The local supermarket is out of lentils and kitchen roll, but in Nook’s Cranny, the fictional shop in Nintendo’s new videogame Animal Crossing: New Horizons, shelves overflow with seeds and spades, oranges and rice cookers, exercise balls and bright yellow rain boots – everything you need to build a new life in a distant, tropical land.
The game’s island paradise, inhabited by cuddly anthropomorphic animals and surrounded by seas you can never overfish, has hooked players wanting to escape self-isolation and the boredom that comes with it. Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out three days before the UK’s lockdown started, and it’s become the fastest-selling digital game of all time, according to analysts at SuperData. At launch, it sold more copies at launch than the previous four Animal Crossing games and their three spin-offs combined.
On 23 April Nintendo slashed in-game interest rates on players’ savings, which annoyed fans who were funding their island activities through passive income on money hoarded in their virtual bank account. But despite the move, there’s still a comfort in its predictable capitalist economics. Your island home expansions are bankrolled by loans from Tom Nook, a racoon with droopy eyes, a patterned shirt and a bottomless money pit. He’s the head of Nook Inc., a development and relocation company, and nothing happens in paradise without his approval, and without being announced in his daily morning briefings in the town square. He’s like a cross between the governor of the Bank of England and Kim Jong-un (his minions Timmy and Tommy even refer to him as their “fearless leader”).
Every bug you catch and rock you mine is in service of paying him back, and the loans grow larger every time your house expands. But despite your debt, your situation is never precarious. There’s no time limit to repay your loan, and money is easy to come by. You can grow magic money trees by digging up patches of golden grass, and some rocks spit out bags of cash when you smack them with an axe. Fruit regrows on the vine every 48 hours and can be sold to Nook for a tidy sum. When you make money, you’re encouraged to spend it on picking a new plant for your home rather than rushing to pay Nook back.
It’s no wonder people have flocked to New Horizons in our uncertain times. Self-employed workers are wondering how they’ll pay their bills before the government starts handing out grants in June – in the virtual world, their biggest worry is which wallpaper to choose. As homeowners rush to apply for mortgage relief, Tom Nook smiles blankly, and gives you all the time you need. As we all lockdown in our homes, struggling to secure slots for online food deliveries, New Horizon’s players visit each other’s islands to find the best turnip prices. It’s a pandemic antidote.
But the more I play playing Animal Crossing, the more I feel like I’m looking at Gaetano Kanizsa’s famous triangle illusion, in which a series of Pac-Man shapes draw the eye to a triangle that’s not really there. Look at Animal Crossing too long, and its characters become those Pac-Man shapes, the triangle our current situation. It’s no longer distracting me from daily life – it’s framing it.
And at times, it even echoes reality. On 23 April Nintendo cut in-game interest rates on savings from 0.5 per cent to 0.05 per cent, a move designed to encourage players to spend rather than save. When you make money, there’s now little point in sticking it in your bank account: you might as well go out and a buy a new hat from Nook’s Cranny, or a ticket for a one-off flight to a temporary, randomly generated island (one that might be covered in magic money rocks).
In March the Bank of England slashed its bank rate to a record low of 0.1 per cent. But what succeeds in Animal Crossing ultimately fails in real life. As Loughborough University business economics lecturer Jonathan Seaton explains, slashing interest rates does little when demand is absent – a situation known as a “liquidity trap”. “Who’s going to invest when the economy is collapsing and there’s a lack of demand?” he asks.
Low interest rates normally encourage businesses to borrow more. But while Tom Nook pours more money into players’ lives, banks “don’t want to get their fingers burned”, and “treat it like any other loan,” Seaton says. “‘If you don’t have collateral, we’re not going to give you the money.’”
Even government-backed loans aren’t working. Research from accountancy network Corporate Finance Network published Tuesday suggested nearly a fifth of small businesses could go bust within the next month, and that many firms were unable to access £330bn of government-backed loans. Some businesses said they were being asked for guarantees that would require them to sell their assets if they can’t repay, while others claimed lenders were offering loans with punitive interest rates. Some SMEs had been turned down for loans altogether, the research said.
For some players, parallels between real life and Animal Crossing have been altogether more positive. Seth Giddings, associate professor of digital culture and design at the University of Southampton, argues that the game’s economy merely has the “trappings of capitalism”, but actually works more like “the gift cultures identified by early anthropologists such as Marcel Mauss, in which exchange within and between tribes sustains and accentuates social communications and relationships”. Players can swap gifts and favours with their fellow villagers, and it has mirrored lockdown life on Giddings’ street. “We have a young family across the road, and my kids have grown up now, so my wife is picking out toys and children’s books to take over for them,” he tells me over the phone.
For Giddings, Animal Crossing’s magic money trees are a virtual safety net that means no player goes without; a universal basic income that our current crisis has highlighted the need for. “What if, I wondered, the Conservative government’s massive – though grudging, tardy and partial – financial support for non-essential workers, the self-employed and suspended businesses [isn’t] completely rolled back as the virus retreats?” he writes in a blog post published this week. “What if the capitalist myth of scarcity, and its particularly vicious neoliberal incarnation as austerity, were at last revealed as political, not natural?”
Perhaps we therefore shouldn’t see Animal Crossing as a distraction from reality, but a roadmap for the years ahead. “If money can be found, or produced, in abundance and resources mobilised on a national and global scale to serve the needs of society as a whole, then Animal Crossing may one day be looked on as the game that both helped us through the day-to-day anxieties of this crisis and provided a glimpse of a different future.”
Samuel Horti is a freelance journalist who covers politics, culture and gaming