Animal Crossing: New Horizons is Predatory Capitalism at its Worst

When I was a youth, the very first Animal Crossing was released for the Nintendo Gamecube. It was such an odd game. The concept was different from anything I had ever considered playing before. It was like The Sims and DinoPark Tycoon had a baby. But it was intriguing, so I bought it. It was a surprisingly fun game. I still remember it quite fondly. And I’m speaking as a person who doesn’t play games like Minecraft, Stardew Valley, or The Sims and have never had any interest in those types of games. But Animal Crossing was just the right level of resource management and progress to be fun for a casual sim player.

More than one sequel to Animal Crossing has been released since the first one launched in 2001. The franchise expanded into handheld consoles and mobile games. I skipped all of these. It’s not that I didn’t want to play more Animal Crossing. It’s just that I never owned any of Nintendo’s handhelds after the Gameboy Advance and didn’t want to. It wasn’t until two decades later that I finally purchased another Animal Crossing game for the Nintendo Switch. This is of course the recently released Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

Animal Crossing New Horizons Screenshot 2020-04-21 15-08-20I really like New Horizons. It’s by no means a perfect game but it is quite fun, for whatever reason. It delivers that same feeling I got playing the original all those years ago. It is interesting how the game is very much driven by money and Capitalist ideals while also being very relaxed and easy going. People often joke about Tom Nook being a robber baron type but if we’re honest he gives you interest free loans and lets you pay them off at whatever pace you like. He’s very fast about completing construction projects and doesn’t charge you extra for labor. Money is certainly a component but it’s not the driving force of the game. Really the game is just about building a community that makes you happy. I have seen so many amazing creations, designs, and concepts developed in New Horizons. I have visited islands that made me feel like an inferior Resident Representative because of how shitty my island looks by comparison. It is a delightful game that allows people to express themselves in ways I couldn’t have even conceived of when playing the original Animal Crossing back in 2001. But money is still a part of the game and that fact has brought out the worst in Nintendo’s user base.

Animal Crossing New Horizons Screenshot 2020-04-21 15-00-12Nintendo fans, which I do include myself in, often get a bad rap. We are known for our incessant complaining and unruly demands.  We are often labeled as some of the most virulent members of the gaming community. While XBOX and PlayStation users are constantly at each other’s throats, Nintendo users are usually fighting each other and attacking the people who make the games we play. Look at how people responded to Pokémon: Sword & Shield. Look at how the Smash Bros. Ultimate community behaves when it comes to discussing DLC characters. One has to admit that Nintendo fans are often guilty of heinous levels of nonsense. Many people see Nintendo fans as childish. The fact that most Nintendo games are geared towards younger audiences definitely adds to that image. At the same time, that childish image has allowed Nintendo fans to be seen as some of the most wholesome members of the gaming community as well. Nintendo fans aren’t complaining about loot boxes or the level of gore in a game. We just want to be able to give our characters purple hair and green shoes. Or at least that’s how the stereotypes tend to come off. If you had asked me which group of gamers were most likely to try to take advantage of each other for profit, I never would have said Nintendo users . . . until I played Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

Royal CrownWhile money is not meant to be the main focus of New Horizons, it does play a crucial role. Money allows you to do all the fantastic things you want to do. Increasing the size of your house costs money. Changing the layout of your island’s buildings and infrastructure costs money. Adding new villagers to your island costs money. Buying the awesome clothes you want like the Royal Crown (sold at the in game store for 1,200,000 bells) costs money. Now the point of the game is to take your time. Things don’t cost money to make you care a lot about money. They cost money to give you a concrete reason to keep playing the game. To keep catching and selling fish and insects. To keep cultivating fruit. The money is there as a motivator to keep you playing the game. But the online component of this particular Animal Crossing installment allows money to control the way players play the game both alone and with others. And it has brought out the worst in people.

Over the 105 hours I’ve played New Horizons I’ve come to understand the game as having three main stages of gameplay which I will refer to as early game, mid game, and late game. Note that I’m not saying this was Nintendo’s intent when building the game. I’m just saying that based on what I have witnessed in other players and felt myself, this is how users are playing/experiencing the game.

Animal Crossing New Horizons Screenshot 2020-04-21 14-58-58Early game is some of the most gratifying but also depressing gameplay. Everything is new. Everything is fun. You are motivated to do all kinds of things without complaining. I chopped so much wood during the early game. Every day I went through my entire island and shook all the trees for twigs and then hit them all for wood piles. I did this almost religiously without complaining. I made sure to hit every rock, dig every dig spot, and catch as many fish and bugs as I could. Why? Because I needed more money. I needed to turn my tent into a house. I needed to expand that house for more storage space. I needed to buy land plots so I could add more villagers. I needed money. In the early game, I was happy to do manual labor in order to acquire that money. For me, it was about work ethic. If I wanted to expand, I had to be willing to earn it. And for a long time I did earn it. I paid off all the home loans save for the last two with manual labor. I paid off two inclines and two bridges with manual labor. Every piece of furniture or clothing I acquired was either crafted, sourced from the environment/villagers, or paid for with manual labor. I didn’t even get to play the stalk market for the first time until I was already on my second to last home loan, built the Nook’s Cranny store, and had manually paid for at least five villagers to move in. I did this because I had a vision for what I wanted my island to be and I was motivated to work towards it.

Animal Crossing New Horizons Screenshot 2020-04-21 14-58-46Late game is when the player has finally reached their vision. It’s when you’ve paid off everything, gotten the clothes you want, gotten enough houses for the number of villagers you want/need, and have finally built the island you want. The infrastructure, the building placement, the land marks. All these things that make your island a home are finally acquired and in place. It will have taken you lots of time and several million bells to accomplish, but it can eventually be done. Late game, which I haven’t personally reached yet, is an interesting place, because it’s like the early game in that you’re playing for the enjoyment of it. You don’t have things you have to do anymore. You have things you want to do. You don’t have to farm every day for bells. If you want to fish or catch bugs you just do it for love of the game. Money is no problem. You have millions of bells stored in the bank. You simply play the game because you want to and wait for special occurrences and events. It’s the way the game was meant to be played and it took time and hard work to get there. It’s a beautiful place that all Animal Crossing players hope to reach some day. But to get there you have to get through the mid game.

Animal Crossing New Horizons Screenshot 2020-04-21 15-10-26Mid game is a bad place. It’s where most players are currently and where you spend the bulk of your time and effort. This is where you are now a bit jaded and tired of manual labor. You have found certain ways to make money faster. You play the stalk market regularly. And worst of all, you’ll do just about anything to make a quick bell. Because you need those bells. You’re not in it for the fun anymore. You’re in it for the vision. You want to build that amusement park with giant robots and rides. You want a perfectly paved road system lined with Imperial walls and high end bridges. You want that royal crown. Fun is gone. Now it’s about respect and prestige. You know what you want and you see it in reach. But it will cost you a lot of money. And making that money manually is just gonna take more time than people in 2020 want to devote to hard work. So you start wheeling and dealing. And you become a monster.

New Horizons has an optional online component. They want players to interact with each other both locally and online. In order to motivate players to do this, they have built in a number of incentives. People, being people, took advantage of this fact and have turned to profiteering. This is the mid game in a nutshell.

Animal Crossing New Horizons Screenshot 2020-04-21 15-10-17One of the quickest ways to make money in New Horizons is the “stalk market”. The fact that it’s a play on the phrase “stock market” is intentional and sadly prophetic. Every Sunday morning, you can buy turnips. They are sold by a single traveling vendor at a price that fluctuates from week to week. You then have seven days to sell them to a different vendor and hopefully make a profit. The vendor that buys them from you changes prices twice a day every day except on Sundays when they aren’t buying. If you do not sell them within seven days of purchase, they rot and become useless. As the old adage states, “buy low, sell high” is the name of the game. The way it’s meant to be played is one week the vendor may sell the turnips at 104 bells and then the other vendor will hopefully buy them from you at an increase. Say 155 bells as a common example. You then have to choose if you want to sell at that price or wait for a better one. Sometimes a better price comes and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes a price lower than the best you saw comes that will still net you a profit and sometimes the price is lower than what you bought at. The name of the game is knowing when to sell. Most of the time the sell price is relatively normal. It usually falls somewhere between 80 and 200 bells. The price you bought at usually ranges between 90 and 120 bells. So if you invest 100K bells you’ll probably net about 50% in profit or about 50K bells total, give or take. But every so often the buyer will offer a crazy high price like 600 bells. Enter predatory human capitalism.

Animal Crossing New Horizons Screenshot 2020-04-21 15-11-15Now you can play the right way and just buy and sell on your own island. Or you can play the smart way and buy and sell on whatever island you can get to with the best price. This week my island had a turnip selling price of 108 bells. That’s a pretty meh price all things considered, but it’s very normal. I didn’t buy on my island. Instead I went to the Discord and found an island selling turnips at 91 bells. I bought my turnips there. Then a day later my island was buying at 107 bells. Now if I had bought at 108 from my local vendor, that’s a losing price. I would absolutely have needed to wait for a better price later in the week and hope it eventually came. But since I bought at 91 bells on a different island, I could have turned a profit selling at 108 bells. I didn’t do that though, because it’s not smart and only mildly profitable. I found another island buying turnips at 621 bells. I sold there. I flipped 250K bells worth of turnips in less than 24 hours for a profit of about 1.6 million bells. Before that, the most money I had ever had at one time was 750K bells, which I earned from manual labor. I made more than double that in a fraction of the time. It’s a great way to get to the late game faster. It should be no surprise that islands that can offer those services are in high demand. And anything with a high demand can be used for profit. Even when used by Nintendo gamers.

Animal Crossing New Horizons Screenshot 2020-04-21 15-02-52Nintendo wanted people to interact with each other in friendly ways. They wanted people to help each other with the occasional friendly trade or visit for fruit. That’s not how people are playing the game though. People are using the benefits of their islands to make staggering profits. Here’s the scenario. Person A has invested one million bells into turnips at a price of 94 bells. That’s a good price. It’s also a big investment. Person A only has seven days to flip those turnips before they rot. If they aren’t sold in time, that’s one million bells down the drain in the form of 10,638 rotten turnips, which cannot be sold for anything. In fact, I think there’s even a fee to dispose of them. Person B has a vendor buying turnips at 600 bells. If Person A can manage to sell his 10,638 turnips at Person B’s island, he will net a profit of about 5,382,800 bells. Assuming he can flip those turnips at those prices on the first day, that’s more than five million bells made in less than 24 hours. Now Person B can choose to be a good Samaritan and just let Person A come sell at his/her island. But that doesn’t help Person B at all. Person B has to do some things in order to let Person A sell at their island. Person B has to be online the entire time it takes Person A to sell. If it takes multiple trips, because of carry inventory limits, then Person B has to wait around for Person A to make multiple trips. Person B can’t do much on their island while Person A is there, due to limitations set by Nintendo to make sure nothing nefarious happens like thefts or people being trapped on foreign islands. Person B also has Person C, Person D, and many other people also wanting to sell their turnips at 600 bells a piece. Person B will logically feel entitled to something in return for helping Person A make all those bells. And arguably Person B isn’t wrong.

Rotten TurnipsPerson A understands Person B’s situation and offers to share some of those bells or something else they might have that Person B wants in exchange for letting them sell their turnips at a profit. But Person C also wants to sell on Person B’s island. And Person B only has a limited amount of time before the turnip price changes. So Person C offers Person B more than what Person A offered. Now Person B is in a position of power. Person B can make demands. Person B can hold an auction. Person B has a supply that’s highly in demand. And Person B knows it.

I didn’t get to flip my turnips for free. I got to buy at 91 bells for free because I found a good Samaritan, but those are rare. Most people on the Discord are charging an entry fee to buy/sell turnips on their island, when the prices are good. And some of those fees are absolutely ridiculous. I had to pay a fee to sell my turnips at 621 bells. It cost me six Nook Miles Tickets (NMT) to travel to that island and sell my turnips. NMT are weird in the fact that their value is very relative. There are many different ways to qualify them. For whatever reason they have become the main currency in the Discord market. I think the best way to qualify them is based on the amount of manual labor it takes to acquire them. Without getting into the minutia of it, it’s fair to say that one NMT takes about 2 hours to acquire on average if we’re talking minimum earning rates. So six NMT equals about 12 hours of gameplay labor time on average, if you earned them honestly. I did not, but we’ll come to that later.

Animal Crossing New Horizons Screenshot 2020-04-21 14-59-16The point is that the owner of the island where I flipped my turnips charged me 12 hours of labor as an entry fee for something he did not earn. And I paid it happily. Because that was actually a really good price in the market. A large number of players charge astronomically high prices just for entry to their islands. 10 NMT is common. Rare materials and recipes, special items, and large numbers of bells are all common demands. The most ironic part being that they often refer to these taxes as “tips”, as if they’re optional. It’s a disgusting display of greed and opulence. But again, this is what happens when you’re in the mid game. Because you don’t want to be there so you do whatever it takes to get out as quickly as possible. And I am just as guilty as everyone else.

The problem with this predatory profiteering behavior in New Horizons is that it spreads like a virus. One person doing it leads to more people doing it because they all need to come up with fast ways to acquire the means of paying the entry fees to other players. I needed to flip my turnips. This required NMT. Now I could spend my Nook Miles and buy them, but as I said, that’s about two hours of labor per a ticket. It was much easier and more efficient to take part in my own greedy business dealings . . . and that’s exactly what I did.

Animal Crossing New Horizons Screenshot 2020-04-20 00-04-34Celeste is an NPC that occasionally visits your island at night. She visits maybe three times in a month at most. Every time you speak to her on a new date or island, you get a special rare recipe. There is a list of these rare recipes that can only be acquired from her or from someone else who acquired one from her. Some of her recipes are also seasonal, meaning you have a limited amount of time to acquire them before you have to wait an entire year to get them again. So being able to visit islands that have her is very high in demand. So high in fact that people will literally line up to visit them and happily pay a “modest” fee.  The night I bought my turnips, Celeste showed up at my island. I had already spent several hours trying to find an island that would let me sell my turnips at a good rate (600+ bells each) for a “fair” price. The demands were often atrocious. 10 NMT, super rare recipes, 5% of the total turnip earnings, and other ridiculous demands. It was a gross display of greed. Eventually I realized that I simply couldn’t afford to pay these entry fees if I did not also play the game in order to amass resources to pay them. So I too succumbed to the allure of predatory Capitalism.

Animal Crossing New Horizons Screenshot 2020-04-21 15-11-19I advertised on the Discord that I would let people come to my island to see Celeste for their choice of 99K bells (the minimum unit currently used in the market for passage to other islands), one NMT, or any number of rusted parts. Let’s be very clear what I was doing. I was charging people to come to my island to spend a few minutes with Celeste. Celeste is not part of my island. I did nothing to get her to come there. She just showed up for a visit and I trapped her there so I could sell visits to her off to needy strangers for personal gain. Essentially I participated in forced prostitution. Nobody’s going to call it that, but in reality that’s what it was. And it was damn profitable. In a span of just two hours, Celeste had serviced more than 20 customers. I amassed six NMT, four or five rusted parts, and enough money to pay off my second to last home loan (1.7 Million bells). Business was booming. The only reason I finally stopped pimping out Celeste was that it got to 3AM and I had to work the next day. Ultimately I used those six NMT I “earned” to pay for passage to sell my turnips. All of this was/is gross. It’s a disgusting display of greed, selfishness, and a complete lack of ethical business practices. Even Gordon Gekko would be ashamed. Yet so much of the player base is doing it, and they’re unapologetic about it.

Turnup ExchangeThe online business of New Horizons is so commonplace and so lucrative that someone created a website to help people manage their visitors. Turnip Exchange lets users post their island to a public list and automates the entire process of finding and queuing players to visit their islands. It’s scary how well it works and how realistic it is to real world business practices. It’s impersonal, it’s efficient, it’s Capitalism at its worst. Yet I played along. We all do. That’s just how the mid game is. You don’t want to be there and people are charging. So you have to charge in order to be able to pay the fees other players are charging. It’s an endless cycle of mindless consumption and greed. And it’s all happening with wholesome intentions. We all just want to build our dream islands and reach the late game. That desire has turned us all into monsters and ultimately the game is made worse for it. But I need to amass like 10M bells to accomplish everything I want, so what choice do I have?

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