Monday, 2 November 2009

Danger: Animal Crossing

As I wiped the last vestages of sleep from my eyes this morning, my first thought was of a little town I know. The locals are charming, the weather is usually fantastic, and all there is to do is catch bugs and fish all day.

I have a little house there, a pretty much guaranteed income, and there's always something going on. There's a beach, fantastic coffee, and the city is a short bus ride away. I've seriously considered moving there full time.

There's only one problem. It doesn't really exist. The town is called "Rumpton" (a private joke between me and the missus) and is the location (for me at least) of one of the most addictive games available today.

"Animal Crossing: Let's Go To The City" (aka "Animal Crossing: City Folk" in the States) is the latest in a series of "Second Life" titles for the Nintendo range. Playing the part of a small boy or girl moving away from home for the first time, all your decisions change the actual make-up of the town, until it becomes an almost irresistable shangri-la.

Whether it's catching the travelling (dog) musician on a Saturday night, the bi-weekly Flea Market, or running errands for the local residents (all animals as well, taken from a huge catalogue at the start of the game) in return for trinkets and baubles to improve your house, there's rarely a dull moment. And that's what makes it so dangerous.

Hour upon hour can slip by without achieving anything useful in the real world, and yet your ideal on the screen gets closer and closer. Because there's no particular overall point to the game, save to keep going, there's no "natural break" in the action, there's no reminder that it might be time to put the washing on, clean the house, or, heaven forbid, do some work.

Plus everything is so twee and charming, but specifically engineered for continuity. If you want to plant turnips, you HAVE to play on Sunday morning. If you want more music for your stereo, you HAVE to play on Saturday night. If you don't play for a fortnight, you get "bed head" and have to pay to have your hair redone. If you don't water your plants, they die. If you don't keep appointments you've made with the other animals, they get cross. If you don't drink coffee from Brewster every day for a fortnight, he won't store Gyroids for you (don't ask). It's all designed to keep you playing.

And it works. All too often, my partner and I have spent a Sunday passing the Wii remote back and forth to take our turns, check our mail (usually some inconsequential drivel from the stock letters in the program's memory) or catch an illusive fish that's only available between 4pm and 9pm but is essential to catch because otherwise.... erm.... well.... you might start to think, I guess.

There's the emotional engagement too. We start to love the characters. When Avery the Eagle, one of Rumpton's original residents decided to leave, we begged him to stay, but he wouldn't and when I finally left us, with a "Dear John" note, we were actually genuinely upset.

And this is what worries me a little about the way things are going. The game is designed to be continued. And continued. And continued. You're committing to the raccoons and camels and kangaroos like a tamagochi - they need their virtual egos and wants catered for, almost round the clock, and little touches like the "please come back and play anytime" when you finally sign off give little triggers of guilt.

There's even special items that are only available on Christmas Day. Remember - this is a one player game - and yet, you're expected to toddle off (or let the rest of the family endulge you) whilst you get your exclusive "Santa Wardrobe" or such.

Everything about this game, as much as I love it, and I do, is designed to make it a more appealing reality than reality. For someone with no life whatsoever, it will give them an unrealistic alternative to getting out into the real world and getting one. For those of us with a life (and I put myself squarely in the second category) it's addictive qualities make it a viable alternative to enhancing and maintaining that life, and can lead to missing things in the real world, in order to keep a date with K.K. Slider at the Roost.

In the "Red Dwarf" paperback called, appropriately enough "Better Than Life", Grant & Naylor depict a "total immersion video game" so addictive, that it becomes addictive to the point that player's real bodies start to wither and decay. They would rather live in the game till they die, than deal with their problems in reality.

The world of Animal Crossing is so charming, and so attractive, that one can draw parallels. Not me - you, know, I do a bit of Animal Crossing, but I can handle it. But for, say a manic depressive, their ideal world can be so vivid on the screen, they could actually end up pining for a place they can never truly live.

And so to all, I say, enjoy it, love it. But treat it with respect. It's a form of drug - and one that we may see more and more of as technology takes over our lives. This is a tiny little part of The Matrix in our living rooms.

And with that, I'm off to see if I can bang rocks with a spade and make money come out.

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