The Raccoon in the Room: Tom Nook and Capitalism in Videogames
Much like kale salad, the electoral college, and the concept of “jazzercise,” I have a complex relationship with Tom Nook. On the one hand, he is a raccoon with an impeccable fashion sense, dispensing zero-interest loans and fatherly advice in (somewhat) equal measure. On the other hand, he’s a landlord, which is never politically popular, and is most definitely not in this economy.
From what I have gathered, the reception to Tom Nook falls into one of two categories: he’s an evil loanshark, or he’s a generally good guy. What fascinates me about Nook, other than his adorable character design, is how he has come to represent a very specific modality of capitalism within the Animal Crossing universe. Arguably, the mixed reception of Nook is a prism through which one can examine the dichotomies of capitalism. Is Tom a “condensation of the corporate bourgeoise” or is he a generous “first boss” taking a risk on a newcomer (Bogost, 2007, p.43).
The mixed reaction to Tom, and arguably capitalism, or at least the financial sector associated with it, can be distilled into a division between consumption and introspection. On the one hand, Nook is facilitating your development on the island, a kind stranger taking a risk and letting the player into the market. On the other hand, Nook also advocates for the purchase of more and more items, and not to forget, paying off your mortgage to him is one of the biggest obstacles of the game. I will therefore focus on the core political question embedded in Animal Crossing, with critical ramifications on our lives.
Is Tom Nook a good guy?
. . .
In order to address why Tom Nook rightfully deserved to be nominated for Nintendo villain of the year in 2003, it’s important to address the raccoon in the room--Tom Nook is the ultimate landlord. Even Adam Smith had a vendetta against landlords describing how they “love to reap where they have never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce” (Smith, 1776, p.145) Obviously, living in a flat with 5 of your bestest friends is very different from what Adam Smith envisioned, but with housing crises affecting almost every major city, landlords definitely occupy the hot seat.
A lot of thinkpieces in the past year have sprung to life, describing how Animal Crossing is the “game of the moment,” so perfectly attuned to the needs of those in quarantine. However, it’s not just the slowness and prosaic qualities of the game that make it so perfectly suited to now. With a real housing crisis gripping large parts of the world in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easy to see the distrust of landlords in the general public. The Washington Post describes this mirror as an answer to Nook’s kindness:
“As with landlords now, sometimes the rules and logic of Animal Crossing supersede Nintendo’s preferred characterization of Nook. When you’re saddled with making furniture to fulfill Nook’s obligations to new residents, or when you realize that some of the household items sold by Timmy and Tommy cost an obscene amount of money, or when you pick up on the fact that Timmy and Tommy impose shipping and handling fees for leaving items in a dropbox overnight, the lesson becomes clear. The kindness of the Nooks, or whether Tom is nicer now than in previous games, and even how you feel about Tom Nook personally, doesn’t really make a material difference” (Klimentov, 2020).
Thus, while Tom Nook may be comparatively nicer than other landlords, you’re still stuck in a pattern of doing work for him, trapped on this deserted island. Even if he’s “one of the nice ones,” it doesn’t make a difference with regards to the actual exploitative relationship you have with him. It’s important here to note as well that in earlier editions of Animal Crossing, Nook has you move into an empty property. I’m not a landlord, but from what I’ve gathered, a rental property that is empty is actually an asset that is actively devaluating. Thus, by putting you in his empty units, he’s again benefiting himself more than it seems. In newer editions, he builds you a home which mitigates this, but that doesn’t change his original image as a landlord.
This isn’t to mention all of the suspicious activities he conducts. The day after getting to your “island getaway,” Nook comes to your tent and charges you a cool 49,800 bells. After managing to pay it off, he continues to offer upgrades. He is a capitalist to the core, always thinking of profits first. Yes, Nook takes a hit on the house, but what he gains in the player’s labor is immense. Every task you do, every fish collected and bug sold, is worth so much more in labor than what Nook provides back (Contreras, 2020).
. . .
However, this is a politics journal, so it’s critical to point out specifically the political implications of Nook’s actions. This becomes most prevalent in the themes of consumerism throughout the game. As trends of urbanization in Japan accelerated after the collapse of the post-war bubble, a wave of nostalgia for country-side living hit. Animal Crossing, therefore, is to some extent wish fulfillment: it makes sense that the villagers embrace this bucolic lifestyle. They snooze on the porch, they roam around town (Bogost, 2007, p.45). While the player is working to expand their house, to pay off their new housing feature, the villagers they are surrounded with are embracing a sort of abstract asceticism--more Henry David Thoreau than Kim Kardashian.
Now if anyone in the game is Kim Kardashian, it’s Tom Nook. He himself encourages the player to spend more, to get a new extension, to put themselves in further debt. In the original game, the Non-Player Characters (NPCs) never have anything to do with Nook’s store. In contrast to the player who is racking up debt while buying and selling goods, the villagers are downright monks. In contrast, the player’s encouraged consumption relates directly to Nook’s wealth and shopping empire. Nook’s shops are a condensation of how the relationship between consumer and commercial banks often runs.
As the consumer pays off their debt, they begin to see Nook’s new wealth converted into expansion of Nook’s commercial empire. Thus, the player’s lowering of debt directly boosts Nook’s wealth. This mirrors a key relationship between debt and banking within the real world. A mortgage owner may not directly realize, but your debt is directly making someone else rich (Bogost, 2007, p.43). However, in order to pay off this mortgage, repetitive work is required. Whether that be digging for fossils or fishing, it takes a lot of physical--err digital--labour for that mortgage to be paid off.
Visit Nook again, however, and you find yourself desiring more. One is caught in a dilemma between acquiring more baubles for the interior design of your house and expanding the physical structure itself. As soon as you pay off your last mortgage, Nook is there again, offering another renovation. The more baubles you buy, the more space you need to store them, but the more space you buy, the more stuff you need to fill it up.
It’s through this process that Animal Crossing so effectively demonstrates the psychological ills of materialism. No, in Animal Crossing this continued cycle of consumption and debt is in direct contrast to the simple lives of the NPC’s, casting into question the validity of “Keeping up with the Nooks” as it were. This question, this conflict, is baked into the game. On the one hand, Nook and other game features implore you to continue that cycle of debt and consumption, but on the other, the game itself along with the NPC’s extol the benefits of pastoralism (Bogost, 2007, p.46).
Of course, if I haven’t convinced you that Tom Nook is a representation of not only landlords but also the ills of commercial banking and consumerism, not to worry. For $20 you can get your very own Nook Amiibo from Walmart, and both Nooklings for another cool $26. This isn’t to forget about the special edition Animal Crossing Nintendo Switch (Contreras, 2020).
That isn’t to say that indulging in Animal Crossing is some sort of frivolous excess that will instantly cause a spell of affluenza. Instead, it’s a question of how our physical possessions bring about intangible emotions. Is Animal Crossing just an “NPC Zoo” or is it a different sort of experience? These commercial expansions are another way in which to interact with the core tension the game presents. However, Animal Crossing, in my view, can be read as an investigation of the tension between consumerism and introspection.
. . .
There is no clearer trauma I can recall than having to act out the events of Lord of the Flies in front of the 9th grade English class. So started my disdain for political theorization based on “deserted islands.” Animal Crossing New Horizons is certainly not Lord of the Flies, and is pretty obviously not a tome meditating on the state of nature or the natural condition of humanity. However, there is something inherently utopian about an island where money literally grows on trees and you’re at leisure to do what you choose. I think this is why a lot of people are immediately dubious about the argument that “Nook is nice for a landlord.” Sure he is, but why are we focused on the generosity of the owner of what amounts to a company town--in some way shape or form, Nook Inc owns most everything on the island.
I was trying to explain the plot of Animal Crossing New Horizons to my father, and he immediately thought of Fyre Fest. While there’s no direct relationship, the potential for manipulation is manifest--you are essentially Tom Nook’s indentured servant, paying off your transit to the island with no clear way of freely getting back. On top of it he’s your landlord and banker?
It is a bit absurd to be in a scenario literally used by political theorists (or at least writers that like to think they’re political theorists) and to not question Nook’s actions at all because “he has a good deal on his loans.” So yeah, I think “Tom Nook Sucks” is about as stale a take as “Pineapple is Bad on Pizza,” but it’s an important take in order to dig into what a utopian environment should truly look like--what would animal crossing be without a Nook? Probably a very different game, and the implications of this are varied.
Video Games themselves are spaces more plastic than our real lives--just as literature allows us to explore beyond our own realities, Games become a sort of story-fantasy in which new worlds become possible. I’m not about to walk out of my room and investigate illness sweeping Yarham because first, there’s enough plague as it is and second because those themes which are explored are specific to the medium. Circling back to the common joke that being able to pay off a mortgage in-game is wish fulfillment, this is true across the medium. The video game is to some extent a dream, one which we are borrowing from someone else, but a dream nonetheless. I don’t even consider myself a gamer, I fiddle around a bit on Minecraft and the like but that’s about it. However, there is no denying that games occupy a new public space.
Indeed, games are not just “individual dreams” but rather “complex social and political constructions” which we also uniquely experience on an emotional level through the immersive process of playing. Video games thus not only create alternatives to be constructed into the future, but also “give us a glimpse into the future that is already coming.” More abstractly, “games show us what is coming but what we might be currently unconscious of.” (Bown, 2017, p.56).
Whether I’m mining for diamonds in Minecraft, my grandma is trying to get that last round of candy crush in, or my friends are all irate about the new Animal Crossing interest rate change, the dual plasticity and centrality of games means they are uniquely poised to offer a space to re-imagine what could be. It’s Tom Nook’s prosaic capitalism in contrast with this utopian space that gives the ultimate reason for the backlash: he is a direct counterweight to what could be. No matter how kind a landlord he is, he continues to reify the same structures which hamper our everyday lives. In a sense, we are not playing a game with Tom Nook, but he is rather playing us. Indeed, if it is true that video games are a collective dream rather than a simple text of interpretation, we can dream better than Tom Nook.
Bogost, I. (2007). Persuasive games: the expressive power of video games. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bown, A. (2017). The playstation dreamworld. London: Zero Books
Contreras, R. (2020). ‘I Calculated How Much Tom Nook Is Ripping You Off in Animal
Crossing.’ Vice. Available at: https://www.vice.com/en/article/n7jyjd/tom-nook-ripping-you-off-animal-crossing-new-horizons-bells-to-usd
Klimentov, M. (2020). ‘Nintendo says Tom Nook is a ‘good guy.’ They’re right, and not for the
reasons you think.’ Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/video-games/2020/04/09/tom-nook-animal-crossing-not-evil/ Accessed 14/11/2020.
Smith, A. (1776). The wealth of nations. London: W. Strahan and T. Cadell.
Yoshino, N. and Taghizadeh-Hesary, F. (2015). Japan’s Lost Decade: Lessons for Other Economies.
ADBI Working Paper Series. Mandaluyong: Asia Development Bank Institute.