Crossing the Line: How I Helped Corrupt the Animal Crossing Economy

Image: Roland Ingram

It’s midnight at the pier. I make sure I’m alone, nervously reaching into my pocket and counting the money on my fingers. Everything is included: 40 huge sacks of coins. Big bag. I lift the lid of the garbage can and empty the pile. 4 million bells have been erased from the universe and no one will ever have to know.

How come? Shovel money in the trash at night? Well, you may not know that the Animal Crossing: New Horizons game-time materialism has turned into a greedy underworld subgame with a powerful appeal that Nintendo never envisioned. I had thrown away my integrity long before the bells. I wanted out.

Shopping at home

For many people, spring is when Animal Crossing is in the air. In those early days of the pandemic, for the first time, we stuck our heads in the desert island sands and let the imagination run wild. So recently I felt the itch to revisit my old home, confuse visitors with its weirdness, and see the new trinkets added in update 2.0.

My go-to place for browsing the game’s catalog is Nookazon – the unofficial item exchange for islanders who want to trade but don’t have a private community to do so. After all, thanks to my assets from the 2020 beet boom, I can quickly acquire everything listed.

I found that the NMT had halved in value against the bell for 12 months. One reason was foreseeable, another unforeseen. However, a third event was so catastrophic that the entire Animal Crossing economy could collapse

Surprisingly, a lot of interesting things had arrived since my last look, so I started a shopping list to decorate my paradise. As always, pieces of furniture, which happened to be from the island shop, were plentiful and cheap – “cheap” meant a few hundred thousand bells or so. With tens of millions in the bank, you don’t even think about it.

However, the villagers remained the great status symbols. For the evergreen Raymond, for example, bells are not enough. Nook Miles Tickets — tedious to obtain and of little use in-game — emerged as a high-value currency early in the game’s lifecycle. Last year an inventory of 400 NMT was worth about 10 inventories of bells – 40 million. Since New Horizons requires you to carry, drop and pick up your trade currency one inventory slot at a time and fly between islands, disconnecting and reconnecting via an annoying online game system to refresh your inventory was a 40 million bell trade never durable. NMTs have solved this problem.

Well I know that’s all a very a far cry from the slow, lazy days of “pure” Animal Crossing, so bear with me, but those who play the markets depend on the occasional hundreds of a few million bells to keep up their wanton shopping practices. As perhaps it does for the rich in real life, money means nothing to us — it’s a formality that we have to click through while simply getting what we want.

However, I found that the NMT had halved in value against the bell for the past 12 months. One reason was foreseeable, another unforeseen. A third event, however, was such a disastrous shock that the entire Animal Crossing economy could be on the verge of collapse.

Risky investments

The first reason was that the market was gradually being flooded with NMT. Without much purpose in the game, NMTs are never used up; They simply circulate between players, with the supply gradually increasing as players mint more by grinding. Bells, meanwhile, are consumed by every player in the game, spending millions on mortgages and island development. Once spent in-game, Bells are out of circulation, which of course limits the supply. Having anticipated this eventuality back in the boom days, I hedged my investments via bells and NMT to reduce risk. That paid off and I’ve come back to a healthy portfolio this year.

However, the unforeseen change was the automatic bell dispenser. The ABD is a new (from 2.0) ATM item that can be used by island visitors. The ABD removed island hopping from multi-inventory bell trading and suddenly made, say, a 12 million bell trade profitable. Bells’ purchasing power grew through sheer practicality, which improved their appeal to Nookazon merchants and reduced demand for NMT.

So the market leveled off at around 50,000 bells to the NMT – until the third, catastrophic event: “Treasure Islands”.

Image: Roland Ingram

Treasure Island owners hack their islands to load them with megastore rows of coveted goods, then open them up for visitors to line their pockets (often in exchange for Twitch engagement, which means potentially real-world money). For many, including myself, this crosses a line between manipulating Nintendo’s built-in gameplay and not playing the game outright. Without even getting into the economics of Animal Crossing, it undermines the healthy, industrious endeavors of other castaways who swap nice furniture.

But it’s kind of fascinating, don’t you think?

Naturally – Of course! – I never would locate a treasure island. But more and more often they came to me. A merchant who was on my island offered a “free” visit. I saw several Nookazon profiles happily noting their 900 million bell bank balances. Vibe: “I’m in the club – and you?” Two others offered to pay for trading important commodities with access to Treasure Island instead of bells.

As my annual ACNH obsession wore off, I realized that this time I might never return to the game. I felt I should examine one final aspect of its weird and wonderful player community. I stepped over the line.

pirate gold

Following another trader’s Nookazon chat instructions, I entered a dodgy dodo code and boarded the plane. Maybe, I thought, my game would be corrupted, or I’d get merciless compensation one way or another. But after exhausting two years of enthusiasm for the game, I decided so be it.

As my annual ACNH obsession wore off, I realized that this time I might never return to the game. I felt I should examine one final aspect of its weird and wonderful player community. I stepped over the line.

Treasure Island was a bizarre place. The site has been leveled, categorized and clearly marked for orderly goods aisles. Inevitably, ACNH’s language is concrete and tangible: to get dodgy merchandise, you literally have to walk around and rummage.

Another player looked at froggy chairs like a retiree comparing supermarket avocados. But at the direction of my Nookazon colleague, I left everything out: I was supposed to go straight to Nook’s Cranny, the island store, collect exactly one batch of turnips, go inside and sell them. The price offered was minus 65 million bells – bankruptcy for sure! Nothing worked: I pressed “A” and whispered “Goodbye” to Animal Crossing.

But at home I checked the ABD, and sure enough: an amazing 999,999,999 bells. I wasn’t sure what to do. With my fair 70 million from commodities trading, money was already no object. What difference now? In the end it was just an interesting experience.

“I think I’ll go and pay off someone’s mortgage,” I said in Nookazon chat. “That’s nice,” came the reply, “I’m going to buy a 50-foot robot.” There was honesty in that.

When someone came to visit to collect my handouts, he told me his entire mortgage that they dreamed the refund, was – wait for it – 374,000 bells. What?! What an absurdly small amount! I often had so much rattling in my trouser pocket after shopping. It embarrassed me that I could have paid off mortgages left, right and center in the past few weeks. Here I injected dirty money into the innocent island economies of hard-core, Nintendo-intended gamers and sullied their escapism with my invisible greed, even though I could have been a bona fide Robin Hood the entire time.

There was no way to undo what I had done. Well, if I ever wanted to trade—my favorite part of the game, in case you haven’t guessed it—I’d toss rotten, chopped bells into the global pool. There is no way to undo it at all. Unless…

The Shoreside Redemption

Throwing a billion bells in the trash can is no small task. Thanks to this wonderful one-inventory-loading system, I had to pick, carry and dispose of 250 lots of 4 million Bells – in 39 seconds per bag. You do the math.

In fact, allow me: it’s three hours of memorization.

I don’t know if this act of penance equals my absolution, but it would certainly cost more than my billion to save Nookazon’s economy. So far, the NMT has skyrocketed on last year’s prices. Of even greater concern, significant trades are dangerously scarce. With so many bells sloshing around, no one wants more of them. The kind of people who have hundreds of NMT to trade are no longer looking for cash. Most large NMT listings ask for collections of items that sellers are looking for, effectively leading to personal purchase requests.

So what does the future bring? This reduced fungibility of NMT will affect their value; Gold and lumber could return as reliable commodities, or the entire capitalist trading culture could simply collapse in on itself. Perhaps emerging from the rubble will be a more modest custom of bartering items for items—things meant to be actually used, not stored. Treasure islands, on the other hand, are becoming less attractive because simply accumulating wealth is of less use.

Image: Roland Ingram

Having crawled into the darkest dens of greed, I won’t pretend my own tropical paradise could ever be this innocent, but I do hope that purer-hearted players are left with the game that Nintendo created. Crossing the Line: How I Helped Corrupt the Animal Crossing Economy

Fry Electronics Team

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