I began my personal self-quarantine a little over one week ago. I will spare you the juicy details, but someone I had come into contact with last Wednesday had come into contact with someone who had attended an annual journalism conference that will not be named where an attendee tested positive for Covid-19.
Staying at home has been the least of my worries. My sister, in San Francisco, has been furloughed for two months. My dad works at a Texas restaurant chain that just "temporarily" closed one of its three Austin locations, and my mom works at a call center for a retail company that's been dying for years. I work from home. I'm a writer with a cushy job, and after getting laid off by a company that will not be named, I got hired for a six-month contract at an eye-widening hourly rate for a project that has yet to fully launch. I was born out of a working class family, and working class is where we've remained.
I don't know what's going to happen, and as I sit on my ass and write, my aging parents continue to show up to work, where my mom works with many other elderly people, and my dad awaits the next phase of quarantine to be issued by the City of Austin.
My sister can't come home. Worst case scenario, she would get our parents sick, or she already has the virus from working in the service industry and could give it to someone at the airport. After her boss told her she was getting furloughed, she called me and showed me the sunset off the West Coast, and somewhere in that conversation she asked if I could buy her the new Animal Crossing. That is, of course, just the least I would do for her.
Screenshot via Nintendo/YouTube
I'd been interested in playing it after a few long distance friends started playing Mario Kart online together, chatting about buying Animal Crossing to pass the time while sheltering in place across Texas and California. But my sister is the only person I care about so much as to buy a game I didn't already want to play myself. So using my boyfriend's Switch, I downloaded the game, and sent my sister money for it, too.
This weekend I only had one plan: to play online with Hannah, however that worked. I've actually never played Animal Crossing. I had seen something about the game before — this very emotional story first shared in 2007, about a child who had lost interest in the game, and who found out years later that their late mother had sent letters and presents to their character on the game during all that time. (It seems the video still makes me cry). The story was written anonymously, but it's heart-wrenching nonetheless.
Maybe my memory of that story gave me unrealistically high hopes that playing with my sister would mean more to me than it seemed on paper — that I wasn't just buying two expensive games, but that I was forging a connection when I couldn't be with her physically. On Saturday, I cried while on the phone with a childhood friend, watching her on the street from inside my living room window as she dropped off a carton of eggs on my porch. I wasn't doing well, and playing with my sister was going to make me feel better.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons starts off intriguing enough – I was being sent to a private island where animal travel agents told me all expenses would be paid, and then... I wasn't quite sure what was going to happen next. All I knew was that I needed to unlock my island's airport in order to play with Hannah, and I was going to make that happen. So I get to my island, I meet a few other residents, and we get through the intro with a raccoon by the name of Tom Nook.
Before Friday, I had no idea who Tom Nook was. Doing some Googling just now, I see that "Tom Nook" is a play on tanuki, the raccoon-like animal he's based on in the Japanese version of the game. But Tom Nook is more of a snake, or a leech, really. He promises residents the benefits of a deserted island and then tricks you into investing more than you've bargained for.
So after a big ol' speech and letting me name the island (it's called Baby Cat — why any of y'all would want to name it "Quarantine" is beyond me), Tom Nook shows me around, he takes me to my tent, and he tells me that I now have to pay him. Specifically, I have to pay for the airfare, accommodations, "labor" (which, what? There's barely anything on this island and I had to pick the tent plots myself), taxes (?????), and a "NookPhone" that Tom just gave me. What the fuck? Tom tells me I owe him 49,800 "Bells" to pay off my "debt" and a halo of flowers floats around his smiling face. I tell him I don't know what the fuck he's talking about, and he tells me he can just charge me 5,000 "miles" instead, which I can earn by doing various activities listed on my phone. I just want to see my sister, so I say yes.
Gif via Nintendo/YouTube
I play Tom's little game. I fish. I shake down trees for fruit and Bells. I get stung by wasps so often it's become more economical to wait between attacks than to buy medicine every time I get stung (sound familiar???). He didn't give me tools to do his bidding. He made me make shitty ones out of materials I found. All this time, I am thinking, I just want to play with my sister. Just get me to my sister. Things come to a head when, sometime past midnight, I finally get enough miles to pay off my debt. So I do, and Tom lets me upgrade my tent to a small house. I should have known this opportunity was conditional — this entire time on the island I've been doing all this harvesting of natural resources to fund some museum that Tom and his associate Blathers are plotting. Tom tells me I now owe him 98,000 "Bells, and that I have to wait for my house tomorrow. He's already charging me an inordinate sum and I don't even have access to it yet! It's already past midnight so when is tomorrow? When will I get to see my sister??? Tom also says I can no longer pay him in miles. No, I must continue to sell garbage and animals and plants I find around the island in order to pay off my debt to a fictional raccoon. Whose dream island is this?
It is Tom's, of course. I will continue to play this game until, well, who knows. Until I pay off all my debts and propagate every plant known to the Animal Crossing universe on this godforsaken island. And I will do it despite having many other, better things I could be doing with my time in isolation and after social distancing, or whatever other level of caution Austin or Texas escalates to next. I derive little pleasure in selling clumps of weeds for 100 Bells each and paying off little fake debts while this, everything, is happening. And yet so many people I know or follow online were buzzing about this game as its release on Friday approached, excited to immerse themselves in a fictional world of labor and debt.
Yes, it is interesting to me that this game everyone hyped as "social distancing entertainment" wants me to spend my hours hawking island trash. I'm not sure why everyone thought Animal Crossing would be the medium to provide solace and escapism at a time when millions of people are losing their jobs. And I do mean everyone. My boyfriend's friends couldn't find a Switch at local Best Buys, and the new Animal Crossing Switch completely sold out, too. The people I follow on Twitter (not "everyone," I know) keep tweeting about the game as if they are ignorant of the hell that Tom Nook's world mimics, in which we are all pawns in a capitalist tycoon's ruse. A friend of mine who works at a massive online retailer recently told me that they're trying to figure out how to further capitalize off this pandemic, unsurprising from them but sickening nonetheless. Another friend told me that a local factory for a large tech company continues to staff hundreds of workers on the production floor without protective gear. We live among Tom Nooks, and we are dying by them as they prosper.
And yet so many people I know or follow online were buzzing about this game...excited to immerse themselves in a fictional world of labor and debt.
Have I gone mad? Tom Nook is a cartoon raccoon. This is a game. Is this a game?
I did finally get to play with my sister, on Saturday night. After accessing my island's airport and I starting a seven-day trial of my own online subscription despite my boyfriend already having one (that, along with the sale of many a Switch and Animal Crossing game, is the real grift here), I took to the skies on Dodo Airlines and visited my sister's island, Fire. When I landed, I saw her message me from afar (how does anyone text with this tiny qwerty touch screen, I do not know) and my character ran over to hers. Our characters ran circles around each other, as my sister's friend, another island visitor who came to share cherries, watched us flail about. We all took a picture together, but I don't know how to get it off the Switch. Hannah had me follow her character around the island for a tour and I saw she had already invested the time I eventually would to get a full-fledged museum, and palm trees, and other tokens of Tom Nook's appreciation. She had tricked her Switch's timeline somehow to play in the daylight during night, and she used her shovel to dig around my character, attempting to trap me in a pit of holes. She was having fun, and I was watching her have fun, and it was the most I could have asked for.
But the moment was fleeting. I took too long figuring out how add her as a friend and get online, and she needed to go eat dinner. Sunday night, we didn't play together, so I spent hours and "miles" traveling to other mystery islands in search of iron nuggets. Tom wants to expand his little tent of a shop, and between then and the next time I'll play with my sister, I'll be working hard to give him all the riches he desires.