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ANIMAL CROSSING : WILD WORLD / Nintendo / DS
This is actually the first Animal Crossing game I've ever played; I've been avoiding the series as I thought it was cutesy, mindless pap. I didn't give Nintendo enough credit apparently, as it's actually one of their darkest pieces, an artful social commentary and economic critique.
How's that? Animal Crossing is one of the starkest depictions of laissez-faire capitalism (and its corresponding dehumanizing effect on human interrelations and social structure) that I have ever seen in any form of electronic media.
Like Orwell's Animal Farm, it poses under the guise of a children's tale - you choose to be some male or female youngster, moving to a new town which you choose the name of. During a rather surreal and disturbing cab ride in the midst of a rainstorm, an old drunk named Kappa interrogates you as to the reasons for your move. All of them are spurious, and no backstory to our character is given, lending the whole thing an almost Kafka-esque air.
Your little town is ostensibly under the charge of a mayor, a confused-looking old turtle content to spend his days puttering about in front of the City Hall. The real power in the town is in the hands of one Tom Nook, however; he is the owner of absolutely every resource and structure in the whole area. Tom Nook, of course, is a microcosmical representation of the whole of the elite capitalist class who have a virtual monopoly on the resources of the world; the turtle is traditional democratic government, reduced to an ineffectual symbolic presence waiting placidly for death.
Immediately upon arrival in town, Nook is waiting to greet you; quite without your consultation he has built a house for you, a cheaply-made unfurnished bungalow in the most far-flung corner of town. Nook is an absolute dictator of terms; not only has he specified where and how you will live, he has also set a price on your dwelling, which your avatar is not given the option to negotiate or refuse. Nook wants a whopping 19,800 "bells" for the house; since you have just arrived, and possess no bells, Nook immediately presses you into servitude as an alternative to up-front payment.
When you report to Nook's shop for the first day of your duties, no discussion of terms of employment or fixed parameters of the job occur. Instead, Nook immediately demands that you strip down in front of him and change into a "work uniform". You are not "employed" or contracted; you have no rights or legal protections; you are simply Nook's slave, and are directed by him to do whatever he wishes, whenever he pleases that you do it. After the depersonalization/submission ritual is concluded, Nook immediately begins ordering you to run about doing various errands for him while he loafs in his shop. There is at this point still no discussion whatsoever of wages, or how long this employment will last.
The vast majority of the work you do for Nook involves delivering various items to other residents of the town. This is not overly complicated, as there are only about six or so residents aside from Nook and yourself. The girl who runs the information center/post office and the tailors are apparently bound to Nook under similar terms as you, for they never seem to leave their shops.
Your only "friend" is a psychotic and clingy anthropomorphic female cat who immediately develops an inappropriate level of affection for you, and (rather disturbingly) continually inquires as to your preferences and how she may better please you. The other two residents of the town are a fisherman who continually questions your intelligence and capability, and a pig who constantly refers to you as "swine" and can't go two sentences without delivering unto you some sort of personal insult (usually centered on your impoverished economic circumstances). The only means by which you can enter the good graces of your peers is through purchasing things; purchasing numerous and copious material goods from Nook (the only available source of anything in the village), and thus increasing your dependence on that pimp of a raccoon, and putting your freedom from him ever further and further out of reach.
The cat, of course, represents the isolation and dehumanization of the individual in a social environment where material goods and "purchasing power" have become the single greatest yardstick of individual worth. The cat is starved for contact, and thus any cordiality by you is interpreted by her as a path to the interaction, closeness and acceptance that she is starved for. Being so starved, she presses her need upon you desperately, without regard for decorum or for your own feelings. The pig represents the middle class man who has carved himself a comfortable but stagnant rut in this world (symbolized by the giant pit of feces in the center of his house in which he undoubtedly rolls regularly) and has no desire to challenge the status quo, and indeed becomes an accomplice to the elite (Nook) by making personal value judgements against those who have not yet shown an equal or greater level of conformity - thus solidifying the system of stratification and social caste.
When Nook tasks you to deliver something to these three, he is very insistent that you do it as fast as humanly possible. However, the recipient may not be at home, as they are prone to go out and randomly wander in the village, requiring you to search the whole area until you find them. Should this take too long, you are first berated by the recipient of the package, and then yelled at by Nook for taking too much time. You are thus scapegoated by Nook when his unrealistic expectations do not work out, and you act as a buffer for the customer to vent their rage against, so that they do not offend the sole source of the goods that they desire. Both Nook and the customer both thus transfer their own irresponsibility in the transaction to you.
I do not know what happens when you work off the debt of Nook, if that is even possible; I found the experience altogether too horrid and depressing to play that far. There is wireless functionality; apparently you can visit the villages of others, and eventually you can buy a telescope and draw constellations in the sky for other people to see. Perhaps you can arrange meetings this way, or write messages in the stars to foment a rebellion and overthrow the Nook class.
Should Animal Crossing be indicted as an attempt to indoctrinate children into the role of wage slaves? To get the accustomed to the idea of living under crushing debt, taking orders from arbitrary authority, being scapegoated for the screwups of "superiors" and "customers", and centering the whole of their life around purchasing newer and more expensive things? Perhaps that is what it is. But perhaps it is not as simple as that. Animal Crossing strips bare the artifices of the capitalist system, and presents it in a manner calculated to appeal to children. But it also makes very clear, from the get-go, that you are a slave and are being treated as such. You are thus free to choose how you respond - become bored and disgusted with the situation and turn away to other pursuits, or willfully throw yourself into the role of servant. After all, Tom Nook may be able to hold sway over you in the game world, but his reach does not extend into reality. Given the popular response to the game so far - that is, the legions of glassy-eyed bell-chasers monotonously repeating the same tedious tasks over and over again - most people seem to be willfully choosing and embracing their bondage. And perhaps that's the scariest lesson of all to be found in the world of Animal Crossing - make it colorful, make it cute, make it calculated to appeal to a sense of "progress", and people will more than happily throw themselves into slavery to a scummy raccoon.
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