Animal Crossing: New Horizons is my first Animal Crossing, save for a few unpleasant hours with Pocket Camp. But before I got into the series, I encountered one inescapable conversation about the game—Tom Nook is (or isn’t) a raging capitalist, a vile landlord, a benevolent man donating his Bells to charity.
Having now actually played the game, I can say one thing for certain: Tom Nook is indeed a raging capitalist—he pays you in company scrip!—but that’s not where the conversation should end. Rather than being an insidious pro-capitalism simulator, the game is something sadder: it’s a failure of imagination.
The game’s mechanics, as many critics, including the folks at Uppercut Crit, Kazuma Hashimoto, and Gita Jackson, have discussed, have problems. The “desert island” conceit is rife with colonialist baggage and is also inextricable from capitalism given the necessity of strip-mining other islands for resources to be cultivated and sold to Nook for profit. The series’ innocent facade is a charming mask for the ugliest parts of our shared histories, whether the game is insidiously trying to promote these ideals or not.
But whether Tom Nook is a capitalist, whether the game intentionally defangs capitalism to make it easier to digest, is a less interesting question than why. Why have a Tom Nook at all?
There’s a simple answer and a complex one. The simple answer is that this is a video game, and video games, in their most consumable form, are meant to be “won.” To win, you need obstacles. In a polite simulation like Animal Crossing, that obstacle is Tom Nook, the gatekeeper for advancement. Money is a simple obstacle, one that’s easily understood by the majority of the game’s target demographic. To have things, you must spend money. To get money, you must perform labor for someone else. Each milestone you overcome, each loan you pay off, earns you not only a larger reward but also a larger sense of satisfaction. “Winning” may be getting the end credits, but it’s also each incremental step in that direction, giving the player a sense of progress toward an end goal.
The complex answer is that, to much of the world, a Tom Nook is inevitable. You can’t have a space without an owner. You can’t have things without money. You can’t have a group without a leader. You can’t have a society, even a charming, benevolent cartoon one, without capitalism. Chris Lawrence covered this in their piece on Seedship—it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism, but, “Games… should be particularly suited to challenging that narrative.” That Animal Crossing doesn’t is less a crime and more a disappointment.
Some have argued that Animal Crossing is a nice introduction to socialism, a little view of what the world could look like if we guaranteed basic necessities and allowed those who wanted more to sell their labor for it. And it can be that, certainly, if that’s what you want it to be. But Tom Nook’s mechanical purpose, to lock different goals behind monetary gates, is a grim reminder of what we face every day. What’s frustrating is that he doesn’t have to be.
Even the argument that Tom Nook donates his Bells to charity rings hollow when you understand that charity itself is a bandage.
It requires purposeful design to create a game that eschews capitalism as part of its philosophy. Animal Crossing, a mass-market, international hit developed by one of the world’s largest gaming companies in a capitalist culture is not that game. To say it’s a failure of any kind is my own projection—the game is certainly successful and I doubt that the developers aspired to make New Horizons some kind of anti-capitalist utopia, no matter how much I wish they would.
But it’s far from being an escape from capitalism; even if the world is full of kind creatures doing their best, the measure of best is still, in some way, dictated by money and possessions. Nook Miles, Bells—no matter how easy they are to attain, no matter how freely they’re exchanged, they still mean access in this world. This comes through most in how human players, particularly newcomers (like me) to the series have felt about progression—we see the beautiful houses posted online, the perfectly furnished rooms, the organized islands, and want those same things for ourselves, because they are our vision of “success.” Even as well-seasoned Animal Crossing fans assure us that you can’t be “behind” in a game like this, many of us feel like we’re behind anyway, because success is defined as having amassed more possessions, not having done good, meaningful work.
Even the argument that Tom Nook donates his Bells to charity rings hollow when you understand that charity itself is a bandage over gaping wounds caused by capitalism and other forms of injustice. Admirable as it may be to donate the majority of his income to an orphanage, it raises questions of why there are orphanages at all—in this world of building community and care, orphanages and group homes, systems that have been demonstrated to have serious consequences on the long-term health of the children they care for, are a bizarre inclusion. If we accept that orphanages exist in Animal Crossing, we must also accept that parents die, experience addiction, or simply surrender their children to the state, all of which seem entirely at odds with the games’ themes.
Animal Crossing is utopic in one sense of the word—there’s no need to eat or find shelter or medical care, not because those needs are taken care of, but because they don’t exist. Eat and you become stronger, don’t eat and nothing happens. Never go inside a house and you’ll never get sick or cold. Get stung by bees and you’ll have a wonky face that villagers make fun of, but no harm will come to you. You won’t die.
But that vision of utopia, where need does not exist rather than need having been met, is so divorced from the reality of our world that it doesn’t feel aspirational, just escapist. That’s not a bad thing, inherently—escapism is a chance to recharge—but it could be more. It could instead present us an alternative vision of the world, one where the community builds itself up not through the oversight of one individual who doles out money and plane tickets, but through helping one another and living in harmony with the place they inhabit.
Instead, this is something that players do on their own. New Horizons‘ online features—and our collective need to stay inside—have made it easier for players to collaborate with one another, sharing items and tips to further everybody’s development. Clearly, Nintendo has not only left space for this to occur, but actively encouraged it—players are rewarded with Nook Miles in addition to whatever items they receive for visiting other players’ islands and having visitors to their own.
But people will, naturally, make the best of a bad situation. Just as people in our capitalism-fueled world form communities and help one another, they do in Animal Crossing‘s capitalism-influenced world as well. And, naturally, some profit from it. As one person told Polygon, “This is the fantasy of capitalism where we ALL get rich at nobody else’s expense.” It’s true—this is capitalism where nobody gets hurt, but that capitalism is a fantasy.
Animal Crossing is many things: a delightful life simulator with memorable characters and charming aesthetics, a fun but grind-y game that came out just in time to coincide with the universal need to stay away from one another, a grim reminder that everything we create is a product of the colonialist and capitalist systems we’re mired in.
It feels inevitable, inescapable, but to think that is to give ourselves permission to accept it. We don’t have to. Talking about colonialism and capitalism in this series is not a means of pointing out that everything—even our quiet little place of escapism, our only opportunity to have beach parties and see our friends—is garbage and that we should find no joy in it. Far from it—joy is essential, the fuel we need to keep fighting.
These criticisms are an opportunity to reflect. If capitalism infests our joyful little game, where else is it present? How else can we fight it? We don’t have to pretend it doesn’t exist or accept it as a truth about the world; we can keep carving out our spaces of joy and community on a small scale, using that momentum, that energy, to push for more wide-scale change, too.
It’s just Animal Crossing. But Animal Crossing, like us, is a product of the world we live in, and it, too, is capable of imagining a better world.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.