Like many other certified gamers™, I’ve spent the past week running around my beautiful island in Animal Crossing and trying to ignore the real world falling apart around us. Given that pandemics don’t exist in this fictional world of charming animal neighbors and pastel furniture, the lure of its escapism is easy to understand. That also gives me a bit of pause in deciding whether or not to put this piece forth, in which I critically examine the game’s design and intent for players, and possibly rain on a few parades (unless you time-travel past it). But I want to put it out there because it was worth thinking about for me, and hopefully it will be for others too.
In the original Gamecube game (or N64 game in Japan) you were just a villager like all the rest of the animals, and didn’t really have any exceptional powers or privileges over others. The house locations of the other villagers were randomized and unchangeable. The only house you had much control over was your own, choosing from one of four empty homes and slowly expanding it, maybe even changing the roof color, as a treat. But then in subsequent games you became the mayor or the “resident representative”, and suddenly you had a say in where houses went or what things looked like or who could live where. You’re no longer a villager on equal footing with the others; you are vested with an authority that answers to no one, not even to tom nook, who basically rubber-stamps all your decisions on his island.
You are given more control in this game than ever before, and it still doesn’t seem to be enough for some people. The very few minor things you can’t control (airport color, starting villagers, starting fruit) have some people resetting for hours to get exactly what they want. There is basically no threat to you in this game whatsoever; you can’t die, and the worst that can happen to you are minor inconveniences when you get stung or bitten (a messed-up face and getting sent back to your house). Inefficiency becomes the greatest obstacle to the player, or in other words, being kept from doing exactly what you want to do exactly when you want to do it. Thus even the normal flow of time becomes an obstacle, which drives some people to time travel. Earlier games in the series tried to dissuade the player from doing so with both active (Resetti) and passive punishments (making you change the system clock each time you wanted to TT). But New Horizons seems to have given up on actively dissuading the player from enjoying the game how they want, which on the surface is a good thing. No shade is directed at time travelers here, just an exploration of the way the game is designed.
Other NPC residents have no autonomy on the island. This seems reasonable at first, since you’re a human player and the NPCs are computers, but it’s also important to consider how they’re supposed to represent “people” within the reality of the game. Your ubiquitous authority is granted you by the island’s owner Tom Nook, more or less on a whim because you’re a helpful volunteer, and now you can choose exactly where each house is placed, what the island looks like via terraforming, and even what the residents are allowed to say or wear. You can literally narc on a resident to Isabelle in a move that feels like you should be sporting a “can I speak to the manager” hairstyle, using white-person subtext to convey “I don’t like how X resident speaks/dresses.” Yikes.
If a resident is an asshole to you, then you can take the high road and bully them into moving off the island. That usually involves the time-tested combo of emotional abuse (ignoring them while taking to other residents) and physical abuse (chasing them down and smacking them repeatedly with the bug net). Given the fact that within the AC community there’s a well-curated, tiered list of “popular” and “unpopular” villagers, it’s not a huge surprise that people have noticed some animals’ personalities have been smoothed over a bit, to make them less grumpy or sassy or whatever other onerous personality trait that might annoy the almighty player. After all, within the context of the game world, if you had to live on an island with a single person representing the power of an entire HOA, you’d probably find it in your best interest to humor them at all times, right? After all, when it comes to this kind of power imbalance, it’s hard for you to know where that invisible line is, how much of your personality you can put forward without going too far and invoking their ire.
I wonder how many people were dunking on celebrities over missing the message of Parasite, and then went on to plan out every single block of their AC island.
Because the vast majority of people who play AC are part of the working class, their indulgence in authoritarianism and wealth hoarding in a videogame is harmless. But because this is a fictional world that has no real impact, we’re able to see that this impulse exists in far more people than we would like to believe. And if this impulse exists so many people, when you think about it, people in the real world with privilege and generational wealth basically just get to use real life as a video game. Their consequences are minimized, they get to exert unbalanced control over others, and they don’t give it a second thought because little to no criticism can truly affect them. And the little that does, that crosses the line, is dealt with by using their excessive power to crush the foe that dare make them feel discomfort.
Would people still play an AC game if they had to participate in a democracy? If instead of being a mayor or some made-up HOA czar “resident representative,” they had to be elected to a town council by endearing themselves to the other villagers? And they had to deal with the other electors shooting down their proposals for new houses or bridges, or even things like planting new trees? What if the villagers were able to freely voice their distaste for the player’s actions, and if the player made too many enemies, they could literally be run out of their own town and have to start the game over?
I get the feeling that game wouldn’t sell quite as well.