Holding on to Nothing in Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp

I'm not okay, but a branded Nintendo mobile game is somehow helping me get through things

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Holding on to Nothing in <i>Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp</i>

Once, my mother very tersely said, “Listen, my generation won’t die, and you’re going to have to find a way to deal with that.”

I don’t remember the preceding argument, but it was likely because I told Mr. Franz, my bootlicking 6th grade social studies teacher, to go fuck himself. I probably told the headmaster to go fuck himself, too, when I was dragged to his office by the armpit.

Pretty sure I told my mom to go fuck herself.

Look, I told a lot of boomers to go fuck themselves.

Still do (but I’m older and tired and more traumatized now, so I have a locked alt).

But what my mom said stuck with me for over 20 years. It was so opposed to the message from every other source. “You are the future, and it’s up to you to shape the world you live in,” that’s what teachers, Linda Ellerbee, even Captain Planet pushed constantly.

Well, that never happened, not really.

Mom was basically right. I’m nearly the same age now as she was then. And even at best, the world is still run by her generation and stragglers from immediately before. By old men (and a few women) with more money than humanity. By shitty boomers, and the chain of people who still buy into their bullshit. My dad just told me “Nancy Pelosi should be president” for fucks sake. Can you imagine?

But this is an article about Animal Crossing.

No, not New Horizons. That comes out tomorrow. Nintendo may have finally come around to show love the Animal Crossing fans have sorely missed by finally putting out a new game, but they won’t push it a few days early for everyone practicing social distancing and rapidly burning through their Netflix queues.

No, this is about Pocket Camp. Which, despite my belief that it had long since died out, has been thrumming away, expanding and building up its campground-fantasy-cum-stop-gap-mobile-measure for the Animal Crossing fans who just needed something.

I’d been seeing stray screenshots on my timeline for a while now. Some quite lovely, others hilarious and simultaneously nightmarish in the way Junji Ito’s The Enigma of Amigara Fault is.

I tried to make myself love Pocket Camp when it came out, trying to ignore the pressured capitalistic approach to friendship as best I could. My partner, their mother, and a number of my friends all plunked away at buying friendships with animal campsters, checking in every few hours to craft new furniture, and arranging campsites as they saw fit.

I filled mine with cactus.

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At least, I tried really hard to fill mine with cactus.

I crafted so much goddamn cacti, and I laid it out in an indomitable grid. Except for a few blank squares—I’d reached the placement limit.

I can’t tell you how infuriating this was. I was pissed. So I made a ghastly cactus hedge maze, left my campsters to deal with it, and deleted the app. I left my real friends who would eventually move on to more immediate, more anime, way more horny, but ultimately greener gacha pastures. But those animal “friends” in Pocket Camp? I bought them with fruit and seashells and by building the furniture they wanted. They could stay frozen in my prickly hellscape for all I cared.

But now, I’m back. I guess.

Screenshots aside, I wanted to see if, Advent calendar style, there was a tie-in to New Horizons. If the two games communicate in some way.

There is an event. Of course Nook Inc. has an island you can visit, a tiny representation of a beach with orchard-like rows of trees in the saturated green background. There’s a fishing challenge. Tap on them, catch them, and Nook will measure them.

It’s a slim addition, adds next to nothing in the way of mechanics, and aside from a few bits of dialogue, some themed furniture and home design challenges, there’s little to tease the upcoming game.

Still, I’ve been logging in every couple of hours, getting my fish measured, and maybe tapping on some campsters to give them stuff to level up our friendship meters.

But there doesn’t seem to be any reason for it.

For any of it.

There’s a cabin now. A house to decorate. Because despite the central conceit of campgrounds and caravans, Animal Crossing fans want to decorate a “home.” Even, it would seem, if it isn’t technically their own. You’re just managing it. And to fully unlock it, you have to raise meters.

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I’ve previously written about how Nintendo seems to have lost the plot to their own franchise. But at this point, the Animal Crossing games that are focused on management far outweigh that original game. There’s more in Pocket Camp, and going by the reviews I’ve read New Horizons too, that has far more in common with a Kairosoft game. There is such a wealth of meters and timers to keep track of in Pocket Camp that Mega Mall Story 2 seems chill by comparison.

I loved stumbling across some little memento on the GameCube, finding something and thinking, “my friend Bob would love this gingham parasol.” Little trinkets that said “Hey, I’m thinking about you” I found when I was out on a walk. No reciprocation needed. We’d chat a bit, catch up, then go about our lives. No meters. No levels. Just a pleasant simulation of socialization.

If I had a hope in reinstalling Pocket Camp, it was that interaction with the animals I was buying friendship from had deepened. They have not, but they added a skip button I don’t remember being there before. A bypass for the pre-scripted scenes where you actually do something with your friends. I toggled it on and it pushed me directly to the reward screen after I did my turn-in.

And it sucks. It really does. I know that mobile games are meant to be done in microbursts and time-saving measures are important for people waiting in lines or transferring buses or who are just sick of seeing their friends turn the fruit they’ve collected get turned into a ten-second picnic. Still, it feels so antithetical to Animal Crossing.

But I left it on. Because that’s this game. It’s not about those sequences. Or talking to quirky animal companions.

It’s meters and timers, the dopamine hit of watching numbers go up. It’s wondering what crap will pop out of your gachapon friends in exchange for three salmon, two flounder, and one pale chub. Reciprocity.

The premise of Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp should have been simple: A little shareable world. In your pocket. With friends, both animalian, virtual, and your real human ones. I don’t think it ever really delivered.

My real friends, who haven’t logged in in months, are all still “there.” I can visit their campsites. It’s a fascinating snapshot of who they were when they stopped logging in—when they moved on to other mobile time sinks, deleted, or got new phones and just never downloaded the game again. It feels a lot like returning to Demon’s Souls with the servers shut off. Their presence, a tidal wave of their lack. An absence often more unwelcoming than the game itself.

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As article after article, and more tweets than I can count scroll past about how to stay connected and social during a time of social distancing, it feels weird to log into a game that, for me, is now defined by a void of socialization. Even when screenshots of new camps and outfits pass by on my timeline, they’re not from anyone I know. They’re retweets from faraway players—separated by language and landmass. But I keep playing it. Logging in and doing my daily shipping missions, fishing for Tom Nook, making sure the meters go up incrementally. Because that’s just where I’m at.

As isolated and spun-out as I feel in my real life, Pocket Camp puts a veneer over the things I’m struggling with.

The DMs, emails, and phone calls I don’t have the bandwidth to answer? The friendships that are derelict on both sides, or are in indefinite maintenance mode? Family who want something I just can’t give? Well, I’ve got a sack full of squid and that’s all Filbert wants from me.

Does the fridge have enough food for me and my partner? Do we have sufficient toilet paper and hand soap to ride out the possibility of further restricted movement and aggressive closures or supply interruptions? Well, I’ve got more than enough cool essence and wool and wood, dozens and dozens of fruits.

Am I making progress as a professional writer? A friend, colleague, and partner? Am I growing as a person? Well, just now I leveled up four friendships, upgraded my tent, paid off a renovation loan, AND still had time to open up the second floor of my cabin.

But have I, Dia Lacina the person, even taken a shower today? I have no idea.

Maybe?

Is Pocket Camp helping me with actually accomplishing anything I need to? God no.

Is this even an adjunctive therapy? Nope. Is it likely a maladaptive coping mechanism? Probably. Definitely.

But maladaptive coping mechanisms are still coping mechanisms. And for the moment, having a colorful and lively world that is a mess of nightmare ideas about transactional friendship, land stewardship, acquisition, and personal management, where a corporation demands my paychecks with the ferocious intractability of the office of Federal Student Aid (hi, Isabelle, I’m still not buying Leaf Tickets, quit asking), is making the world where I have to actually deal with all of that on a much grander and more dire scale seem … well … manageable.

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Pocket Camp may be regimented, metered, and timed—but it looks friendly and feels low pressure.

It’s reminding me that all these things are at least technically survivable. Even when they don’t feel that way.

I keep toying with (and tabling) the idea of buying a GameCube and the original Animal Crossing. Returning to that space of lightness and joy.

But maybe I’m just not there yet. Maybe I’m just too old or in my feelings for a fantasy where responsibilities don’t really exist, where I can get a letter in the mail and feel great about writing one back, without the anxious burden of real consequences about how it will be received. Where I can call my parents and not feel exsanguinated for the rest of the week. Where I’m not the burden.

Pocket Camp has added a subscription feature in my time away. The most noteworthy aspect? A personal assistant. Someone who will gather and fulfill requests for you while you’re busy…not playing the game? I’m not sure. But, we’ve achieved the level of management fantasy where you can pay a company to handle filling your meters for you. Paying to have the game manage itself. Which is such a fast-forwarded vision of this fantasy that I can’t even hold onto it—even if I could afford to.

Look, capitalism is bullshit. And I don’t know that, in my life, we’ll ever see it become dismantled, even as the COVID-19 pandemic pushes those systems of extraction and control to the limit. I don’t know if my mom is right. Or how much more I can tell boomers to get fucked both literally and politically.

I haven’t been to bed before 5 a.m. in the past two weeks because I’m up freaking out about the macro and the micro. Every well-intentioned article about self-care when working from home. Video clips of politicians continuing to blithely ruin both lives and the planet by ignoring science and only caring about the interests of billionaires who just will not die. I’m up thinking about all the friends in the exact space I am, and how unable I am to meet their needs. How I’m failing my partner.

For me, Animal Crossing has probably always been something of a maladaptive coping mechanism. It brought joy and light into my life, but I absolutely used it to shut out my world in college, to avoid dealing with abusive relationships, to boost myself momentarily at the expense of my long term well-being. And now, Pocket Camp is a funnel for avoidance. A national park built on a Superfund site for me to dump nervous energy and to numb intrusive thoughts.

Right now, that’s what I need. And that outstrips my distaste for what this game is, what I know it’s doing, its politics.

A therapist once told me, “Coping mechanisms, even maladaptive ones, are useful until they’re not.” The trick is knowing when you’ve grown out of them, to figure out when whatever cost they come with is greater than their ability to keep you safe and alive. I don’t know that I’m ready to give this one up just yet. It’s working, for the moment, at a time when creating, deleting, and recreating Dark Souls characters isn’t right now.

I abandoned three articles before arriving here. Maybe when I’m better, when Pocket Camp is no longer an unexpected necessity I’ll return to them, or maybe I’ll just move on. But as much as I question how Animal Crossing is affecting me, it got me here. And that has to count for something.

Fuck capitalism. Fuck boomers and billionaires.

Take care of yourselves, and when and where you can, each other.


Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer, photographer, and founding editor of CapsuleCrit.com, a monthly journal dedicated to microgenre work about games. She tweets too much at @dialacina.

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