Is Tom Nook a capitalist?

Animal Crossing Stock Photo
Animal Crossing Stock Photo By ‘sodawhiskey’ on Adobe Stock

This is my second article in a row on Animal Crossing New Horizons, as with the new DLC that came out about a week ago, it has started to consume me once again. It’s crazy to think that a game where you befriend cute animals who pretty much only talk about snacking and napping can have such an impact on your life and how you choose to spend your free time. What’s even crazier to me is that a game that looks this happy and adorable can have such a serious undertone hidden in plain sight. I’m just gonna go ahead and say it: Animal Crossing is about capitalism. And then I’m not talking about the millions and millions of profit Nintendo made on the game. If you read my last article, I think we can all say the extreme success of the game is based on its release during the start of the pandemic. 

Back to my point, in Animal Crossing New Horizons you go to a deserted island, where you meet your first two villagers and are greeted by the infamous tanuki Tom Nook and two other tanukis: Timmy and Tommy. These raccoon-like creatures help you on your way, they put a roof over your head and teach you how to farm materials and start your island adventure. As you progress, the tent provided by Tom Nook can be replaced by a small house. This of course does not come for free: it’s time to endeavour in the scary world of loans and mortgages. As you continue to upgrade your house at Tom Nook’s office, the loans you’re required to pay off get bigger and bigger. To get from the smallest house possible to the final upgrade costs roughly six million bells. The thing is though that the ways of earning money do not necessarily get easier. You must keep frantically planting new fruit trees or make furniture out of hard to find materials to then sell it for a small profit. Long story short, earning bells is a grind. After a few days of working hard, the game is no longer fun, it just becomes part of your daily list of chores. My routine for the entirety of the lockdown was: wake up, talk to all my villagers, farm all trees and stones on my island for materials, sell anything that would slightly increase my bells, and then I would finally get out of bed to go about my day. It was a chore, a part of my life and I was invested. 

And the reason why I was so invested was not because I liked having about a hundred trees covering 90% of my island, which all had to be harvested every few days. It was because the feeling of having an open loan was something I didn’t like. I’m a completionist when it comes to games. I want to be good at a game and I want to finish it completely, as fast as possible. But here’s the thing with Animal Crossing: the game progresses in real time. You’re simply not able to quickly speedrun through the game, you will have to wait multiple days before your trees have matured or until your house has been upgraded. Just like in real life, time is something you cannot influence or cheat. No matter how much money I need in real life, I can’t do more than my 9-5 job. And on my island, I can’t do more than harvest my produce and wait for a new batch while constantly collecting materials. The exhausting cycle of daily life and work just never ends, not even in a game as wholesome as Animal Crossing

I realised soon after I started the game the aspect of capitalism was commonly recognized online, In an article on The Atlantic by Ian Bogost he analyses his son as he tangles himself up in increasing loans and consumer behavior. Bogost writes:

‘’What the hell kind of video game consigns you to a mortgage when you boot it up? But Animal Crossing had taught my young son about the trap of long-term debt before he ever had a bank account.’’

Ian Bogost in The Quiet Revolution of Animal Crossing

Bogost refers to professor Naomi Clark from the NYU Game Center, who argues Animal Crossing is a classic Japanese furasato; an idealised, small seaside village which sustained itself with simple fishing and agricultural trade before industrialisation. The economies of these villages were too small to properly sustain the villager’s needs and the villagers would owe a debt they were unable to pay back, ultimately tying them to their villages. It’s similar as in Animal Crossing; if you owe something to your village, how can you leave? Furasato offers a mix of commerce and the idealized countryside. For a more elaborate explanation please refer here.

Other articles online however, see the game as more of a dystopian world, disguised as a cute world-building simulator. For instance, James Temperton in his article on Wired states: 

‘’You are free. But freedom is an illusion. Under the control of Tom Nook, the game’s benevolent tanuki overlord, you are put to work in the endless pursuit of what you assume must be some higher purpose.’’ 

James Temperton in What Nook’s rate cut reveals about capitalism in Animal Crossing

Despite the dramaticized tone of this article, I found some truth in there. I almost feel chained to the game, my completionist mind forcing me to get the biggest house and get the most wanted villagers (which can also cost you millions). There are some small hacks to increase your income, mainly time traveling; where you change the date and time on your Nintendo Switch to skip days in the game. Nintendo is aware of this loophole and tries to discourage it as much as they can. As you gather savings in the game, you receive interest. The longer the money stays in your bank, the more interest you receive; a perfect motivation for time travelling. However; Nintendo purposefully decreased the interest rate about a month after the release of the game to put a stop to ‘cheating’ the system and killed off the easiest way to get bells before most of its players had profited from it.

Temperton makes an interesting remark:

‘’The most intriguing aspect of Animal Crossing, and arguably what makes it such a successful game, is that it presents a version of capitalism devoid of consequences. You can bury yourself in debt and never pay back a penny. The sun still rises in the morning and sets at night, the butterflies still dance around your immaculate rose garden. In real life, you’d be driven out of your home, your life in tatters. […] Nook doesn’t care. But you do. And this is where the game’s design is so ingenious: the debt is what gives you purpose. Fail to pay back debts and the game fails to progress’’

James Temperton in What Nook’s rate cut reveals about capitalism in Animal Crossing

This ties back into Naomi Clark’s description of a furasato, which is practically a village full of debt building up, without many consequences. The only consequence is that you are not able to leave the village – or stop playing the game. Animal Crossing is an idealised version of the world as the know it, full of debts, loans and consumerism. Whereas in our actual world we could end up in jail or lose our property due to our financial position, in Animal Crossing it gives you a purpose; a goal in a game that seems to lack aims or a true ending. I have difficulties making up my mind on how I feel about this; do I enjoy this strange distorted realism, or does it just make me hate how much I play the game even more?