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August 25, 2006

Filed under: gaming»perspective

Welcome to Animal Crossing, Comrade

I'm more than $300,000 in debt to a raccoon in an ill-fitting suit. My neighbors are a barely-coherent zoo sometimes prone to veiled drug references (could there be a better description of false consciousness?) I am singlehandedly responsible for filling a local museum. And I have a pretty sweet picture of Lenin in my living room, right next to the moon and a shark pit.

Welcome to Animal Crossing, Comrade.

The M stands for Marx. Engels never did get a fair shake.

Animal Crossing is in some ways Nintendo's answer to the sandbox genre, like Grand Theft Auto. There's no end goal, no overarching plot, and no forced behavior--just a village with some creepy mail-obsessed animals and a whole bunch of stuff you can collect. At first glance, it's a game about ownership. And that put the socialist in me a little bit on edge. So I decided to wander around the game with a more devout Marxist's eye, see if there's really an unconscious ideology behind the cheery surroundings. Can we say the same about other games, as similar products of a capitalist system? Or have I finally fallen off the deep end?

Going by the photos, we might have to argue the latter.

Capitalist dogs! Literally!

I want to take a moment and offer this to any less leftward-leaning readers: the viewpoints I'm offering here aren't entirely the ones that I hold. If I had to lay out my own political viewpoint, it would be more socialist-democrat--I believe in markets, but I also believe in regulation and I don't trust corporations to do the right thing. At the same time, remember that the dominant narrative for cultural examination in this country is from a capitalist, if not a libertarian, viewpoint. Although the political right will sometimes attempt to paint the left as being a group of overt Lenin-worshipping central planners, you would be hard pressed to find a politician or journalist who does not hold as simple fact the superiority of a corporate market economy over all other systems. Undermining this assumption can be an interesting way of examining--and then possibly reaffirming--those biases in a self-critical, honest way. Besides, strip out the references to communism, and what I say here may not seem that radical.

Catch a man a fish, and you can sell it to him. Teach a man to fish, and you ruin a wonderful business opportunity. -Karl Marx

If someone wanted to play Animal Crossing as a socialist, it's surpringly open to the possibility. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need," except that you really have no needs, other than those you bring to the game. The housing loan does not ever have to be paid off. You can, through scavenging and barter with the neighbors, acquire some property without ever handing a cent to Tom Nook. Fruit, money, and furniture literally fall from the trees when you shake them--you don't have to eat the fruit, or eat anything, but you can if you want to. It's perfectly possible to bypass the entire buying furniture/upgrading your house rat race. A player could instead occupy themselves by talking to the other villagers, or visiting other players online. It's good, clean, Marxist fun... or is it?

At the museum, newly-christened the Ministry of Truth, Blathers notes that we have always been at war with Wayreth.

The Man and his System won't let us off that easy. Like it or not, a significant portion of Animal Crossing is still about ownership, materialism, and capitalism, even if you're not actually required to own anything. How can this be? Well, for one thing there is an implicit reward system in place for players to collect more useless items (and they are useless--most objects in the game don't actually do anything except exist). Consider this: apart from the four character slots (hat, accessory, shirt, and equipment), objects can only be viewed when placed inside your own house. Everywhere else, they manifest to the player only as a leaf icon and a name. Since the only thing the various collectibles are good for is to be seen and arranged, and this provides much of the variety in Animal Crossing, the space inside the player's house is a direct representation of their freedom.

And house size is a direct representation of money spent on upgrades. Increasingly expensive upgrades. Ones that require you to either fish or farm obsessively. It's not for no good reason that people who play this game tend to refer to Tom Nook (the shopkeeper/landlord/proletariat capitalist dog) as a slave-driving, exploitative criminal--except that the game won't let them take the next step and remove him from power.

Workers of the Wild World, you have nothing to lose but your chains!

Your fancy suit will not keep you from being first against the wall when the revolution comes, Comrade Nook!

Even with these gripes, the consumption impulse of Animal Crossing is relatively gentle and unforced. Although it is nice to have the extra space, item collection can be relegated to one of many town options--terraforming, painting, and visiting are all free or cheap, and all can be just as, or more, satisfying. Instead, we should treat this as an example of the entire "collection" gameplay tool, which has become far more widespread. As I noted while talking about casual games, the impulse to pokemonetise has become much more widespread and accepted.

All the animals are equal--but some are more equal than others.

This is disturbing on two levels. First, it is reinforcing the message that the collection of things is not only valued, but an end in and of itself. Second, as The Red Critique pointed out, gaming offers escapist entertainment that replaces real change. Ironically, many video games feature themes of overturning corrupt corporations or fighting against injustice, yet the purchase of those games subsidizes the corporate capitalism that probably fueled a worker's need for escape in the first place. With the rise of Second Life and other virtual environments, the Internet philosophy of "free and equal information" has extended to the perceptions of the games themselves. Sure, anyone can get anywhere in Second Life, given enough time--but who has the time? Only those with sufficient resources and time to waste. Like it or not, virtual achievement is still linked to real privilege.

Let a thousand flowers bloom!

So just out of curiosity, what would a game look like if it avoided these capitalist biases? What do I look like, a designer? If we were to actually take the implications of the last few paragraphs seriously, the only conclusion to reach is that participation in gaming in the first place is a waste of time. By paying money for games--even by playing them on equipment built by workers in unfair working situations--we perpetuate an exploitative capitalism. Our choices are not restricted only to different means of consumption, and we must find alternatives. Screw gaming. Viva la revolucion!

The purges will begin with this room, for obvious reasons.

But since I am not quite that hardcore, I'll offer a few thoughts. Perhaps a Marxist game designer would eliminate points and collectibles, to disincentivize consumption as well as to place more emphasis on the humanity of the worker. Maybe using the game to train people for political action (A Force More Powerful) would be a goal of this revolutionary designer. A nation simulation might try to show that (at the very least) providing for the health and welfare of workers creates a more successful country (we are edging into propaganda here, of course). It might tie itself to real life events, since (at least in its early forms) Marxism was intended to a practical, action-oriented political pilosophy. But at the very least, I think a socialist might try using a game--at its lowest levels, a collection of rules and systems--to show how the rules and systems of commerce can be cruel and exploitative. Most people that I talk to don't seem to understand that socialists aren't just Stalin and Mao, but covers a wide gradation of ways to understand market structures. We've been tarred with the Soviet Union for a long time now, and we need better PR.

In Soviet Russia, coffee serves you!

I'll leave you not with a deep thought or some kind of armchair programmer wisdom, but with my favorite quote from the Red Critique article (emphasis mine):

Leaving aside the fact that contrary to the initial studies one cannot discuss the relationship between the violence of video games and violent behavior independently of the violence of capitalism which deprives people of the means of subsistence as a means of forcing them into exploitative labor relations, what this new study makes clear is that the primary focus of capital is profitability, and that there exists no system of "morality" independent of this fact.

Take that, video game violence debate! You know, I really think a surprising amount of that piece was sensible and reasoned, but then they toss a line like that in there. Even if I disagree, I insist that it is awesome to see it so frankly expressed.

No longer does Comrade Sable sew for her corporate masters, but for herself--and for the good of the People's Republic!

This piece was inspired, in part, by Johnny Pi's excellent post on casual games and political action.

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