Varieties of Animal Experience (or, 動物クロス Postmodern)

So PBS Idea Channel did a bit about Animal Crossing tying it into Hiroki Azuma's theory of otaku as narrativelessness. I was shocked and not sure how to respond to someone who says Animal Crossing has an "absence of narrative". Or makes the base critical mistake that "the point" of a work is merely one thing that happens in the work. So I snarked and then this happened, and I really don't know how to respond to someone who thinks writing YouTube comments - and therefore reading YouTube comments - is a good use of anyone's time.

But I still feel I owe a response of more than 140 characters, because I think this is a serious issue on a couple axes. It goes beyond just Animal Crossing and into more fundamental issues of what games do and how we talk about them.

Animal Crossing has a narrative. It even has a canonical "story," just not a three-act plot. Everything else in the video falls apart at that one fact. But even ignoring that the analysis is shallow.

Collecting is a thing you can do in Animal Crossing, yes. But while "collecting" is semantically broadened to near-meaninglessness in the video, that still ignores dancing with friends and designing clothes and planning roads and writing letters and rocking out and appreciating artwork and appreciating fake artwork and glitching your way into the river and watching TV and sitting on a stump and just enjoying the 2AM music. And still I wouldn't call any of these things "the point" of the game. (I'm not ready to stake out any claim on that yet.)

Why I am trying to "collect" a villager's picture before they move out? Why am I filling my back room with musical instruments for jamming when friends come over? It's because of the memories of the time I spent in the game and a desire to make more - the narrative - not in spite of it.

I don't want to tell you how Animal Crossing should be played! I just don't want you telling people how it should be played. I will tell you what I get out of playing it, and I want you to tell me what you get out of playing it. This is the difference between the basis of pseudo-science and critical discourse. A personal account is missing from Rugnetta's video and offering an analysis of the play experience sans reference to real player is one of the few wrong ways to do it.1

So the best long-form response I can muster is to continue to document my own experience with the game, and read a diversity of others' experiences. Unlike Rugnetta I'm not universalizing or essentializing mine - it is mine, real but one of many. (I am also not getting paid via YouTube hits.)

Partway through composing this, Gamasutra posted this series of letters between its authors which saves me the effort of writing the second half. There's no better way to highlight the variety of experience - and the shallowness of the one offered by Rugnetta - than an actual discussion around it. Here's what approaching the game with "otaku citizenship" gets you, from Mike Rose:

I was hooked on collecting things and being part of something, and now that that feeling has died off, I can't really see why I was playing it in the first place.

And here's what other approaches get you, from Kris Ligman:

As we become more urbanized and these natural and small-town spaces disappear, we escape to a sort of virtual outdoors out of comfort. In fact, I love how Animal Crossing also serves as a critique of the encroach of modernity...

Or Christian Nutt:

In the end what I am left with is this: how long can this go on? I don't see an obvious end to it. I'm sure it'll taper down and down, but for right now, I've forged a real emotional connection to my game, and I can still see uncharted territory, too.

There's nothing wrong with jumping at collection or stopping a game after two weeks (though like Mike, you might realize in retrospect it was a poor choice). There is something wrong with saying that since you stopped after two weeks, that's all there is to the game. Try actually engaging with it; if you can't do that, don't tell other people what they're doing.

PBS Idea Channel is often social media garbage, more thinkfluencing than thinking.2 So why bother responding? Because it's also getting more attention than, like, any of the other critical writing about Animal Crossing I've linked to. When Warren Spector (or other big-mouthed-dev-of-the-week) says there's no quality mainstream games criticism, this is why. Lazy nerd pop culture callbacks get tens of thousands of views and big branding - more than twice as many as Leigh Alexander's Kotaku post of about the same age, and everything else is on sites much smaller than Kotaku. Thoughtful analysis is buried.

  1. This is a vast oversimplification driven by not wanting to drag in the whole discussion of games-centered criticism vs. player-centered criticism. All I mean here is that if PBSIC wants to do the player-centered approach they're trying to do, they can't ignore the player. 

  2. No better example of this than tip-toeing around offending climate change denialists at the end of the same video. Very "fair and balanced," not at all the PBS science broadcasting I grew up with.