates the baseline consumption, comfort, and security of middle-class life. As Scully-Blaker has shown, the involvement of real money in Animal Crossing’s virtual economies complicates the idea that these capitalist rhythms of labour and debt are confined to any “magic circle” of play (Huizinga, 1950). For example, in the free-to-play mobile game Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp (2017), players could exchange actual money for Leaf Tickets that would allow them to skip the wait times associated with certain labours such as growing fruit or building furniture. In this context, embracing a “radical slowness” would necessitate rejecting the Leaf Tickets, opting to wait, and refusing to monetize one’s time in a way that generates profit for Nintendo (Scully Blaker, 2019). New Horizons may not feature the same kind of microtransactions as Pocket Camp, but that does not mean it is cheap to play or that actual economies have not begun to overlap with virtual ones. In a world still reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and adjusting to new social distancing practices, New Horizons’s release brought on a spike in Switch console sales and record-breaking doubling of Nintendo’s annual sales overall (Piscatella, 2020). A Nintendo Switch and a digital download of New Horizons currently comes to around $480.00 CA (without tax) and, to unlock networked multiplayer capability, players must purchase a Nintendo online membership for $25.00 per year. All this exists alongside a thriving bell-based economy where websites like Nookazon.com offer a wide selection of items that can be traded for other items or in-game currency (Marshall, 2020). There are also purchases beyond this initial investment where, much like the Leaf Tickets in Pocket Camp, real money changes hands. For example, for $10.00-$20.00 each, players can buy Amiibo cards and figures that bring different villagers to their island. Full move-in packages for specific villagers and bundles of Nook Miles Tickets are also available on commercial websites such as Ebay, some costing hundreds of dollars (Red Bard (Kennedy), 2020). Going forward, it is clear that New Horizons is not the safe and “self contained” site for practicing one’s commercial attitudes that previous titles in the Animal Crossing franchise may have been. Additionally, since players can skip wait times for free and push back against the game’s imposed leisurely pace by reprogramming the clock on their Switch, they cannot refuse to monetize their time by declining to buy Leaf Tickets as they could in Pocket Camp. Yet, the pressure to “keep up with the Joneses” — by both purchasing the game to stay connected with a community and accelerating the development of one’s island (Hernandez, 2020) — may fuel a rat race within which income and, by extension, actual socioeconomic status, play a very real part. If radical slowness is still possible on these new horizons, what might it look like?
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