Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp is a perfect metaphor for late capitalism

Public works projects, in this economy?

Congratulations: You’ve won the lottery!

Not one of the giant, mega, nine-figure jackpots that make national headlines, but rather some smaller but still immensely large amount of money. Let’s say you’ve won $5 or $10 million, something in that zone.

What do you do with it? Perhaps in your daydream, you do away with all the things that make you fearful. You pay off your debts, buy a nice house, buy a newer car, and -- between savings for the future, current needs of friends and family, and philanthropic ventures -- quietly use up the rest.

This fantasy of quiet, sufficient wealth is exactly what the Animal Crossing franchise has always promised, really: a daydream of capitalism at its best, where you, too, can own a gold-plated mansion and be a magnanimous millionaire, with no demands upon your time except those endeavors you choose.

Meeting a fellow traveler in Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp (just use "their," Nintendo, geez).

Now the series has gone not just portable -- which it has been since Animal Crossing: Wild World hit the Nintendo DS in 2005 -- but truly, wholly mobile, with the Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp app available on iOS and Android.

But if Animal Crossing is, and always has been, a game about capitalism, Pocket Camp is where you see the system start to fail.

Animal Crossing doesn’t bill itself as a game about capitalism, of course. Since the series launched in 2001 on the Nintendo 64 and GameCube, it’s described itself variously as a “life simulator,” “communication game,” or various other phrases on the theme of socialization and friendship.

And sure, yes -- it’s a game about building relationships, and building a home. It’s a game about sending mail to your friends, looking cute as you go about town, and that weird, workout-obsessed penguin next door who always gave you kind of a strange vibe.

But from the 2001 original through 2012’s New Leaf, the story that previous Animal Crossing installments all sold was a comforting one: The myth of the successful homesteader.

The plot goes roughly like this: You arrive in town, select a plot of land, and build your one-room cottage there. You live off the land, harvesting fish, fruit, and insects. You sell them for profit, trade them for favors, and slowly but surely build wealth.

The first mortgage on your home is paid off in days, so next you finance an expansion. That, too, is paid off in a week, and now you’ve got the habit of taking out new mortgages every time your old one is paid off. You build bigger and bigger, swinging by all the local shops daily and buying as many consumer goods -- clothes and furniture -- as you can find. You put your extra cash in the bank, and watch it grow thanks to high interest. Your financial empire builds. You endow a natural history museum and fill it until the curator announces it can hold no more.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf (2012). Animal Crossing: New Leaf (2012) is Rockerfeller capitalism with a pastoral theme.

The game is entirely open-ended, with no conclusion. And yet by the time you complete a 365-day cycle of dedicated playing with New Leaf, you have “won” at your virtual life by any metric you can think of. You’re a millionaire, having ordered the world to your whims and endowed all of the local public institutions from your own pocket change. The museum is full, the town hall redesigned, local ordinances signed. You’re more than just the town’s mayor; you are a Carnegie, a Morgan, a Vanderbilt, a Rockefeller.

It is, as I wrote in 2014, “The perfect capitalism simulator, or perhaps a simulator of capitalism as perfection.” Your takeover is peaceful and complete; you have worked your way to the very top.

Filling a request in Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp. Filling a request in Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp.

But now, Animal Crossing: New Leaf is a bit old hat. It came out more than five years ago and although it had an Amiibo-related refresh in 2016, its age is showing.

So here we sit in 2017. The world is constantly melting down around us, in both the metaphorical and literal senses. But there is a bright light in a sea of dark and cynical media for a dark and cynical age, perhaps: We have a new Animal Crossing! And this time, you don’t even have to own a Nintendo console to play it.

This time around, Pocket Camp is for all of us: The promise of real-time communication with real-world friends and animal neighbors alike, right there on your phone, immediately to hand whenever you want it.

And what fantasy, pray tell, does Pocket Camp bring to the masses?

Only this: You can work your butt off all day, but you’ll never make quite enough money to buy the things you want. Oh, yes: And now you live in a van.

This, apparently, is the daydream to which 2017 aspires. So much for living your best life.

The problem, unfortunately, is not unique to once-utopian videogames.

The 20th century began with World War and postwar policies that ended the first Gilded Age, but over and over we hear and see that the next one is already upon us, and getting worse. We are living in an era that is unkind in the extreme to its youngest, poorest, and most vulnerable members, as recent shenanigans in Washington have starkly reminded us. America’s adults now owe a collective $1.4 trillion in student loans, with the number of borrowers and the average debt-per-borrower going up every year. Healthcare costs rise ever upward, which helps keep wages from doing the same. Young adults who have means are buying seven-figure homes; those who don’t aren’t buying at all.

The traditionally-targeted white, educated, rising middle-class young adult -- the magical millennial about whom media outlets incessantly write so much -- has killed everything. The list runs the gamut from paper napkins to casual dining chains to the idea of homeownership itself. The stories make for lazy listicles, and yet their preponderance and popularity point to an undeniable truth: Aside from the very wealthiest percentage of the nation, the next generation of young adults in America will not be living, raising children, aging, and dying in the same kind of world their parents did.

Replace this with student loans and you're dead on. Repaying a camper expansion loan. Replace this with student loans and you'd be dead on.

Millennials “are splurging on travel because they know they’re unlikely to get on the housing ladder,” The Independent writes. And Animal Crossing, rather than tantalizing us with prosaic daydreams of what we cannot have, now seems to be piling on.

In Pocket Camp, you no longer have a home. You no longer have a town. You are mayor of nothing.

Instead, you have a camper and a campsite, and your “friends” are just as transitory. In-game animal or real-world player, the characters in your little outdoor world will cycle through and out of the zones around you every three hours, leaving no trace of being in their wake.

Your relationships with them are purely transactional: I give you a fish, and you give me cotton. Their terms are clearly outlined from the start, and whatever each animal wants will be clearly outlined on travel screens and above their heads when you happen to wander by.

Each transaction you make, if you are lucky, with leave you with a smidge more money in your pocket than you spent to buy the ability to become friends with that character in the first place, by building things they like at your own campsite.

And over time, after days and days of this, you accomplish... nothing. You gain campsite visitors, exactly as one might gain Twitter or Instagram followers, but aside from a camper full of clothes you won’t wear and chairs you don’t sit on, you’re left empty-handed.

Behind you, you leave no home, no property, no monuments or museums or public works. You have not improved the land around you, raised orchards, cultivated new flowers, or discovered a hitherto unseen fish. You have merely checked off boxes and treaded water, as best you can, to get through one day at a time slightly less poor than you were the day before.

That tart won't pay the bills, Tex. Some filled requests in Pocket Camp will yield little vignettes like this, because millennials value experiences with their friends over having a place to live.

For 15 years, Animal Crossing sold us a fantasy experience about capitalism: that we could be the exception, the beneficiary and benefactor; that we would win in the Gilded Age and so would our neighbors. But the days of winning the Carnegie-simulator are long gone.

Now, at long last, by being reduced to its skeletal, mobile, microtransaction-based form, Animal Crossing is teaching us the harshest lesson about the world we have built around us: The vast majority will toil every day, performing the same tasks, and will never, ever win.

What if the values Animal Crossing lays claim to being about – community, solidarity, mutual aid – were what it actually practiced? That might get closer to the kind of world millennials want to see.

Millennial adults are the most likely to use public libraries; the most likely to support universal healthcare; and the most likely to think climate change is a problem that needs fixing. In short, the rising generation is the most likely to think that the problems it and we all face may require social, communal solutions, rather than just individual moxie. They are a generation finding their political voice in the act of resistance.

Pocket Camp lays bare the promise of its predecessors: No, you’re not going to have a million-dollar mansion – but maybe that’s OK. Maybe what Animal Crossing needs for the rising generation is not to bring back your chance to buy a gold-plated roof, but instead to let you pool those bells you get from selling fish with others, to build bigger and better amenities everyone can share. Now that’d be an interesting mobile game.

Top image source: Nintendowire.