Accomplishing Things In Animal Crossing Leaves Me Feeling Kinda Bummed

Image: Nintendo, Screenshot: Nathan Grayson

Earlier this week, my partner quit playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I have continued to incrementally improve my island with new establishments, nicer houses, and a preponderance of glassy-eyed, unblinking gnome statues. But mostly, I just fish and catch bugs. “It’s something to do with my hands,” I say to her in an attempt to explain my choice of leisure activity. It feels satisfying. It feels like progress. It feels like a job well done. But then I stop playing, and I worry that I’ve wasted my time.

For me and so many others, Animal Crossing has become the social distancing game of choice. It projects a verdant island paradise onto our overworked, flickering screens, an ideal escape from the cold interiors we’re vacuum-sealed inside of for the foreseeable future. It’s also perfect for our current moment in small ways: It can be played in bite-sized chunks, between remote work meetings, classes, and virtual hangouts. It’s on the Switch, so you can carry it from the bedroom to the living room, or, if you’re a truly depraved individual, to the bathroom. It’s mindless enough that you can play it while watching TV or chatting with friends over Discord. There are so many tiny new gaps in some of our lives for crumbs of idle time to slip through; Animal Crossing caulks them right up. Its particular illusion is especially gratifying: In a time of chaos, it feels like productivity aimed in a singularly satisfying direction, a straightforward track of immutable progress toward goals like home ownership. You put in the work, you’ll get the reward.

Right now, there is a societal pressure to use the time we no longer spent commuting, hanging out with friends, or going to events to be productive. Whether it’s explicit ovations in that direction from publications or just your friend who keeps posting videos of themselves virtuosically playing the guitar they “just picked back up” while reading several works of classic literature, the message is clear: We are trapped inside, so why not enrich ourselves? Isaac Newton did it, apparently! And so did Shakespeare! You and I are at least as good as those pioneering individuals whose names will forever reverberate through the halls of history. Of course, there’s been a backlash to this school of thought; this is an unprecedented pandemic, after all. It’s OK to feel overwhelmed and directionless while the planet spins off its axis. It’s OK to take a load off while you try to figure out what’s next. It’s OK to cope.

Coping: a visual representation. (Image: Nintendo, Screenshot: Nathan Grayson)

Still, while I tell myself that, I haven’t been able to escape the feeling that I’m not being productive enough. When I’m feeling that way, my first inclination is to pick up my guitar, read a book I bought months ago, or even just start one of many acclaimed games that litter my backlog, like Control. But then I turn my glance mere inches away from my computer screen, and there lies my Switch with Animal Crossing. I’ll play for just 15 minutes, I tell myself. Or maybe 20. 30? I’ll do a few chores: Pull some weeds, build some fences, save a neighbour from *checks paper* the coronavirus. That’ll be it. But then I decide to fish for a little bit. And I realise I need to dig up and deliver some fossils to museum curator Blathers. Oh, and the Nook store is offering double bells for an item I can craft, so I need to gather supplies for that. And hey, and I just remembered that I ordered a new piece of furniture, so I need to reorganise my entire bedroom to accommodate it. Two hours pass.

I feel accomplished when I’m done with all this. The complexion of my village, however minutely, has changed. My obsessive quest to buy as many garden gnomes as possible has paid off, and now I can surround the entryway to my island with them to trap visitors in a gnome hallway of horrible, beady stares. My home has gone from a hodgepodge of items I like to a two-room “interactive experience” featuring a giant dinosaur who listens to ska. I beam with pride. I turn to tell my partner. But midway through my explanation, I deflate. What is the point of all this? What am I doing? What have I actually accomplished, aside from adding another tower to a sandcastle that’s just gonna get washed away as soon as everybody moves on to a different game?

Then I go online. I see other people’s creations, and they blow my dinky little island out of the water. Their houses have pop culture themes and custom art. Their village layouts are clean and orderly, with paved roads and discrete landmarks. They’re inviting people to visit for guided tours, raves, and turnip sales. Seeing this makes me not want anybody to visit my island. I would be embarrassed. But I have another realisation, too: I will never care enough to put in the kind of work it takes to create such an impressive island.

I mean that in terms of raw effort, but also in that there are different varieties of work. When I play Animal Crossing, I fall into a sort of aimless trance. I see a thing that needs doing, and then I do it. I chain together activities. There is rhyme and reason underlying parts of my island—like my dinosaur ska room and the little grove behind my house—but otherwise, it’s just the result of whatever I had on me at the time. I don’t want to think that hard while playing Animal Crossing. Its overall theme and pace suggest that I shouldn’t—it’s meant to be a soothing getaway, not some kind of brain-straining exercise in min/maxed organisation and productivity. Ideally, Animal Crossing is a place where I go to do a sort of ritualistic, mindless work. It’s like cleaning your kitchen: You go through the same motions every time, but you always come away feeling good about it.

But New Horizons is frequently at odds with itself. Seeing other players’ accomplishments makes it hard to just settle into a relaxing work rhythm. It quietly (and sometimes loudly) asks you to do considered, deliberate work. It’s filled with systems that encourage a min/max mentality: Items you can sell for double bells, more lucrative fruits you can collect, money trees you can plant to make passive income, turnips whose prices fluctuate wildly. These mechanics are often tied in with the game’s social systems. You can visit other players’ islands to collect different fruits and sell your turnips. This allows you to amass more money and build a more impressive island yourself. There is intrinsic satisfaction to improving your island, sure, but there’s also a performative element: After all that hard work, you’re gonna want to show it off. But if your island pales in comparison to other people’s, why trot it out for all the world to see? So you’ve got to be more deliberate in the construction of your island, more consciously productive in your work.

OK, I am actually kinda proud of this. (Image: Nintendo, Screenshot: Nathan Grayson)

Animal Crossing presents the fantasy of a world in which the mechanics of capitalism—production and the means thereof, bosses, buying, selling, earning, and so on—can be divorced from the imperatives underlying it. You can pay off your debts whenever you want. You can spend your time however you choose. The Nooks will never run out of money to spend on trash you find on the beach. The island will always sprout new resources. Islanders you force to leave will always find new homes. So you can go nuts. You can produce and produce and produce, and there will be no environmental consequences.

It’s an appealing fantasy, especially during a time when unbridled production and expansion have ultimately created a society that’s proven horrifically frail in the face of a pandemic that’s forced many people to stop working. But it’s a fantasy that hasn’t really worked for me, because Animal Crossing still exists in a world that runs on real capitalism. In our hyper-connected capitalist world, especially right now, productivity in general—not just in Animal Crossing—can be performative. We equate productivity with worth and meaning because it’s what we’ve been primed to do. Even if we’re stuck in our homes without a direct monetary incentive to produce, we still want to show off how productive we’re being—learning new skills, reading, writing—because then at least this abrupt pause to our lives can mean something.

So I find myself in a weird place with Animal Crossing. On one hand, I want to turn off my brain and use the game as a means of relaxing, unwinding, and coping during these terrible times. In some ways, it’s great for that. It offers an endless procession of simple chores that are nonetheless satisfying. Each day, I can enjoy my tiny ritual for a handful of minutes or hours. But the game also models real-world systems that make me feel like I should be doing more than playing silly old Animal Crossing, or that if I decide to play it, I should be doing so in pursuit of some greater goal: the ultimate island with a coherent theme and the best stores and the coolest villagers that demonstrates my own prowess and productivity. That’s not really what I want to do, but I nonetheless feel like it’s what I should be doing.

All of which is to say: I guess if I just wanted something to do with my hands, I should have taken up knitting.


Comments

    Animal Crossing: Loan Paying Simulator has gone from a great escape to a boring chore for me. I’m still early in the game, so I don’t have a lot unlocked at the moment like so many others. I just jump into the game, catch some bugs or fish, do hat I can to move the island along and then turn the game off to wait for new things the next day. It’s not a game I can push myself to play for hours because the content comes in small chunks unless you cheat. I’m now finding it boring and would much rather play Pokèmon again over this game.

      Feel the same way. I like AC, I really do. But I can't seem to sink more than 30 mins into it at a time before feeling a bit bored. I'm still living out of a tent and struggling with inventory space. I hear it opens up if you push through - I just can't find the steam to push through. Keep going back to Yoshi's Crafted World and Valfaris instead.

        In the first day I built my house and the museum. Haven't time skipped or cheated.

        Currently have a fully built house, customised island with multiple ramps and bridges and still have 5 million in the bank.

        It is a game gated by story day time gates, but there is still heaps to do if you just wander your island + plant every fruit you get (I had something like 400 trees at my peak).

        But I agree at this point I've hit that, log in. Play for 20 mins. Log out.

      Having something chill to do for 30 minutes a day sounds like a nice way to play the game!

      That's because AC isn't designed to be played for hours on end. It's meant to be played in short bursts. Log in a few times every day (different fish/bugs spawn at different times of day), play for 30 mins or so, and then go and do something else.

    I have been playing a lot of Animal Crossing. I have the opposite feeling to those comments above and feel like I can put long stints into the game. For me there is always something to do and achieve, yes if you do push through it really opens up. Also, I feel the same. All my friends are exercising, taking dogs for walks, gardening, reading too. But you know what, I am happy playing my Animal Crossing, how many times in our life are we actually forced to stay home and actually have time for the hobby we like. I am going to use my gaming time wisely!

    How many articles do we need about this game!? It's scope is severely limited, enjoyment seems to be somewhere behind games from 10-20 years ago, and it appears modelled on the popcap games model of leading people toward paying for stuff later on.

    Yet every day we have 2-4 articles about it?

    Seriously Kotaku, write something you haven't already covered please.

      Sites like Kotaku base the quantity of articles off SEO and metadata. As long ad Animal Crossing is popular, they have to put out articles to meet the demand. The only reason we're seeing so many articles is because the data is telling Kotaku that it is a highly searched for topic right now, so they are rightly funnelling Google traffic here.
      TL;DR - AC is popular, whether you are interested in it or not, and Kotaku is a business.

        alternatively, the author has been playing Animal Crossing to cope with the unprecedented shitstorm the world finds itself in at the moment and yet it turned out to not be such a great coping mechanism, so he decided to write about his feelings instead.

      Oh dang you got me, I was enjoying this game mindlessly but now I guess I won't anymore because it's less enjoyable to you than a game from 10-20 years ago. Thanks for the heads up!

      "it's scope is severely limited" tell that to that grandma who has played over 4000 hours of new leaf.

    I'm very sorry to hear that your partner has quit playing Animal Crossing New Horizons Nathan. I'm not really a huge Animal Crossing fan myself I would be more interested exploring Outback Australia in the HD remaster of TY the Tasmanian Tiger on the Nintendo Switch made by Queensland developer Krome Studios which I will be downloading very soon since I haven't played the original Gamecube game back in 2002 when it was originally published by Electronic Arts.
    The other thing I'm also looking forward to is some more DLC fighters for both Super Smash Bros. Ultimate some more Pokemon regions to explore including the The Isle of Armor and The Crown Tundra in the Pokemon Shield Expansion Pass as well as Pokemon Mystery Dungeon Rescue Team DX.

    I think you're overthinking Animal Crossing my friend. If you find it enjoyable to mindlessly fish or pull weeds or whatever, do it. If you don't because you want to have the perfect island and can't justify the time spent to do that, then don't. I feel like this is much more of an "I can't decide how to spend my time" issue than it is a game issue; do whatever you want. You don't have to feel guilty or embarrassed about doing something you enjoy, regardless of the outcome.

    Any game save for the educational ones is a pure time waster. Whether you waste time beating hellspawn to a bloody pulp with your bare hands or fishing and catching bugs to sell to a duo of raccoon boys, it makes no difference. In the grand scheme of things you've achieved nothing but wasting time in a way that's entertaining to you.
    AC is good for that. Yes, it has quite a few money-making mechanics for those who love min-maxing, but you can ignore those completely and play at your own pace. I haven't bothered with turnips at all and I only craft and sell hot items when I feel like it. Other than that I just do the usual chores and go back to grinding in Diablo 3.

    “It’s a fantasy that hasn’t really worked for me, because Animal Crossing still exists in a world that runs on real capitalism.”
    Jesus Christ, how do people like this function?

      Therapy and possibly medication if their doctor recommends it, one hopes.

      I mean, I get it. The urge to fall into nihilistic apathy is strong sometimes, and now and then some glimmering reflection, bouncing off something as simple or weird as, say... a video game, shows you the ugly, maddening pointlessness of it all until you succeed in struggling to hide back within the confines of distraction. Intentionally narrowing your vision of the world and your place in it to something that fits into a life, rather than the timeline of the cosmos.

        I reminded of when George asked Jerry not to be funny to prevent his girlfriend finding him attractive over George, so then he gives this maudlin speech about the futility of life, which she finds even more attractive.

    Don't sweat it, those Twitter folk who have amazing islands are most likely filthy time travellers ????

    The issue is, we are at a point where we have being trained toefficient that we have removed fun out of life. And if you are having fun, but not being productive, your not living the best life. Wait, is it not life to enjoy what you do? So i think if your having fun for those few hours in these times, well bloody go for it.

    After all i spent 2-3 hours on animal crossing to make a dress im not proud of, then my partner turnt to me and asked, did you have fun? And then added, you are your own worst critic.

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