I am an Animal Crossing newbie; I have never played any of the prior Animal Crossing games. They’re the sort of game that I was peripherally aware of and occasionally had an idle thought of playing, but that thought never translated to action. Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp made that final translation easy, by being both free and easily available for my phone.
Bearing in mind my lack of experience, I don’t know how accurate Pocket Camp is to other iterations of the franchise; for all I know, it could be the Pokemon Go to that franchise’s prior handheld games. What I do know is this: the system engineered within the game was perfectly suited to my task-completion focus, and I spent the first couple of days after its release unable to put it down. Thereafter, I had a realization which has since left me unable to pick it up again.
It’s in the way the tasks are framed. The game has you start as a camp counselor, sort of: you’re brought on to help out. There doesn’t really seem to be any kind of actual pay structure, you’re just there. Your goal is to bring campers to your camp by making it interesting to them. In order to build those interesting attractions, you need resources, and in order to get those resources, you have to do “favors” for the same campers that you’re meant to entice. You’re fishing, or gathering, or bug-collecting, whatever, as a “favor” to these animals, and they “reward” you for these favors with resources, bells (money), and friendship.
Friendship functions as a level mechanic here; it replaces experience. Raising individual friendship levels with each animal raises your overall friendship score to a new level, which also provides you with bells—the only real metric that comes close to a regular paycheck. A paycheck which pays less and less frequently as you advance, and it takes more and more animal friendship in order to fill the bar.
In case I’m being too subtle about the point I’m driving here, Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp expects you to work. Camp Counseling, Fruit-Picking, Fishing, these are all things that you do for others. You keep none of it, you have a use for none of it. They are odd jobs that you do, for pay, for an endless stream of customers who will always want these same exact things, in a perfect cycle. I do not want to sound alarmist, but I have not discovered another way to say this: Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp is further normalizing a gig economy to a generation which has already dealt with employment insecurity enough.
The other “worky” game I have played recently is Stardew Valley, which I mention here as a point of comparison. In Stardew Valley, you harvest fruit, you collect shells, you fish—all tasks that occur in Pocket Camp. The difference, though, is context: in Stardew Valley, you own a farm. It is yours, you are working your land, harvesting your fruit, raising your cattle. You can keep the fish you catch, you can keep the shells, even. You can eat the food you grow, or you can sell it, but you have the choice.
The plot of Stardew Valley is specifically concerned with escaping the idea of working for others and working your land, for yourself. There are odd jobs you can do for others, but you are also hiring others to do jobs for you; you do not build your own barns or sheds, you must purchase your livestock, your seeds, your fishing equipment from somewhere. In fact, though farming is the primary intent of the game, you do not actually have to farm at all—you can go spelunking or fishing for all of your funds, if you like. This is in direct contrast to Pocket Camp, where all of your work is done for others, and that work is not even called work; you are being paid for favors, and the other upshot of those favors is that the animals like you more. The “friendship” is one-sided; you provide them a place to spend time, you provide them with the things that they want, you are at their beck and call.
Games are fantasy, and these places, camp or farm, are not real. The context of each matters, though; call it what it is. Stardew Valley is work, and it is honest about that. It is furthermore work that you pursue for your own goals; the game’s premise is built around the idea of reclaiming your life and escaping a relentless job grind. With that freedom and reclamation comes choice; you inherit a farm, but you don’t have to grow a thing if you’re not terribly inclined to do so—you can spend your entire time hunting monsters, or dating whichever townsfolk catch your fancy, or fishing. Stardew Valley says “here is a town, here is a farm, do as you like.”
By contrast, the only thing that you can do for yourself in Pocket Camp is buy clothing items to wear; even this costs bells that are needed for escalating prices on camp decorations (which, again, are chosen explicitly to attract more campers). Work is a thing I do for pay, because I have to, because I need money to survive. If I do work at home, I do it for myself, and I feel satisfaction from that work, because it’s an active step in achieving what I want. Stardew Valley understands this, and frames the language accordingly, while Pocket Camp pays little attention to such things. You’re there to please the campers; your wants and needs are irrelevant. This disparity, and the forced framing of gig work as “favors,” make it very difficult for me to continue playing.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article used a phrase which the author and editorial team were unaware was offensive. We have since removed the phrase.
Nola is a bad influence.