I’m scared to go back to my town in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I put the game down one day in late March and I haven’t been back. Of course, I’m worried about the weeds and my ninja rabbit neighbour Snake who’s probably been aching to tell me about his workout regimen, that loveable little rascal.
Yet, as the pandemic has trudged along, I’ve found myself increasingly disillusioned with this – admittedly – great game. It wants me to check in every day, work to its schedule and meet its spectral standards so I can get a little dog with a guitar to come play ‘Wonderwall’ in my plaza.
Personally, I don’t have time for that, but there are hordes of people who have latched onto the game with admirable gusto. It makes a lot of sense – Animal Crossing has become a serene salve for the millions of people stuck at home due to the coronavirus, but not every community development related to this game has been wholesome.
In fact, a lot of the player-made systems that have cropped up as a consequence of its overwhelming success have exposed an alarming dark side to this supposedly wholesome game.
Let’s talk about villager trafficking. If you’ve played New Horizons, you’ll know that you don’t get to choose who accompanies you on your island. In my case, I restarted because there was an ugly frog called Diva in my starting duo. Judge me all you like, but this fickle approach to population control has spawned an entire industry, where people are laying down cold hard cash to get the villagers of their dreams.
If you’ve been anywhere near the Animal Crossing Twitter in the past two months, you will have most likely stumbled upon Raymond, the heterochromatic cat dork who wears a waistcoat. At first, I saw all the fan art and thought it was cute that this sweet kitty was getting so much attention. But the crushing reality behind his god-like status is so much darker than even I could imagine.
If you’re keen to get a certain villager to live on your island, players can buy and use Amiibo Cards, but these only cover villagers from previous entries in the series. Raymond here is new to Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and as such, you can’t just summon him into your game – he has to be found organically.
Because capitalism demands it, entrepreneurial players have set up multiple means to mitigate the grind, resulting in websites like nook.market and, laughably, Nookazon. Both of these websites function as online marketplaces where players can buy and sell everything from pansies to pandas, and yes, you guessed it… villagers.
This capitalist nightmare has been big business for those lucky enough to own this special cat – all you have to do is annoy Raymond enough until he wants to leave your island.
If you’re able to empty his proverbial litter tray, you’ll enter the part of the trafficking system where the villager is referred to as being “in boxes.” From there, you can proceed to gouge desperate players for millions of bells, the in-game currency, or hundreds of Nook Miles Tickets, which allow players to travel to other islands. It’s led to many Raymond stans rushing to eBay to exchange serious capital for virtual debt to make up the difference.
Once you’ve trapped Raymond in his house so there’s no foul play, you can set up a trade, where the crafty salesman opens up their island to the buyer found online. They drop their agreed bells and are then allowed into Raymond’s cell to liberate him from his captor.
For those of you who can’t quite muster a million bells to traffick Raymond to your island, you can always purchase a photo of him on Nookazon to hang in your home for a cool 990,000, and he’ll be there in err… comforting spirit. Isn’t capitalism great?
Of all the games to come out this year, I didn’t expect Animal Crossing to make me succumb to a vicious and nauseating ennui, but here we are. The silver lining is that this despairing dive into the economic complexity of the game’s early community has so effortlessly made me realise why I put the game down in the first place.
When I was 10 years old and I first played Wild World on my Nintendo DS, Animal Crossing was so alluring because of its escapist gift-sharing fantasy. I came back to that game every night because it reminded me so little of everyday life. In our increasingly interconnected world, New Horizons is shifting further and further from that fantasy, enabling the worst parts of the reality to cleave into its utopian charm. This is why we can’t have nice things!