Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a cutesy, slow-paced, abandoned island-them-up game by Nintendo, the same company that brought you such titles as Animal Crossing, Animal Crossing: Wild World, and Animal Crossing: New Leaf. Wikipedia describes the game as a "social simulation", but that's incorrect: this masks its true identity as an accidental expose of the unintended consequences of neoliberal, late-stage capitalism allowed to run riot.
"Of course it is," I hear you say, which really shouldn't be possible given you're reading this after I've written it. "Of course it is. I've seen all the memes about the capitalist racoon, how he runs this massive multinational corporation worth millions of dollars -- sorry, Bells. You're not telling me something I don't already know."
And yes, dear reader, that would be true for most of the instalments of Animal Crossing up to this point - but the implementation of a few new systems in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the latest Animal Crossing offering exclusive for Nintendo's Nintendo Switch, named after Nintendo, the company that made the Nintendo Switch means that this time, the real villain is you.
(The racoon isn't innocent, though.)
First, though, some background.
So innocent. So pure. And yet behind the eyes: nothing.
You play as Mute Protagonist, a humanoid who has apparently grown weary of the rat race in the Big City and desires a simpler, more agrarian life away on an abandoned island with no contact with the outside world or any of the neocapitalist institutions of modern life, like influencers, Twitter, or running water. With the help of Nook Incorporated, and its Chief Executive Officer and main capitalist racoon of the game Tom Nook, you jet off to said abandoned island and get on with the process of turning it into exactly the kind of currency-centric dystopia you claimed to be trying to get away from.
Nevertheless, you give the whole rough island lifestyle the old college try for about thirty seconds and then decide actually you'd rather not spend your life living in a tent and promptly ask Tom Nook, ever the philanthropist, to fit you a line of credit to construct a house that won't blow over in a harsh wind. Because this is a video game and, frankly, nothing is real, the house is constructed not 24 hours later, and precisely to your exacting specifications! All that's left is to settle the tab: some 93,000 Bells. Don't worry, though! Because this is ETHICAL capitalism, there's no such thing as a "repayment term", or "interest", or "this is exactly the kind of sub-prime mortgage lending that directly precipated the 2008 housing crisis". Just pay it off bit by bit when you can, selling off the various bugs and detritus you pick up on the island to Tom Nook's two idiot sons who will, for some reason, buy pretty much anything you have to sell.
One more thing you need to know before we launch directly into a Marxist analysis of a video game made for children: after the first day, you can start spending Nook Miles, points that you earn by getting achievements by, you know, catching a bunch of bugs, or fish, or whatever, and convert them into Nook Miles Tickets. These tickets allow you to catch a flight from the airport on the southern coast of your island directly to another, completely abandoned island, which you can then immediately start picking apart for its natural resources, safe in the knowledge that neither you nor anyone else will ever return. (I wonder, perhaps, whether this is showing my hand a little too soon.)
So here's my detailed analysis of why Capitalism Bad, Animal Crossing Bad, and why no one should listen to anyone about politics except me ever again.
Pictures taken mere seconds before disaster
Capitalism is baked into Animal Crossing's gameplay
What is the objective of Animal Crossing? There's no real overarching plotline or anything like that - you're a kid on an island who hangs out on an island and catches bugs and fish and the like. The only really permanent sense of forward progression comes from two things: first, and not as important but still worthy of consideration for our purposes here, is the various shops and things you can add to your island. One of the very first folks that turns up is Blathers the museum owl, who wants to start a museum on the island but first needs you to capture and cage a bunch of the local faunae for him so he can prove to his handlers on the mainland that the museum is worthy of, like, existing? It's vague. Anyway, remember Blathers, I'm coming back for him later.
More importantly is the second sense of forward progress in Animal Crossing: expanding your house. Once you've built your house and paid off your home loan, you're free! At least, as free as someone can be in a game specifically designed to be limited and played in bits over a long period of time. Free though you are, however, Tom Nook, the temptress himself, basically dangles a bit of cheese in front of your rat-like nose, going, "Oh well it's all very nice having a house, but what if your house was... BIGGER? Just something to think about. Catch you later!" Of course, you can stick your nose up at this if you choose - I did, for a time - but no one resists the siren song of an expanded house for long. Soon enough, you're back in the hole to the tune of 200,000 Bells; but hey, you now have an additional forty storage slots there to hold all of the weeds and flowers and things that you pick while you languish in an unpayable amount of debt.
Or is it unpayable? This is where Animal Crossing shows its true colours: at Nook's Cranny, a store which gets built on the island once you've gathered enough wood and iron for the two idiot children of Ayn Rand--sorry, Tom Nook, you can, as we discussed, sell the things in your inventory in exchange for Bells, that you can then take to Tom Nook to start paying off the loan that you owe, as though you're roleplaying the United States implementing the Marshall Plan and moving your money from one U.S. Treasury building to another. However, if you REALLY want to get that loan paid off quick-fast, Nook's Cranny every day has a hot item - an item that they will pay double the usual asking price for if you sell it to them. Conveniently, this item will quite often be something that you can easily fabricate with Animal Crossing's new crafting system! For instance, one day the hot item on my island was a basic DIY workbench. I'll save you the specifics - essentially, all you need to make a DIY workbench is five of a particular kind of wood that you can get by chopping down trees. Five of that kind of wood is not massively complicated to get. My two remaining braincells put two and two together and realised that I could easily make a production line of DIY workbenches, sell them to the Nook brothers, and then pay off my home loan in one day!
Which is what I tried to do; only as I was deforesting my entire island - interesting that the game didn't tell me to commit eco-terrorism, but that I learned to do so organically through the other systems of the game - I realised something that I probably should have accounted for: as though experiencing my own Alexander the Great moment, I realised there would come a time that I would have no more trees to cut down. That's a problem, because in order to pay off this and my subsequent home loans, I needed to constantly be turning the gears of the little DIY workbench economy I had created and generating Bells. Fortunately, I guess the brain trust at Nintendo clocked that, because in addition to the other new features exclusive to New Horizons, you can now spend some of those Nook Miles you have for a Nook Miles Ticket! Now there's no limit to the islands I could visit, pilfer, reduce to basically nothing, and then never think about again so that I can give a pixellated racoon money for a house that I never spend any time in because I'm always too busy trying to make Bells to pay off the latest improvement to the house I'm ostensibly doing this all for! If I feel especially lacking in morals, I can even do a British Museum run of the game, stealing all of the other islands' fossils and handing them over to Blathers the owl, now an unwitting conspirator in my unbridled quest for capitalist actualisation.
At this point, you might be saying that maybe my three years studying for an undergraduate degree in politics has gone to my head. You would be right - but also, it's interesting to see that systems and institutions of capitalism have become so ingrained in our common culture that they even emerged, organically, out of gameplay. I can't imagine that the team behind the game got together to work out the minutiae of ensuring that everyone who played the game would leave with a greater, or subconscious, acceptance of capitalism as a system of handling economic policy, which makes it even more interesting from both a political perspective and a game design perspective that such emergent systems materialised ANYWAY.
In conclusion, this is forty minutes of my time I could've spent doing something else, don't make the same mistakes I did, thank you for coming to my TED Talk.