Every now and then I wonder what happened to Jerry, the spindly little boy who was ruthlessly bullied by just about every kid in my 5th grade class. He didn’t smell great. Glasses thick as a Kool-Aid pitcher. Hair gel flaking off, causing everyone to pick on him for his “dandruff”.
I still remember him whining, “I don’t have dandruff. It’s hair geeeeeel!” No one listened to him. It was more important for us to believe he had dandruff than to admit that he probably didn’t.
I never felt comfortable picking on him directly, but I was too much of a coward to really stick up for him. The one time I did anything - timidly asking another kid to just leave him alone - Jerry turned to me and gave a feral growl. So I told myself it was ok to not defend him, even though I understood that his weird behavior was probably an effect of the bullying and not the cause.
Bullying Jerry was a bonding exercise between the kids in my class. He was our scapegoat. If Jerry was beneath us then at least we were above someone. That comforted us at an age where we were becoming aware of the social strata. Most of us felt pretty low on that strata and picking on Jerry made us feel like at least we weren’t at the very bottom.
I wonder what happened to Jerry. I wonder what happened to Karen, too, that freckle-faced blonde girl that we also picked on. She wasn’t an ugly girl, but a bit plain and scatter-brained. She was terrible at schoolwork and probably should have repeated a grade somewhere. As an adult, that’s just a sad situation. Something that breaks your heart, not something you’d bully someone over. But we bullied her, too. What did it matter to us, I wonder?
I do remember being floored the day I learned Jerry and Karen were “going together,” since nothing could have been more natural than a relationship between the boy and the girl who got aggressively attacked every day. Bullied just for existing. In some ways Jerry was doing better than us. None of us had girlfriends. We were too terrified of being rejected! But those two knew all about rejection. My only positive memory of this situation is that at least Jerry and Karen had each other.
So what the hell does this have to do with Animal Crossing?
Animal Crossing! That sweet, kindly, bucolic game series that I first encountered on the Nintendo GameCube!
Back then, a 25 year old man played Animal Crossing to collect all the NES roms Nintendo helpfully included. Those were different times, young grasshopper. Before the Virtual Console or the eShop sometimes you had to make friends with a talking alligator if you just wanted to play Punch-Out.
So I came for the roms, but I stayed for the good-hearted charm. It is the most kindly game I’ve ever played. It's hard to describe to someone who's never played it because, well, it’s mostly a game about making friends with animals. Mr. Rogers could have created this game. It's your own little neighborhood of make-believe. My wife and I stuck with the series, making towns again in Wild World and City Folk. A busy life kept me away from New Leaf, but my wife played her copy as a kind of stress-reliever throughout one of her pregnancies. It’s probably the best video game experience we’ve shared together. It stuck with us, too. Right now, there’s a 4 foot tall painting of K.K. Slider on my daughter’s wall.
Is it just me, or does it seem like Animal Crossing exploded in popularity recently? Maybe it’s some combination of the ubiquity of the Switch, the loneliness of the COVID-19 quarantine, and the ease of sharing on social media, but from the perspective of a long-time fan, it feels like Animal Crossing’s time has finally come. Just today I got added to a group chat of six people from work who wanted to collaborate on getting the best turnip prices possible. I’ve been with this series for over 15 years, but that level of enthusiasm for the little animal village simulator is new to me.
Animal Crossing is thoroughly charming and I want other people to get the kind-hearted joy out of it that I’ve gotten over the years. So it pains me to point out that there are parts of the Animal Crossing culture that are a little messed up, right now.
For one, there seems to be a rush to be the first person to do everything. I understand that gamers blast through so many releases nowadays and they may put pressure on themselves to get to the ending as fast as possible, impress their Twitch followers, and move on to the next big game. Animal Crossing flouts that style of play, though. This isn’t a game you blast through. There’s no real objective to it, other than to pay off a few building projects. If you think the game is all about making good on your loan or expanding the store or getting KK Slider to play a gig in your square, you’re missing the point.
And yet, the first weekend of release I already saw videos popping up about how to maximize bells by selling tarantulas or bragging about getting rare items or desirable villagers. I don’t fault the enthusiasm or helpfulness of some of these videos, but I kept detecting a weird little status chase going on, as if the more bells you had or the rarer your items or the cooler your villagers, the higher your overall score.
I used to play Animal Crossing because I wanted to check in with Punchy the cat. To hear a new KK song. To see if Kapp'n had anything funny to say. I wasn’t in a hurry to make a million bells so I could move on to the next thing. I always considered it the slowest of slow burns. Maybe I’ve been playing it wrong all this time.
But if there’s a weird status symbol thing happening with Animal Crossing on the internet right now, I can think of no worse symptom of it than the subreddit Fuck Rodney.
To catch you up, there’s a blue hamster that you might get in Animal Crossing named Rodney. He’s, uh… look, he’s got some challenges going on to say the least. I’ll admit he doesn’t have the most appealing design. I like Animal Crossing hamsters in general because they’re so small and silly looking, but Rodney probably has the worst aesthetics. And that’s saying something in a game where Gerald exists. (Hmm… I wonder if Gerald ever went by Jerry.)
Rodney also has the smug personality type, which is nobody’s favorite. Smug characters sometimes take low-level digs at the player, the town or other villagers. But they’re also considered gentlemanly and able to get along with other characters. They aren’t as aggressive as cranky villagers, but they’re still not particularly lovable. So Rodney isn’t winning any congeniality awards.
But here’s the thing. Everyone can relate to having a couple of villagers in town who they don’t like all that much. But when you look through “Fuck Rodney”, here are some of posts you’ll read:
-Someone celebrating that Rodney has agreed to move out, with a screenshot of him standing outside his house next to a sign that screams, “Die SCUM!”
-Someone who has decorated the front of his house with toxic waste, a portapotty, barbed wire fencing and something that frankly looks like a giant elephant turd. Their comment? “May he rot in hell with the smell of garbage every morning.”
-Someone offering a QR Code so you can get artwork of Rodney with a gun to his face.
-A picture of Rodney sick and needing medicine with the caption, “The beast is ill, his death is imminent.”
-A picture of Marshall moving in with the caption, “Finally fucking kicked that piece of shit Rodney off the island for Marshall, good riddance shithead”
-Lots of photos of village-wide celebrations where Rodney is obscured by a tree or a larger character with captions intimating that the other villagers hate Rodney just as much as the gamer does and also want him out of the photo.
-And this comment, which might be my least favorite: “I still remember the time I saw Rodney on a mystery island and he thought he had the privilege to speak to me or be in my presence. Still recovering from the trauma.”
Before I go on, I want to say: I’m not an idiot. Of course the whole “Fuck Rodney” thing is an ironic, memetic joke. The humor derives from pretending to have strong feelings about something that ultimately isn’t very important. It’s tongue-in-cheek and largely an in-joke.
I’m also well aware that Rodney doesn’t exist. Rodney is a few lines of code and nothing more. He doesn’t feel or care about anything said about him online. So I’m not offended on Rodney’s behalf or anything ridiculous like that. I don’t want to overblow the bullying angle.
God, when I read that subreddit, I’m just reminded of the way we scapegoated Jerry. And I can’t help but feel it reveals something darker about human nature. We’re still worried about our place in the social strata. We want Raymond on our island because we're being told that it matters if we don't have him. We want that loan paid off and the extra bells for the big house. And if we can't have those things sooner than other people, we still want a scapegoat for it. And our reasons for who we scapegoat are largely arbitrary.
If you look through it long enough, you’ll see where people say, “Hey, it’s not just that we think he’s ugly. He’s a smug little pissant to everyone.” Sure. I guess. He is a smug type, so I can believe it. But the first thing Rodney did when he moved to my village was give me a sand castle. I thought that was kind of sweet. He's got a fun, throwback diner aesthetic going on in his house. Sure, it makes it look like he wants to live in a Chili's, but that's not a reason to call him scum. He hasn't been worse than some of my other villagers so far. Maybe he acted worse to you.
Right now my island has been a magnet for snooty and smug villagers. (That’s what happens when your 5 year old daughter names the town “Ft. Every” because “Everyone’s invited!” I haven’t been allowed to refuse a single camper.) I also have Hippeaux, Kidd, Eloise and Peggy. Ft. Every is an island full of self-involved little snots. But none of those characters have a hate cult the size of Rodneys. Why is that, I wonder?
I'll go further. Marshall is a smug villager too and yet he’s considered hilarious and highly desirable. Someone up there was celebrating trading for Marshall when his personality is basically a copy of Rodney. Why is that? I think it’s simple: Rodney is uglier than they are. He looks like a fucking smelly nerd. That’s it. That's as complicated as this gets.
And that’s the part that I think is gross. I don’t have a problem with people wanting to get rid of their least favorite villagers. If you want to spend 400 Nook Miles Tickets to get Raymond, because you think he’s better designed overall, I can’t fault you for that. But I’d encourage gamers to lay off the ironic scapegoating of characters they don’t like. I get the joke and it works for about 5 minutes flat. After that it starts to sound like you’re just role-playing being an asshole. And I have no idea why you’d want to bring something that mean-spirited to something as good-natured as Animal Crossing.
Oh man, I joined a few Facebook Animal Crossing groups just to see if I could find anyone interested in doing some multiplayer, but a lot of those groups seem so toxic! This or that villager is ugly! People making deals and then stealing stuff instead. People only worried about maxing out everything in the game ASAP.
I don't get it! It's such a chill game. If you let it be! It should, ideally, have such a chill fanbase.
Instead we get tiered lists of who the best and worst villagers are.
Yeah, the "fuck this random innocuous side character in a kid's story" joke is really played out by this point. Reddit seems to regurgitate its style of humor. Just look at a few threads in this AI-generated subreddit, the rhythm of conversation is so predictable that a computer can nail it.
As far as game design goes, I'm convincing myself more and more that the most toxic part of gaming culture is people emphasizing the destination over the journey. The whole idea that "real gamers play everything that comes out, because games matter!" is what part of what leads to this rush to get to the credits by any means necessary, which to me is far more toxic/Western/patriarchal/imperialist/etc. than "gatekeepers" who insist that there really is an optimal way to enjoy something. Grinding for tarantulas is just the Animal Crossing version of throwing a game on easy mode to blaze through its combat. You're playing through the game faster now, but to what end?
We treat games like checkboxes rather than experiences. If people complaining about their backlogs isn't a first-world problem, I don't know what is. Maybe if something that you're ostensibly doing for fun feels like a chore, you shouldn't be doing it in the first place? The fact that people still opt for the fastest-but-least-fun playstyles in a game like Animal Crossing is evidence to me that this behavior is more Gamer Pride Never Give Up Stockholm Syndrome than it is genuine interest in a story that just happens to be locked behind hours of monotony.
Speedrunning Animal Crossing is definitely missing the point. It's kind of like living as fast as you can so you can just hurry up and die.
As far as mean-spiritedness, it seems like they might just be ironically pretending to be exclusionary assholes?
To which I would reply... let's just eliminate irony! Irony has had its time in the sun. It's time for post-post-modernism. Poster-modernism!
@Secret_Tunnel Maybe gamers who dislike roguelikes also have a similar mindset. Like, "If I'm not making progress to the goal, what's the point?" Even though they kind of are. But personal improvement and mastery aren't easily quantifiable.
That's why impurities like Rogue Legacy are often the exception to the rule for those types of gamers. It has tons of checkboxes in the form of a huge skill tree which allows the player to grind their way to success.
This is reminding me of that Taxonomy of Gamers thing...
What the exact balance between living for fun in the moment vs. working for the future ought to be is a hard philosophical question for sure, but it doesn't apply to video games! There's an objectively correct answer here: there's no reason to sacrifice the present to play a game that you aren't enjoying, because the rewards are fake.
That's why achievements are so insidious; it's great that we evolved to enjoy seeing our bank account go up, because we have to do something other than blissfully meditate until worms eat us. But seeing your gamerscore go up hijacks that dopamine response and leaves you with nothing in return. Work 40 hours at a job you hate and get a paycheck at the end of the week, hey, at least you can use that to make your life a little better. But play Hannah Montana and get a platinum trophy, and... it's crazy that people can't see that behavior for the addiction that it is, gamers admire it. Seeing game critics brag about their trophy level is like seeing old doctors recommend cigarettes.
I've seen a lot of people who were never fans of Animal Crossing give this game a shot because they feel that its crafting and Nook Miles systems give them some structure as to what they should do. But do they actually enjoy running up to a river, pressing A, and then pressing A a few seconds later, or do they only enjoy seeing their Miles go up?
That isn't to say there's nothing to like about Animal Crossing. It's a great outlet for creativity and relaxation, I think there's really a lot that you can put into it. And some of the wackier meta-game stuff like playing the stalk market or even farming tarantulas can be fun in that there's this sense of the community trying to figure out how to optimize it.
But as someone who's never been big into decorating my house, I'm sitting at a two-star island right now, and... I'm pretty content with that, I like my island the way it is. What am I gonna do, force myself to plant a bunch of flowers so that I can... plant more flowers later? No, I'm pretty much done with this game, I feel like I got my fill for now, there's no reason for me to keep going.
Nice write up, though admittedly I expected a more humourous piece going into this, hee hee. You did a good job capturing the essence of bullying.
Firstly, I want to make it clear that I largely agree with what you're saying here. To offer a point from the other perspective, this is definitely the most goal-oriented that Animal Crossing has ever been. During the first two weeks or so, there are a lot of features locked behind a form of progression in the game, such as the store and customisation tools and more, so it can be tougher to play at a more relaxed pace until all of that is accomplished. For me personally, I lived in a tent for a week, but it would have been longer had I not felt pressured into getting a house so I could unlock the store. I was falling too far behind my friends so there wasn't as much we could do when we played together.
Then there is the matter of the Nook Phone and all of the tasks it gives you as goals to earn the Nook Miles. I can understand people getting wrapped up in this, especially since the phone is constantly giving notifications, and it doesn't seem like there's any way to turn those off. This is one of the reasons why I don't like the Nook Phone. Now, I'm not saying I think people should be playing this like every other game with checklist goals; it's still much more of a slow-burn chill game than most anything else. But the game isn't totally innocent in this aspect.
That said, I don't think my case is quite the same as what you're talking about. I didn't want those goals just to achieve goals, I wanted the extended gameplay features they offer so that my friends and I had more to play in the game. After completing the unlock tasks I was finally able to once again be much more relaxed with the game, and it's been going a lot better. We're not specifically trying to accomplish anything when we play, we just take stuff as it happens, and we share our discoveries and experiences together which is nice. This is what AC is, to me. I don't like to criticise the ways in which people choose to play games, but it is tough me to not also say that some people are missing the point.
As far as villagers go, I just let my town fill with whatever random villagers I get, I don't particularly care. One of my friends actually has Rodney, and he seems okay to me; I wouldn't have guessed he'd be one to have that hate meme about him. Whenever people talk about kicking a villager out of their place, I always facetiously say "Animal Crossing is teaching segregation!" But after reading your writeup, I now wonder if this statement is more true that I first thought. I always felt like Animal Crossing did have some subtext to it, though I didn't think much about that having to do with the way people played it.
One thing which weirds me out about AC is how the player is not just the sole human character, but also has extreme power and influence over all of the animals... but I s'pose we probably shouldn't be going down that rabbit hole.
@Secret_Tunnel I vaguely explained the whole people being mean to villagers and ranking them and such thing to my wife, and pointed out that some entire species tend to rank poorly (for instance, a lot of the mice are at the bottom of the tier lists I've seen) and she was like "I'll bet some people are subconsciously projecting racial characteristics onto the animals and treating them differently because of it" and I mean... I could see that happening. Maybe even consciously for some people (I'm sure SOME white nationalists somewhere play Animal Crossing and try to create their fantasy of a closed border ethnostate by only letting in certain animals to their village.) But probably subconsciously for others. Would anyone want to TRULY evaluate why they instantly love some animals and instantly dislike others, any more than people want to evaluate that about the humans they make snap judgments on and why they do it?
But yeah, about rewards, the rewards are kind of as real as anything else in the game?
I mean yeah, Animal Crossing is obviously just a game, who cares, whatever.
But man did it feel good to purchase that big shiny server rack and think "Wow, now I can create a (fake) server room in my (fake) house once I pay off my (fake) debt and expand my (fake) house even more!"
If I have to do a bunch of boring ass chores to get to that point, it'll be worth it, to see that glorious glowing server rack in a room of its own. That objectively doesn't exist and adds nothing to my actual real life. And I will probably forget about 2 minutes later.
My real life is boring right now either way. We're not even allowed to hang out with people!
Kris, you should compile these NW essays into a book or something. Your write-ups are always so fascinating to read!
The older I get, the more frustrated I grow with the general tone across online communities. Like April says in an episode of Parks and Recreation, "Why does everything we do have to be cloaked in, like, fifteen layers of irony?" Maybe it's just part of aging and feeling disconnected from the younger gen. Old man yells at cloud?
Regardless, Rodney looks like a funny little guy. And yeah, it's weird that people use the Smug personality to disparage him, then turn around and offer a zillion tickets for the functionally-identical Raymond.
Oh! I forgot to mention, but Animal Crossing was still pretty big before this. New Leaf sold over 12 million, and Wild World over 11 million. I remember the craze for New Leaf when it came out since I was a part of it, people played it for many months and beyond. That said, I don't think New Horizons would be quite the sensation it is if it weren't for the pandemic and resulting lockdowns, but it still would have been a popular game regardless.
Your server rack isn't just a trophy, though. The process of designing your server room is fun! Give yourself more credit!
I don't think rewards in a game are just as real as anything else in a game. The process of playing a game is just as real as anything else you do in life; what's the difference between solving a Tetris puzzle and writing a program for your boss? What's the difference between leading a World of Warcraft raid and running a company? The difference is in the reward: your gamerscore is just a number on a screen, but your bank account (or pizza party, or whatever the reward is) has ramifications in real life. I guess you can get some pride out of looking at your trophies, whether they're virtual or physical, but you never hear about people running marathons specifically because they want an object to put on their shelf, whereas people play games they hate all the time just for the "reward" at the end.
The animal discrimination thing is interesting. You can't make a game about just living in a town with other people without having politics drift in...
1) Let me just get out of the way that I found this post moving and honest. Well done! I have long been interested in the application of watching how people interact with virtual characters/things and comparing it to deeper human nature both now and throughout history. It seems when we can say "Oh it's just a line of code" we cast off the chains of morality and decency that we'd secretly love to cast off in general and just go for broke. Then you have stuff like FB and Twitter (and, shudder, YouTube comments) where it is almost Virtual Character Lite, and many people have no problem being horrible to others since they can't see them directly. Even if it's all make-believe, we're still make-believing some pretty horrific stuff. I can't imagine in 100 years when what is considered taboo today will just be rampant. Where as games where you shot innocent people on the street would have once made people vomit and now is just another shelf at Best Buy, one day possibly not far from now there are going to be games about pedophilia (not just from Japan) and who knows what else. Anyway, old-man-ranting aside, again kudos to the write-up because it was thoughtful and really solid. I also agree that Animal Crossing is all about slowing down, so it is bonkers to me that it is selling better than ever in our beat-it-as-fast-as-possible world. But maybe... maybe it is because people are starved for content that is slow and deliberate that draws so many in right now? Dunno. But I sure am enjoying going d-i-r-t slow in this game right now. I might do one achievement thing, walk around one beach, and then quit for a while. It's wonderful.
2) I would live at Chili's if they let me - why is this being treated like a negative thing. Have you guys had their unlimited chips and salsa? It is amazing.
I was visiting a random deserted island today (first time) and found a Koala named Ozzie. Seemed like a friendly fellow (plus my wife loves Koalas) so I invited him to live on our island. But no fooling, I second guessed myself because his nose is weird and I was like "I dunno."
I thought of this thread and how superficial that was so I reprimanded myself for it, but figured I'd share it here anyway because it's the truth. (I still don't like his nose. But I blame the art director for the terrible color choice that clashes with his otherwise appealing look. :P )
Hey everyone! (I'm Pogue's wife if you are unfamiliar with my username.) I've been on the fence about getting Animal Crossing and the below article took me over the edge- I will definitely be getting it soon. I was really shocked to find out that such a wholesome game had an entire sector of people who somehow got their jollies bullying villagers? I saw Pogue browsing this thread and I knew I had to chime in, as you all were sharing very similar sentiments to what I thought when I first read the article. I can't wait to recruit and show some love to all of the less liked villagers when I make my island.
Ozzie is AWESOME. Such a weirdo. I don't know if every "lazy" villager has his lines, I guess he's my only one, but I love his comments about the bugs living in his walls, and I love giving him clothes and accessories that he'll try on the spot, proud of them "not having a food stain on them".
Gah! Well I hope he shows up. Tom just said we're getting three (!) new people moving in, so maybe he is one of them? I don't think I will be able to build the houses and stuff before tomorrow, though, so looks like we will miss his birthday if indeed he's one of the new islanders...