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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nintendo says Tom Nook is a ‘good guy.’ They’re right, and not for the reasons you think.

(The Washington Post illustration; Nintendo)

For years, Tom Nook has been dogged by his unsavory reputation. Nook, an anthropomorphic tanuki who lords over every Animal Crossing save file, has been labeled a villain, a nefarious bandit and a real estate robber baron, among many other more colorful titles. “I despise capitalists, and Tom Nook is Animal Crossing’s foremost capitalist,” declared a recent article in Vice Games.

In earlier titles, Nook exhibited a cruel streak. He was a busybody. And over time, his real qualities have been embellished with a range of secondary observations, ranging from the earnest to the comically over-the-top.

There’s the edgelord school of humor wherein an analogy is made between the game and some sort of ugly real life phenomenon. For example, Tom Nook abuses children, some might claim, by installing the twins Timmy and Tommy Nook to labor in his general store, Nook’s Cranny. These go into the “pay no mind” category.

Then there are the good faith critiques of capital and the landowning class: Why are players forced to run errands for Nook, and also effectively pay rent to him? What’s the point of capitalism — even benevolent capitalism — in a desert island utopia, where food and water is abundant and money literally grows on trees? Still others don’t differentiate, having rolled up the whole slew of critiques, from the absurd to the well-meaning, into a single package in service of the meme: Tom Nook is evil, Tom Nook is cruel.

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Nintendo is aware of Nook’s reputation — and they think we’ve all misunderstood the besweatered raccoon.

“I think he’s a really, really good guy,” Hisashi Nogami, the producer on Animal Crossing: New Horizons told The Post’s Elise Favis. “You do owe him money, but it’s not like he comes over and then asks you to pay him back. And he doesn’t add interest in any of the loans that you may have. I think he really does stick around and wait for you and then lets you take the lead for paying him back.”

On the merits, Nogami is totally right. Nook is a generous and accommodating host. When you arrive on his island, you pay him for your flight and amenities with Nook Miles, an invented currency that you accrue by having fun. Talk to your anthropomorphic neighbors, get Nook Miles. Go fishing, get Nook Miles. Pick fruit from the trees, get Nook Miles. You’re earning rewards bucks doing the stuff you were planning to do anyway. It’s Kohl’s Cash. It’s charity.

Timmy and Tommy Nook, of Nook’s Cranny, buy anything and everything you offer them. Offload anything from weeds to worn socks — they pay you for it. This isn’t done at Nook’s direction; in fact, he admits to the player that the practice confuses him. But he is gentle, and careful not to overstep. In fact, Nook rarely interferes in island life at all; he is a facilitator, not a lord. When the player asks to move buildings, Nook calls the tenants first to confirm that they assent to the move.

When you decide to upgrade your modest tent to a house, Nook tells you the price but builds the house first, with no expectation of receiving the money upfront. What’s more, there are no interest rates or deadlines on his loans. Pay him back at your leisure. Not exactly the hallmark of the mustache-twirling Rockefeller type. Even the aforementioned Vice analysis, in which the game’s currency was converted into U.S. dollars to put the price of in-game items into a comprehensible context, begrudgingly acknowledges that Nook’s real estate dealings are more than fair: “Turns out, the single-room, studio house was a very reasonable $3,920,” wrote Ricardo Contreras, the piece’s author. “With no interest and no payment plan, you could almost say that it was a steal!”

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In fact, Nook more closely resembles a leader of a utopian commune than a real estate mogul. Animal Crossing is a cheerful simulation of carefree, independent island life, where you chop wood, pick fruit, fish, and study the flora and fauna as you grow and nurture your community. It is explicitly utopian — and by extension, so is Nook’s stewardship of the island.

Timothy Miller, a professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas and the author of a number of books on communes and alternative communities, cautioned against generalizations in an email to The Post, but rattled off a list of communities and leaders that roughly fit Nook’s profile: prosperous, and benevolent. So, Miller was asked, would they follow Nook’s money-lending lead?

“Zero interest loans from the community treasury? I think that would be rare, mainly because most communities are not sitting on a lot of cash,” Miller wrote back.

Ultimately, many of these communities went bust or only narrowly avoided bankruptcy. In this context, Nook’s achievement is even more impressive. His island community doesn’t appear to even entertain the possibility of failure. I doubt the programming would allow it. And so, against all odds, Nook’s project is the rare combination of utopian, and successful. It should be lauded on those merits.

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By now, this argument may feel tired. “Tom Nook: hero or villain?” can take on the tenor of “pineapple on pizza,” an online debate where the arguments — some of which draw on obscure Animal Crossing lore — become so well worn that one could pick a random side and play devil’s advocate. What’s so unfortunate, then, is that the fixation on the economic argument, while understandable, obscures the gentler, more thoughtful Nook who can be uncovered by viewing the game through a different lens.

In the book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, writer and artist Jenny Odell drew on research showing that communal ties grow in times of crisis to make the case that the correct response to political and cultural upheaval is the strengthening of communal relationships. Attentiveness to and stewardship of the environment is one on-ramp to building those relationships. The book, a New York Times Bestseller and one of Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2019, was a corrective to the wishful thinking that the healthiest approach to the disruptions of 2016 was escape — logging off or turning inward to the exclusion of the world outside.

One of the first things Tom Nook encourages you to do is set up a museum, in which you collect the fish and insect species you find on the island, a living guest book of your non-anthropomorphic animal neighbors. There’s also a wing of the museum dedicated to fossils, a record of the creatures who came before.

At least at first, collecting species for the museum means engaging with the nature and learning about it. Blathers, the friendly curator owl who runs the museum, gives the players a brief lecture on each specimen you donate to him. (You’re given the option to skip these lectures, but they’re so charming that I mostly try not to). Through Nook’s initiative, and by way of his connections, you are learning by playing, engaging with your environment. Sometimes, Nook even rewards you for it, via the Nook Miles system.

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If the Nook-As-Villain meme lives on (and it probably will) its utility will be in giving many players a Baby’s First Landlord to practice on. I have a happy relationship with my landlord, insofar as one can have a happy relationship with a faceless management company. But a few days ago I got an email from them. It read, in part: “It’s important to know that the eviction moratoriums that have been put in place does not relieve residents of paying their rent or complying with their lease. Again, we are committed to helping those directly impacted by the pandemic and are prepared to assist after all other options have been exhausted.”

What is direct financial impact in a historical pandemic? If a resident keeps their job, but needs money to support a relative, is that direct financial impact? What if all the other options of assistance are held up by legislative dysfunction? The logic and rules of landlords runs counter to the moment.

The benefit of the scrutiny of Nook (just or not) is that there are ample, and more deserving targets for such scrutiny in the real world. If the benefit of raking Nook over the Internet coals is the development of critical thinking and class consciousness, that’s a good outcome. Even if it’s not exactly what Nintendo had in mind.

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When people talk about Animal Crossing: New Horizons as a perfect game for “the moment,” this is perhaps that idea’s most important manifestation. You can hardly read an Animal Crossing article without stumbling on the observation that it’s a relaxing game to play while stuck at home. Sure. Fine. Whatever. But “the moment” also includes unexpected, nigh-unprecedented political change. Policies regarded as fringe just months before have since become bipartisan orthodoxy, at least for the time being. A check in the mail. Moratoriums on evictions. Rent freezes — or, in their absence, rent strikes. Few games have a meme economy spun up around them that fits this facet of “the moment” quite so well.

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.

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