Animal Crossing: The Daily Grind

So I’ve been playing Animal Crossing lately. Again.

I really, truly thought I was done with this game series. I didn’t buy AC: City Folk for the Wii, so when I heard that AC: New Leaf would be coming out this summer, I didn’t think I’d be jumping into that, either. I didn’t even have a 3DS, and with New Leaf being a 3DS exclusive, it hardly seemed worth even a fraction of my attention. My friends all gobbled up the game when it released last month, and I was treated to numerous screenshots and fanart on my Tumblr dashboard. It all seemed very par for the course, and I was prepared to go about my jolly business as though the game didn’t exist, but then I learned about one thing that apparently changed everything for me: Bridges.

I could build BRIDGES.

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The pinnacle of modern gaming: Public Works Projects

For some reason, I needed this in my life, and I began looking up 3DS prices. As of this writing, Animal Crossing: New Leaf is still the only game I own for my new 3DS, and I’ve been playing it every single day. I’ve even constructed two glorious bridges already. Yes, I paid $250 so I could build virtual bridges. DON’T JUDGE ME.

Now, as anyone that’s ever played Animal Crossing knows, it works the same way real life does: You can’t get anything if you don’t have the money for it. How do you get money in Animal Crossing? By grinding! Like many games, this life sim requires grinding before you can do absolutely anything else. This is not an option; if you want anything in these games, you have to grind for them. And even if you don’t want anything, guess what’s the only other thing left to do? GRINDING~

As I was sitting in my living room the other day, idly grinding my ass off while intermittently watching an episode of Master Chef with my mother, I began to reflect on what, exactly, I was doing. I was grinding while watching a TV show. When I’d go to my room, I’d turn on Animal Crossing and grind when I needed a break from my work. At the end of the day, I’d take my 3DS to bed with me and grind until I got tired enough to go to sleep. It suddenly hit me that I was not only grinding away at this game at all hours of the day, but I was genuinely enjoying doing so. Why the hell was I ENJOYING grinding??

And that was when I realized that Nintendo is entirely run by witches.

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Okay, so maybe it’s not witchcraft, but it definitely has the same characteristics. In any average game, grinding is the red-headed stepchild of gaming goals. It’s generally regarded as an obstacle, and when it doesn’t go your way, it’s hard not to feel like your time was wasted. Perhaps the only other game that’s really managed to make something out of grinding is World of Warcraft, but in that case I think it’s the social aspect that gets you through it, not the grinding itself. When you’re hanging out with your friends — or hell, even getting to know some strangers — it’s fun to go out and do some busy work questing. It allows you to chat with your buddies without awkwardly standing around and doing nothing. (Of course, non-WoW players will accuse you of doing nothing anyway, but that’s a different topic.)

The point is, grinding is little more than an in-game version of work. It’s not done for fun, it’s done because you need to earn something you want. You do it because you need to level up, or because some dickbag won’t let you proceed until you accomplish his stupid list of tasks, or because you don’t have enough money to buy an item you need. And if you thought I was going to say that Animal Crossing manages to make it fun by going outside of these norms, you’re wrong. That is EXACTLY what Animal Crossing does. So why the hell is it so much more fun to do in this game than in others?

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There’s a reason cauldrons exist in this game.

Although it’s easy (and amusing) to envision Satoru Iwata, Shigeru Miyamoto, and Reggie Fils-Aime reenacting the opening scene of Macbeth, the answer isn’t supernatural so much as it’s psychological.

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On some level, Animal Crossing is popular for the same reason Pokemon is popular: People like getting stuff. Furthermore, people like getting stuff that goes together. Any given Animal Crossing game tasks you with accumulating insects, fish, fossils, and artwork for the museum, as well as any and all household items (such as furniture and clothing) to complete Tom Nook’s catalogue. This taps directly into that part of the brain that makes some people naturally inclined to collect things, which leads to the task itself becoming its own reward.

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The genius part of it all is the way the tasks feed into one another. When you go collecting, you might find new specimens for the museum, which is one pay-off; however, if you don’t get anything new, you can sell off your loot, which is a second pay-off; and then, once you’ve been paid for the sale, you can then use the money to buy household stuff (a third pay-off) or to upgrade your house (a fourth pay-off). The game rewards its players for their efforts at every turn, which encourages us to keep repeating the same tasks over and over again.

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This is mostly evident in the museum, but can also come about from neighbors as well. As the town’s museum fills in, Blathers is specific to note on each exhibit who donated those items: You, the player. Anywhere you turn within that building, your name is right there, reminding us that we only have neat things to look at because of the magnificence that is you. Elsewhere in town, Animal Crossing‘s hundreds of NPC characters are quick to tell you how much they like you, and how much they enjoy being your friend — while also asking you to do favors for them. We’re naturally more inclined to fulfill the requests of people that are nice to us, and we like to see our own names on things, all of which gives us more motivation to get out there and keep doing all the work while the rest of the town kicks back and does nothing.

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While this does have to do with actual hunting to some degree (especially for bug catching and fishing), it has more to do with the way people seek out things they really want. While the Collector’s Mentality section has more to do with the desire to own a complete set, Thrill of the Hunt is specifically how one goes about acquiring the pieces of that set. Think of it as the difference between the journey and the destination.

Think back to the last time you were trying to get a hold of something very specific that you really wanted. Maybe it was a particular trading card, or a certain restaurant’s specialty hamburger. Whatever it was, the desire to have that one exact thing compelled you to go to great lengths to obtain it. After working so hard to get what you wanted, the moment that you actually do acquire it becomes much more gratifying than if it had simply been handed to you.

Animal Crossing makes careful use of this psychological effect in order to keep us going once we’re only missing a few items. It’s not easy to keep getting the payoffs we want when we’ve already gotten the bulk of what’s available. As our checklists become narrowed down to only the rare and difficult to acquire items, the pursuit becomes part of the reward. When we go out for the day to work on our collections, we know exactly what it is we’re looking for, and having that clear goal in mind keeps us chugging toward it.

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This is almost the exact opposite of the Thrill of the Hunt section. The main difference between the two is the degree of control one feels over the situation. While hunting, the player has a specific set of procedures to use in order to work toward their goal. However, the Gumball Effect takes a backseat to hunting and leaves item acquisition up to a lottery.

Players that get excited over the Gumball Effect usually feel it during fishing and fossil excavation. There’s really only one step to the process: Find a spot (either the mark on the ground or the silhouette in the water) and find out what’s in it. You go into it with a vague idea of what it could be, but you won’t know until you actually have it in your hands. It’s a quick thrill that’s over just as fleetingly as it came, and it’s easy to repeat. All you have to do is put another coin in the slot and turn the crank for another gumball — or in this case, another lure in the water or take another fossil to Blathers.

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I don’t care who you are, you know that this is part of the appeal if you’ve played any of these games. Animal Crossing is almost like a video game version of that terrible wish-fulfillment story we all wrote when we were 13.

Think about it: It’s a story where we’re the new kid in town, but everyone loves us and gives us presents. We can talk to lots of people without worrying about awkwardness or embarrassing ourselves, and even if we do slip up, people still love us anyway. We get to have our own place, but we don’t have to worry about the bills because we can pay them off whenever we want to with no set deadline — and even if there were a deadline, it’s insanely easy to make huge amounts of money. We single-handedly fix every problem and fill every need, we can work our job at any time we choose (if we choose to have a job at all), and we can go shopping every day. We craft our environment to look exactly the way we want it. Who wouldn’t want a life like that? It all comes down to escapism. Our Animal Crossing lives will always be better than our real lives, and that’s part of what makes them so appealing.

So as we can see, no voodoo is involved in the making of Animal Crossing. Even though it seems unthinkable that grinding can really be that entertaining, it’s just very cleverly tapping into near-universal psychology. I don’t think there’s actually anything unsavory in this ga–

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Word to the wise: Those gyroids are actually grave markers.

I take it all back. If you don’t hear from me in a week, send help.

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Animal Crossing and all related characters, items, and sequels are © Nintendo. And possibly demons.

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About Leedzie

Leda "Leedzie" Clark is a writer and game designer with a sharp eye for detail and a kooky sense of humor. She's been a nerd as long as she can remember, and always seems to notice the wrong thing first in any given situation.

Posted on July 3, 2013, in Analysis, Feature Articles, Humor, Journalism, Video Games and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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