‘Crafting’ Your Reality

How Animal Crossing: New Horizons Uses Disarming Aesthetics and Game Play to Push a Colonialist Narrative

by Emily Harris

This paper discusses how a seemingly innocent game, i.e. Animal Crossing: New Horizons, pushes a colonialist narrative. Animal Crossing: New Horizons does this through a new area of game play called ‘crafting’ and uses disarming aesthetics to subvert the expectations of a colonialist game. This subversion is what allows this game to push a colonialist narrative onto young audiences in a way wherein the makers are never held accountable, and the players are unaware of the colonialist narrative they are participating in. To better illustrate this idea I have created a spectrum called the ‘Consciousness of Colonialism in Game Play’. This paper also goes deep into the ‘crafting’ mechanic of Animal Crossing: New Horizons and its subsequent parts and game play. The parts are the ‘D.I.Y. Recipes’ and what in the games is known as ‘Nook Miles’. The game play is the processes necessary to complete or interact with these parts. This is where as players or critics of the game we can see how these processes promote and reward colonialist behaviors such as deforestation and land exploitation for capital gain. The lens of disarming aesthetics as a method of supporting colonialist ideologies is a new one in the world of Game Studies and would benefit from further research from scholars. 

Game Studies, colonialism, game play

The Animal Crossing series is a set of nonlinear social communication simulation games, in which the player takes on the role of a human villager in a village consisting purely of animals. The player arrives with no money, but through completing various tasks is able to earn money and subsequently advance their island. The most recent addition to this series came in 2020 and is known as Animal Crossing: New Horizons. It introduces many new elements into the Animal Crossing universe such as things like crafting and Nook Miles. Animal Crossing uses a cutesy aesthetic to primarily target a young and female audience. On the surface, this is a harmless marketing tactic. It is not until you take a closer look at the game’s content and premise that a real issue emerges. The Animal Crossing series, specifically Animal Crossing: New Horizons, uses disarming aesthetics and crafting game-play to further push a colonialist narrative onto the player.

In the recent decades of game studies’ emergence in the field of academia, colonialism and postcolonialism have been prevalent themes. In particular, the scholar Souvik Mukherjee has spent recent years addressing postcolonialism within games and how the idea of ‘Othering’ continues to thrive within this medium. In his essay, ‘Postcolonial Perspectives In Game Studies’, Mukherjee says:

 “Videogames themselves had addressed colonialism consistently from their very early days. Highly successful game titles such as Civilization (MPS Labs, 1991) and Age of Empires (Ensemble Studios, 1997) are obvious indicators of this interest. These games were not critical of the logic of colonialism but were about building empires, with the conditions for victory often entailing the player possessing as much of the game’s map area as possible.”

(p. 33)

 This is a very important distinction to make, as discussing these themes versus criticizing them  has very different connotations in an academic setting and narrows down the scholars within game studies that take a critical approach. 

Another important name at the intersection of postcolonialism and Game Studies is Sabine Harrer. Harrer is a fellow scholar that takes a critical look into colonialist narratives in game studies; in Harrer’s 2018 article “Casual Empire: Videogames as Neocolonial Praxis”, she discusses the western-centric narrative of colonialism. Mukherjee describes Harrer as “developing the concept of ‘Casual Empire’ and using it to identify how power and exclusion operate through games culture, their production, and game studies”(“Postcolonial Perspectives in Game Studies”, p.33). Gita Jackson, who–although not a scholar–is a game journalist, has written a worthwhile article that surmises postcolonialism within Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Therefore, it is worth looking at before delving further into this topic. In their article “‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ Is a Little Heaven in a World Gone to Hell”, Jackson says “Animal Crossing: New Horizons is basically a fantasy of harmless colonialism, one where all the rough edges have been sanded off to make room for talking animals, pastel furniture, and catching bugs.” This idea of the ways in which Animal Crossing: New Horizons disarms its audience to distract from a postcolonial narrative is exactly what I want to focus on, but I want to specifically take a look at this idea through a part of the game play known as ‘crafting’.

I want to begin by introducing what I am dubbing the ‘Consciousness of Colonialism in Game Play’ spectrum. This spectrum features three games; Clash of Clans, Minecraft and Animal Crossing: New Horizons. These games have been chosen specifically as they all have crafting elements as integral parts of the game play, and they appeal to a similar sample group of younger individuals. On the ‘extremely conscious’ end of the spectrum, we have Clash of Clans. Out of the three games on the spectrum, Clash of Clans has the most openly combative approach to colonialism. Even its name, Clash of Clans, informs the player of the abrasive and conquering narrative of the game. The point is not to coexist with other ‘clans’, but to grow until your ‘clan’ reigns supreme. Minecraft is the true neutral of this spectrum. In Minecraft, the player is meant to build up a randomly-generated world in whatever way they see fit, but they are not alone. Characters known as villagers exist, as well as creatures better described as monsters (Creepers, Zombies, Spiders, etc.). In regard to the villagers, players can ignore them completely, coexist with them, or ‘inadvertently’ harm them. That being said, coexisting with the villagers may be the best option, as that is the most effective way to get specific materials. The monster-like creatures, on the other hand, are combative and (in survival mode) they pose a real threat to the player. Minecraft is unique in the way that it allows the degree that the player participates in colonialism to be left up to their discretion, while still offering clear parallels to colonialism. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is on the far right end of the spectrum, wherein the player is not conscious of the ways the game perpetuates a colonialist narrative. This game has the most child-like graphics, and does not feature any real violence (such as fighting a fellow villager). Any interaction with villagers in this game is seen as forming friendships, and not the player controlling the land the villagers live on. Coexisting as a community is a vital part of this game; its depletion of resources in the process of achieving that is extremely subversive. By far, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the most subliminal in portraying a colonialist narrative, even though these games share common threads. This spectrum is important to keep in mind while exploring New Horizons’ crafting features, and how it operates within the game’s narrative. 

consciousness of colonialism in gameplay spectrum

Before discussing the process of ‘crafting’ as it exists in Animal Crossing: New Horizons and its connection to colonialist practices, I want to start by setting certain guides regarding aspects of colonialism as a result of capitalism and its subsequent factions such as materialism and overconsumption. In the article ‘Colonialism and the Rise of Capitalism” by scholar J. M.  Balut they state that “… in essence the triumph of capitalism occurred in Europe not because of uniquely European facts but because of colonialism.” They then go on further to state “But the most critical implication, in my view, is this: historical materialism postulates an evolutionary process in human society as a whole, not just in one of its communities, and the position argued here is consistent with that project.” Colonialism and capitalism conform to and inform one another; thus consumerism and overconsumption are vital aspects when looking at colonialism under this lens. The new game mechanic of ‘crafting’ in Animal Crossing: New Horizons is composed of several game mechanics. First and foremost, these crafts are presented to the player through ‘D.I.Y. Recipes’; these recipes are broken down into many subcategories: furniture, tools, houseware, wallpaper, rugs, etc. There are also ‘D.I.Y. Recipes’ (see below) that can change villager attributes, and some that are integral to game progression. These recipes are presented to the player with cute graphics depicting the end product as well as the raw materials needed to craft said item. Each different recipe shares one commonality, which is that the materials listed on each recipe are things that have to be gathered. The existence of these ‘D.I.Y. Recipes’ are not the issue, it is moreso the cycles the crafting process perpetuates and the way the aesthetics of these processes and their presentation push a colonialist narrative. Each material necessary requires the player to gather through processes which deplete the island of that natural resource. Let us take wood, for example. In Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the player can go to trees and shake them to potentially obtain up to three different types of wood and/or sticks. This process works, but is not as effective as the axe method, a tool that requires sticks to ‘craft’ in the first place. Despite the axe being more effective, it is still an aggressive and disruptive process that affords the player no more control over the wood types received than the shaking method. Since it is up to chance which types of materials will be shown after chopping the tree, and the fact that different recipes require different materials, this means the player will have to hit a larger quantity of trees more frequently. They will also need to be chopping several different types of trees to allow for more variety, in regard to the rewards. This also increases the likelihood that the player can over-chop the tree, which causes the player to completely chop the tree down to a stump. This is indicative of how real-world colonialist practices have led to deforestation, a clear by-product of the over-consumptive practices intrinsically linked to colonialism. For example, Australia has “lost nearly 40% of its forest” due to European colonialist practices (Bradshaw). This is a cycle that is seen in all areas of material gathering within the game, and it has inherent colonialist connotations in this circumstance. No matter what you replace the tree with in this equation, some resource is always being manipulated for the player’s capital gain in an attempt to further their island’s standing in the Animal Crossing universe. At its core, ‘crafting’ really means overconsumption, as it is an unavoidable by-product of this process. The game then allows for crafted items to be used for ‘decorating’ around the island. This bears a striking resemblance to the way colonizers will come into a space and then disrupt and construct the natural order into what they see fit. This is not advancement for the betterment of the community, it is colonialism disguised as industrialization. Therefore using the aforementioned lens of overconsumption and materialism as it relates to colonialism, ‘crafting’ as a game mechanic single-handedly enhances the colonialist aesthetic and ideology of the game as a whole.

‘D.I.Y’ Recipes for ‘Crafting.’ Source: Nintendo Switch, Animal Crossing: New Horizons

There are also ‘D.I.Y Recipes’ that are seasonal. These recipes contain materials that are congruous to real-world seasons, which means they can only be gathered for a specific period of time, or you must wait until the next time that season occurs. This is important, as Animal Crossing: New Horizons follows the real-world time, so the amount of time you wait in the real world for a season to return is the same within the game. This adds a sense of urgency to the gathering process, which not only makes it more frantic, but also incessant. As previously mentioned, there is no other option to this overconsumption, and the player is subsequently rewarded with ‘special crafts’ for their conquest of the island. On its own this would have colonialist connotations,  but the game’s cutesy aesthetic creates the subversive nature of Animal Crossing: New Horizons postcolonialist agenda. The postcolonial narrative does not stop there, as these resources do not come exclusively from the player’s own island. The resources and materials needed for these recipes can also come from the ‘mystery island tours’. The conquering of one island is not enough, and the game promotes the traveling to and ravaging of other areas outside of your own space. Thus, we see the creation of features intrinsic to this process in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the first of which being “Nook Miles”. Nook Miles are an alternate form of currency in contrast to Bells, which are the staple currency of the Animal Crossing universe. These are awarded for doing simple tasks around the island, and can be spent to purchase ‘premium’ awards within “Resident Services” or at the “Dodo Airlines” airport. Through Dodo Airlines, the tickets purchased with Nook Miles allow the player to visit other vacant islands. Here, the player is free to harvest the natural resources of the island, and can meet other villagers. The player can also choose to invite these villagers to live on their island. This type of island expansion goes hand in hand with the ideas of travel narratives and colonialism, respectively. The player is encouraged to take materials from other lands and exploit these resources for their own benefit. They are also encouraged to coerce villagers into living on their own island. A major part of colonialism is the effect that political (people) power has on influencing others. This allows them to continue to reign over that space and remain in control, while also fueling this cycle of western colonialist ideology.

Inherently, there is nothing wrong with Animal Crossing: New Horizons or its players. I personally enjoy it, and its escapism properties. Animal Crossing: New Horizons (and the series itself) has many great qualities. Overall, Animal Crossing is an amazing tool that allows communities not typically targeted by games marketing to enter the world of gaming in a safe and accepting manner. That being said, we must still take a critical look at the types of media we enjoy, as it is crucial that we analyze what we ourselves most frequently consume and its underlying messages. All aspects of the crafting process, like the language used to describe it and what it produces as an end product, are designed in a very child-like and aesthetically pleasing manner. The same goes for the entirety of Animal Crossing: New Horizon’s graphics. This is extremely intentional on the part of the developers. The use of non-abrasive phrasing and imagery further reinforces the idea that Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a family-friendly game which allows the postcolonialist framework to thrive without public scrutiny. Nothing about the game tips off the fact that resources and landscapes are being depleted in order to craft ‘D.I.Y. Recipes’. This is why making sure games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons are important to include in the discourse on colonialism in games, as its disarming properties allow the game to avoid Postcolonial criticism.

Works Cited

Blaut, J M. “Colonialism and the Rise of Capitalism – JSTOR.” JSTOR, Guilford Press,        ooooooohttps://www.jstor.org/stable/40404472. 

Bradshaw, Corey. “Little Left to Lose: Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Australia since European Colonization.” Oxford Academic, 1 Mar. 2012, academic.oup.com/jpe/article/5/1/109/1294916#20968244.

Harrer, Sabine. “Casual Empire: Video Games as Neocolonial Praxis.” Open Library of Humanities, 30 Jan. 2018, olh.openlibhums.org/article/id/4462.

Jackson, Gita. “‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ Is a Little Heaven in a World Gone to Hell.” Vice, 16 Mar. 2020, www.vice.com/en/article/n7jkd7/animal-crossing-new-horizons-review-building-community-nook-miles-coronavirus.

Mukherjee, Souvik. “Introduction to the Special Issue on Postcolonial Perspectives in Game Studies.” Open Library of Humanities, 6 Nov. 2018, olh.openlibhums.org/article/id/4527.

Mukherjee, Souvik. “Videogames and Postcolonialism – Empire Plays Back” Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9783319548210.

Citation Style: MLA