[Images by Sarah Thomas]
Over a year ago, I annoyed a lot of people by announcing that the term "art game" is stupid because it is overly vague and easily misconstrued, worsens the ever increasing problem of class-ism in videogame culture, and sends the message that "mainstream" games are somehow less "art" than games that are explicitly intended to be experimental and/or unmarketable.
Take Animal Crossing, for instance. While the series was somewhat experimental when it first hit 10+ years ago, it hasn't changed all that much since its inception on the N64 in Japan. What has changed is the game's level of marketability. Once seen as a game too "weird and Japanese" for the Western market, it has now become the must-play 3DS title of the summer.
How has this "game about nothing" managed to capture the prolonged attention of millions of people? The fact that it's one of the greatest "art meditations" on the "human condition" ever conceived probably has something to do with it. If you're curious about the meaning of your life and how you should live it, read on for a few examples of how Animal Crossing can show you the way.
Responsibility isn't real
The first thing that happens in most Animal Crossing games is an in-game tutorial where you are tasked to engage in a variety of "jobs" in order to learn the various systems. You'll have to write some letters, meet some talking animals, and do other odds and ends. It's the worst part of the game. Almost everyone hates it, including the player character. After all the tasks are completed and the player is "fired" from their job, they raise their fist in victory. Unemployment is a godsend. Making your own way in life, unburdened by the shackles of allegiance or subjugation to an employer is the path to self discovery and meaningful experience.
That feeling when you first step out of the tutorial with endless things you could do but nothing you have to do -- that's adult life. There are no prearranged missions or linear paths (though plenty of "grown ups" try to follow them anyway). Any semblance of prearrangement is just an illusion. Keeping that in mind can help turn a grueling chore into an exercise in freedom. It's up to you to find out what will happen next in your life. It's up to you to determine how to get there.
Chasing shadows is a labor of love, and the key to riches
So if Animal Crossing is about being unemployed, how do you make ends meet? How do you get the things in life that you think you need? The things that you want? There are many answers to that, but the richest Animal Crossing players I know got there by:
1) Accepting the fact that success is never assured
2) Knowing that those who enjoy the journey are most likely to arrive at the best destination
You see a shadow in the water. It could be a Coelacanth (worth 15,000 Bells), but chances are its just a Sea Bass (worth 120 Bells). If all you want is to get rich, you may not bother to try to catch it, as it's not statistically probable to be "worth your time." Even if you do try to catch it, you may not succeed on the first try, or even the second or third. You may even pull up an old tire, which actually costs you money to dispose of.
This will be enough to drive some people to just do favors for other villagers for money, or worse, just go around shaking trees for loose change. These are the safer routes, the less strenuous, the less adventurous. Only those who truly love fishing will keep at it through all the old tires, through the hordes of Sea Bass, to achieve greatness in acquiring the world's Coelacanths, Napoleonfish, and Blue Marlins. Of course, spending more time fishing in the rain, and keeping an eye out for suspicious-looking fins never hurt, but only those are willing to let their bobbers hit the water in the first place will ever discover all the sea's mysteries (and the riches that may come with them).
Authority isn't necessary in a world where mutual respect is standard
In Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you're the mayor? You know what that means? Eh... nothing really. You "fund raise" on your own in order to put new guidelines in place for how long stores stay open, or not. You can pay for new landmarks to be built or for new businesses to open up, or not. You have the power to make changes in your community, but only if you've got the money to back it up.
As for "political" power or hierarchy, it's relatively non-existent. Other villagers may ask you to do things, or you may ask one of them to leave, but those power plays are never a sure thing, nor are they enforced by any sorts of "laws." That's because in Animal Crossing, everyone has gentle, surface-level relationships based on a culture where the boundaries of others are always respected. The worst thing you can do to someone in Animal Crossing is insult their taste in clothes, or bop them on the head with a bug catching net. Do that enough times, and they'll just leave on their own, remembering only the good times you shared with them.
I can only hope that someday the human race will evolve to be as naturally empathetic and civilized as the forest dwelling villagers of Animal Crossing.
Just show up and don't be a jerk
The amount of money, material goods, and wildlife you can acquire in Animal Crossing can seem endless, but in the end, it's all just a bunch of stuff. The feeling of success and fulfillment that comes from these achievements can be fleeting. Attempting to chase that feeling with more money and more stuff can lead to even more intense feelings of meaninglessness.
So what else is there? After your house size is maxed out and your catalog of fish is complete, what do you do? Maybe finding a place of affection in the lives of your peers will give you some feeling of purpose, but how do you do that? In Animal Crossing, you are powerless to invoke a witty rejoinder or hilarious anecdote about Shania Twain's distaste for mayonnaise. There is no banter. There are no popularity contests. You can get a badge for catching a lot of fish, or you can impress Gracie with your fashion sense, but that's not going to get you any friends.
The way to get others to appreciate you in Animal Crossing is much easier than all that. You can win the heart of just about everyone in the game, from that orange-headed cat down the street to that high-class pigeon in the cafe, just by showing up. You don't even have to say anything to them. In fact, most of the time you can't say anything. All you can do is listen, but listening is more than enough.
If you make a point to give a friend some attention every day, and be sure to never do anything awful to them, they'll grow attached to you. They may do you special favors and tell you their innermost feelings, and they'll miss you when you're gone. All just for showing up, being nice, and being consistent. Those of you having trouble making friends would do wise to follow this mandate, as there is no one on earth who is immune to its charms.
Time is inescapable
Time is the key ingredient to everything in Animal Crossing. It's the way to make friends, make money, and make your dreams come true. It's also your greatest enemy. Time is the only thing that can stop you from catching that fish you want. If you aren't able to put the needed time into looking for it in the time of the month that the fish is in season, you will fail at catching the fish. If your favorite villager is a cat with an orange for a head, it may be just a matter of time before she decides to move out. You only have the winter months to build enough snowmen to get the entire snowman set of furniture. Run out of time, and you'll have to wait until next year.
There's no stopping time in Animal Crossing. Every second you aren't in the game seeking a new opportunity is a second that you'll never get back. Some will try to speed up time, impatient for what may be waiting for them in the future. To them, the slowness of time feels like the enemy, though the real enemy is their own driving ambition. The passing of time is a blessing and a curse. It provides new opportunities as it takes others away. The way to best appreciate that process is to remember your past, be mindful of your future, and most importantly, savor every second that you pass through, as it's time you'll never get back again.
If nothing is important, then everything is important
Animal Crossing is about minutia. It is about stacking minute after minute, second after second, with moments of no real consequence. So why is it that people can't stop playing the game. Why are people choosing to "grind" for beetles in Animal Crossing over saving the human race in The Last of Us? Why has Twitter exploded with #acnl tagged tweets about meeting unattractive bears, getting fake-hair cuts, picking "perfect" fruit, and any number of other incredibly exciting, completely unimportant events?
In addition to all the charms and concepts already detailed in the article above, Animal Crossing works to engage the player by setting the bar for stimulation so low that almost any event feels like a major milestone. Everything in the game, from the most expensive couch to the least valuable stinkbug is on equal footing in terms of how much mental real estate it may find in the players psyche. For me, getting the best stuff or angling the rarest fish doesn't mean a whole lot. My personal mission became catching a Banded Dragonfly. It was a calling that found value by my own standards and by my standards alone. The game didn't tell me it was important. I decided that it was, for reasons unknown.
I spent hours on looking for one. I cursed fate when they eluded me. I felt lost and hopeless when they failed to appear, day after day. Does it make any rational sense for me to become that emotionally invested in capturing a fictional insect. Sure. In the grand cosmic scheme of things, catching a Banded Dragonfly is no more or less important than becoming the President of the United States. Either way, we're all on a giant rock floating through space, born to die, bound to intemperate reality through limitations of our five meager senses and slowly rotting, deeply flawed organic skull CPUs.
So if everything is equally unimportant, why do anything? Does anything have meaning? If so, how do you measure how much meaning? What's the difference between a "guilty pleasure" and "breathtaking work of staggering genius"? Who are we to say what is important and what isn't?
The answer is, things find importance based on how we choose to internally value them. As flawed as it may be, that's the only standard we have. Society will try to teach us otherwise, that becoming certain things (cool, sexy, rich, powerful, smart) are more valuable than just catching butterflies. That's a fallacy. There is no universally objective set of values that you can use to measure the importance of a life experience, and therefore, every life experience shares the same potential for importance.
[Flag by Kriven4437]
I would have never been inspired to write this article if it weren't for the experience I had catching a Banded Dragonfly yesterday. This article may go on to inspire someone else to write something about what they value. Their writing may go on to be read by a president, or a queen, or a warlord. Their writing may change that warlord's way of governorship, which in turn could change the bent of world politics, which could lead to the death or survival of millions.
So the next time you're trying to catch a Golden Stag and someone tells you to stop playing that stupid game about nothing, tell them you're changing the world Kony 2012-style and to not cramp your style.