The word “debt” has always struck a chord with me—the kind you hear when a toddler slams on the keys of a grand piano that hasn’t been tuned in two decades. The very term makes me cringe. Whether it was a car payment or student loans, the idea of being in debt scared the absolute crap out of me as a kid. I basically grew up with the notion that debt was absolutely frightening, and having anything hanging over me other than maybe a house mortgage would drown me in financial woes for my entire adult life. I guess I have my parents to thank for lighting that sort of fire under my ass, but I can also thank a little game called Animal Crossing for fanning a flame of debt anxiety that has now become an eternal torch.
My relationship with Animal Crossing is one of both love and hate. It’s an innocent game where you simulate living in a cartoon utopia where your only job is to fish and harvest plants for pay while you expand your home and social circle. The goals were simple, the mechanics even easier. But the game’s real challenges lay in its oddly intricate financial aspect. Living in this animal utopia has its costs, and hidden under its world of adorable anthropomorphized NPCs is a sinister plot to rob the player of their escapism and make them participate in real-life drudgery, anxiety, and toil.
I first got introduced to Animal Crossing for the GameCube at age 10, at a time in my life when I was already saving every penny I had with the dream of one day buying my first car. Right off the bat, the game plunged me into a very similar circumstance, except in cutesy virtual manner: Upon starting the game, you, the player, are given a house and a plot of land that is all yours—and in the same breath, are told you owe $20,000 in loans for the mortgage on your land. Ten-year-old me was flabbergasted. I didn’t ask for this land. Could I have picked a cheaper property? Was the whole world like this? Who was this Tom Nook, and why was I giving him all my money to simply exist here? What the hell were “bells?” How was I supposed to pay this off?
Despite finding my immediate debt to my new raccoon landlord annoying, I pressed on. Though my virtual debt was not real, and I was able to apply my real-life spending habits into my gameplay, the sheer amount of anxiety I got from playing the game was very real. I saved my money (in this case “bells”) left and right. My avatar stayed in the same clothes I started in for months until I could pay off my first mortgage. I didn’t even buy matching sets for my house or any new gadgets that weren’t necessary to me leveling up. In the back of my head, I would not be able to really play the game until I owed absolutely nothing to Mr. Nook.
Turns out, fishing with a flimsy wooden rod made of twigs and shaking a couple apples off trees was a pretty lucrative business plan for this simple virtual life. So I did just that—for hours and hours on end. Just like the American dreamer, my player would wake up, go fishing and harvest some fruit, make their way to the town’s market, and pawn off whatever they had in their pockets that day in order to scrounge together my virtual rent. Then I’d stick all their earnings in a savings account just to do the very same thing the very next day in the hopes of someday getting out from under the mountains of debt the game kept saddling me with.
Things got even more complex when the Wii’s Animal Crossing: City Folk introduced the concept of taxes into this pastel-colored world. Sure, it was only acknowledged as a payment sent out to players as part of a DLC package, but still: Taxes? I didn’t even have a job. Why the hell are these animals paying taxes? Despite every headache this game gave me, I’d play it for hours with my friends. But while they were out buying new clothes, hairstyles, and fancy housewares, I was expanding my property and saving every last bell I could. Or to put it another way: While my friends were actually enjoying the game, I made my avatar become a digital wage slave. Arguably, it paid off in the end, since by the time they were getting bored doing and buying the same things all the time, I was just emerging from my debt panic and digging into all the shopping inventories and matching item sets. My weird financial habits happened to prolong my actual enjoyment of the game, well past my friends’—at least, depending on how you define “enjoyment.”
With all that in mind, you can only imagine how feverishly I attacked my $50,000 mortgage in the Switch’s new Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Not that it’s ever simple with the Nooks: This time, the payer/player is introduced to an alternative initial payment option to get lost in as well, in the form of Nook Miles. From the jump, the game presents you with options to become a premium Nook Mileage member, along with better ways to finance your house after your move to its idyllic deserted island. And while I thought living life in the middle of the ocean might be a little simpler than the previous games, somehow Tom Nook found a way to make me pay to live out of a tent. So many years after establishing my love-hate relationship with this cheerful little uber-capitalist, I’m back at it again, playing with two forms of currency and living in an Animal Crossing-themed home owners association (the insidiously cheerful Happy Home Academy) that I did not voluntarily opt into. If nothing else, Animal Crossing helped me solidify my absolute disdain for HOAs, and I will hopefully avoid living in one until my dying day.
Animal Crossing was my introduction to a lot of the realities of the way the world works. That same realism also destroyed my gaming strategies for any other video game going forward: I hoarded resources and money like it was going out of style, always waiting for the next loan payment to trigger—and even reflected the same behavior in real life. I save my money like I have a tent to pay off, even now. My parents played a big role in my spending habits, sure. But as I grew up, not wanting to be kept under the thumb of “the man” (raccoon, whatever) kept me from spending out of my means, and kept, not only me, but my wallet in line. It might not have always been great for my well-being, but te game has kept the terrifying specter of debt accumulation at bay. I can happily say I passed my old Animal Crossing games on to my younger brothers, so that the next generation can understand the true struggle of being financially indebted to a virtual property mogul raccoon.