Life and Debt in Virtual Reality

Posted by: James on: Saturday, 18th June, 2011

One of the most shamefully addictive games I ever played was Animal Crossing: a game that was clearly meant for children.

There are so many bad things to say about Animal Crossing I’m not sure where to begin: the gameplay was horrible; the graphics were too colourful, too rounded and simple to be any good; the characters were annoying and the game clock was frustratingly synched up to real-world time, so that you *needed* to play once a day, otherwise your snooty in-game neighbours would start to say things about you behind your back.

I couldn’t tell you what the point was, except that you were always in debt (and this is where if I had advertising on this site, you’d see a flurry of underlinings and excalmation marks – “Debt you say? We can help you!!! We really can – we’re not dodgy flash-banner-wielding loan-sharks and fraudsters, honest. Look at all these highly authentic-looking people holding highly authentic-looking two-foot cheques”).

From the first time you arrive in your Animal Crossing town and move into your little cottage, you are in debt. You pay off the debt by being helpful to neighbours, delivering things and so on. “Phew,” you say to yourself once your debt is paid, “The Man is off my back – I’ll just go back home, stick the kettle on and – oh no, wait – this isn’t my house” – your cottage has been automatically replaced by a larger house: you are once again in debt to the capitalist overlord shopkeeper Tom Nook (a raccoon, in case you were wondering) and the cycle continues.

Meet Tom Nook: you're in his debt. Forever.

So the long and short is: a terrible, boring, artistically unsound, damn near unplayable, but very addictive game. For kids. So why is it so addictive? Simple: it’s capitalism in a nutshell. The entire game revolves around setting up your house, buying stuff, performing menial tasks under the guise of social goodwill in order to be rewarded and then buy more stuff. The buying is actually enforced – you can’t decide not to take out another loan – you will always owe Tom Nook, who, by the way has a complete monopoly, being the only store owner in town.

But for some reason you accept everything the game throws at you and carry on. Animal Crossing makes me think twice before slating Farmville players, because the capitalist urge to build something – no matter how microcosmic – is addictive. Seeing progress – whether it’s a virtual house extension or virtual crops growing – is something close to the human heart and it’s intensely satisfying and it’s not something we actually get to do very much in reality. Animal Crossing might be a horrific example of capitalist indoctrination, but it also taps into what I think is the best bit about virtual reality: the feeling of building something – whether it’s a virtual empire, a story, a character, a business or a cute cottage filled with virtual detritus.

There’s plenty of material out there about why games are addictive, but for every game I play there will always be a point at which I ask myself what I’ve just done. If I’ve built an empire onscreen, I’ll take a step back and realise that it will disappear as soon as I turn off the computer. All those minions I invested so much time and effort creating and parading around the screen were really just pixels and code – well, yeah – no shit.

Animal Crossing is different: when I turned  it off (finally), I realised how closely it mimics real-world behaviour. It lead me to some strange reflections such as the following: “I wonder if the super-rich also get trapped in the reality of their screens, creating mountains of virtual wealth that sadly doesn’t ever sink back into the society that created it.” “You’re reading too much into this James.” Well, maybe, but Tom Nook is firmly rooted in reality, as are all of the game’s concepts. He’s running the show and he’s written the rules so that you’ll always need him; always be in debt to him.

Look at those cold, unfeeling eyes – scary, eh?

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A fairly loose blog about the places I go and the things I think. May also include left-leaning social commentary derived in part from video games.

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