Analysing Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Aspirational Adulthood and Why People Hate Tom Nook
Paying off a mortgage, holding together a community, earning a living: the main objectives of Animal Crossing sound pretty… mundane when you think about it.
But the latest version of the game, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, has been wildly popular during lockdown. Nintendo reported a 428% increase in profits for April-June, with overall sales of video games booming during the pandemic. And, by August 2020, over 20 million copies of Animal Crossing: New Horizons have been sold.
So, what’s the appeal? Why are we still so obsessed with the cottagecore vibes and everyday financial tasks of Animal Crossing?
Like a lot of people born in the late 90s/early 2000s, I played Animal Crossing as a kid on my old Nintendo DS (I got weirdly into collecting the Fruit Furniture Set and I’m pleased to say my aesthetic choices have since improved). As a child, the chance to play out certain adult tasks – like decorating a whole house and earning money – were a fun novelty.
Children playing out an imaginary “adult” life is a normal part of most kids’ development. We learn through imitation and as children we tend to imitate our parental figures.
In the digital era, the creation of a virtual space for this sort of behaviour was probably inevitable. Animal Crossing provides a safe, child-friendly digital environment complete with talking animals: it’s the perfect place to start learning how to adult. The worst thing that happened in the old DS version was the cranky mole Mr Resetti making an appearance to shout at you for forgetting to save the game. However, in New Horizons he’s apparently lost his job due the introduction of the auto-save feature:
‘in an interview with Mashable during E3 2019, Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ project lead Aya Kyogoku officially announced that Mr. Resetti lost his job at the Reset Surveillance Center due to the upcoming Switch title’s new auto-save function.’
So not even Mr Resetti was safe from today’s job market.
The removal of Resetti and the absence of any sort of serious threat in the Animal Crossing universe makes it a very safe space, a place with no real consequences.
So for kids, Animal Crossing is just the digital evolution of an ever-present childhood desire to play at adulthood, but within a ‘safe’ context. A trial run, if you like.
But, as Nintendo’s sales figures for 2020 show, the original consumers of the game haven’t outgrown Animal Crossing even now that a lot of us are – technically – adults (yikes). Why is that?
I would argue that it’s because Animal Crossing and the seemingly mundane life tasks it involves – from home ownership to interior design – are still just aspirational concepts for young adults in 2020. For a lot of us, the prospect of moving out and comfortably owning our own homes or feeling involved in a close-knit community feel extremely remote. We may have technically reached adulthood, but with none of the traditional markers of adulthood to show for it.
Animal Crossing: Utopia
Animal Crossing is still just fulfilling our desire to be adults, to have financial security and to be integral and important members of our communities. The typical hallmarks of adulthood – moving out, job, house, hobbies like fishing and crafting – evoke a nostalgic representation of what adult life should be.
But, like I pointed out earlier, Animal Crossing provides a safe version of these adulthood responsibilities. The island set-up itself is like some sort of Eden: bountiful fruit trees and waters full of fish. You can buy and build, decorate and redecorate to your heart’s content. You can make money selling whatever weird trash you find lying around, from shells to old socks. Animal Crossing matches the definition of a utopia: ‘a perfect society in which people work well with each other and are happy.’
And then there’s the mortgage situation. Throughout the game, you pay off your mortgage to Tom Nook, upgrading to a bigger house each time. It’s arguably one of the main objectives of the game and encourages you to keep doing more tasks – e.g. fishing, shell collecting, travelling for new fruits – to experience the game more fully.
But, unlike banks and money lenders IRL, Tom Nook doesn’t come after you with overdue payment notices or the threat of debts collectors. He’s actually, contrary to what a lot of people on the internet seem to think, a pretty chill raccoon.
The Controversial Tom Nook
The internet is kinda divided on Tom Nook, but there are a lot of Animal Crossing fans out there who think he’s evil, a malicious property tycoon who relies on child labour and exploiting people for money.
As Mikhail Klimentov explains in The Washington Post:
‘Nook, an anthropomorphic tanuki who lords over every Animal Crossing save file, has been labeled a villain, a nefarious bandit and a real estate robber baron, among many other more colorful titles.’
Like some sort of Dickensian ultra-capitalist, for many people Nook has become a caricature evil tycoon, hoarding wealth and screwing over the poor. He’s become a comedic target who encapsulates a lot of people’s understandable frustration with the messy financial climate and the difficult realities of getting on the property the ladder as a young person.
But is he really such a bad guy?
As Andrews Webster explains in The Verge, the creators of Animal Crossing think that his bad reputation is undeserved and that people have ‘misunderstood’ his character. Producer Hisashi Nogami reckons he’s actually ‘a very caring, really great guy.’
When you think about it for a second, Tom Nook offers a pretty reasonable loan situation. You can, as Klimentov puts it:
‘Pay him back at your leisure. Not exactly the hallmark of the mustache-twirling Rockefeller type.’
Again, I think this laid-back payment situation demonstrates the aspirational utopia of the Animal Crossing universe; it’s a safe place to practice adulthood. The worst thing that happen is a bee sting or scorpion attack. Basically: it’s not Tom Nook’s fault the real-world sucks.
We’re all obsessed with Animal Crossing even as adults because it still represents an aspirational lifestyle that feels unobtainable for many people. With the terrible job market right now, an ongoing pandemic, disruptive new technologies and soaring mental health issues, it’s really not that surprising people have escaped to the remote island paradise of Animal Crossing: New Horizons and its cute-sy aesthetic, virus-free lifestyle and attainable life goals. It’s a welcome and sometimes necessary distraction from the realities of both 2020 and actual adulthood.