…and other clickbait headlines.
In order to understand this post, you’ll need to know a little about the meta of Animal Crossing. I’ve been playing a lot of it lately, as I mentioned in my previous blog post, but I didn’t get into the ways in which this entry in the beloved series has been updated. One of the many new additions is a smartphone full of apps (because every kid these days has one, so every kid’s game has to include one or kids will wonder why they can’t have one). You can’t call anyone with your smartphone, but that’s fine; the apps are the point, as they have become in the real-world meta over the generations.
One such app, perhaps the single most important to the gameplay loop, is the Nook Miles app. Nook Miles are basically frequent-flyer miles you earn by doing things around your island. At first, you only have a number of long-term goals unlocked, like talking to your villagers every day for 30 days or planting a number of flowers in your lifetime. But eventually you are upgraded to a “miles plus” member, which gives you a sequence of short-term, randomly-generated quests to earn miles. These are small tasks such as selling 20 weeds, catching 5 fish or bugs, or having 3 fossils assessed: each of them can be done inside of half an hour at most, and they reward you with some small number of miles (usually 100 or 150). The first set of quests you get in a day have a multiplier on them, so you earn triple rewards; each task you complete will generate a new task, but the new ones won’t have the multiplier, so there are diminishing returns after the first five quests a day.
Why am I talking about nook miles? Well, as a facebook friend by the name of Miles Redman pointed out today, this means nook miles are effectively a currency directly tied to your labor. You can’t sell anything to earn more nook miles; new miles are only generated when labor is performed, and so every mile represents some small unit of player agency and time. You can, however, buy things with miles. I believe the intended metaphor is that the player is improving the island and, as such, gets rewarded with trinkets and baubles as a thank-you for their hard work and effort. These thank-you gifts include items, recipes, and a way to cash out for bells (the in-game currency of buying and selling) — but they also include the infamous Nook Miles Ticket.
Nook Miles tickets provide a trip to another island where you can obtain more resources than you can get on your home island. They also represent a gamble, as some of these procedurally-generated islands are rare, including ones where you can capture the most expensive bug in the game at a far higher spawn rate than normal, rapidly earning you a lot of bells. But perhaps more importantly, they represent 2000 Nook Miles in an easily transportable package — a physical manifestation of your hard work and labor.
Why does this matter? Well, to understand that, you have to understand another piece of the meta of the game: the Stalk Market. Every sunday, you can buy turnips from a wandering turnip broker for anywhere between 90 and 110 bells. Any day except Sunday, your shop will buy them for a random price, between 30 bells and 800. Obviously there’s huge profit to be made; however, every Sunday morning, the previous week’s turnips all spoil, and spoiled turnips can’t be sold at the going price. So you have a limited time to cash out before you lose your investment. Couple this with multiplayer allowing you to sell things at someone else’s island and you start to see where the meta is going. The intended strat here is to play with friends so that when one of you gets a lucky big break, all of you can rush over to their island and profit. But the internet being what it is, there is now an underground market for high turnip prices, complete with “entry fees” being required on many islands to access the shop and “turnip bouncers” whose job it is to physically block you from going to sell your turnips until you pay the fee.
In a game where time travel can get you nearly infinite bells, there’s no way to cheat the Nook Miles system. A real human has to perform real labor in order to obtain Miles. As such, the Nook Miles Ticket (or NMT as you see it in adverts) has become a defacto underground currency. Ads run something like this: “Nook buying turnips at 615 bells! 10 NMT entry fee, tips accepted!”
Here we begin to see the Marxist analysis. Money can be easily manipulated by playing stocks, gaming the system using your wealth (the more turnips you can afford, the more profit you make) and connections (knowing the right friend with the right price can make a world of difference) as well as a bit of good old-fashioned luck. But when money is just a game, what matters is the player-performed labor. That’s what really adds value into the system. What do the rich long for? More time, and the ability to put in less effort.
There’s also an ethical component here as well. If you know what you’re doing, you can time travel and open your gates all at the same time, meaning you can perpetually have the highest price you can find to let people come sell, while raking in their entry fees in exchange for… what, exactly? In this case, you’re not the shop owner paying for turnips. That’s Timmy and Tommy Nook. You don’t own their shop either. You don’t own the land it sits on, so you’re not even a landlord. It’s more like you were lucky enough to find oil on your property, and you’re leasing the rights to collect it in exchange for NMT (and sometimes gold or rare items that are hard to amass, but you can trivially connect that to the time and effort it takes to obtain the rare items in the first place, just like nook miles are crystalized time and effort). If you’re unethical enough to sit on a high price all day long, posting on turnip exchange websites and cultivating a long queue, time traveling when the shop closes back to when it opened again, you can rake in the consolidated labor of hundreds of players, all for the luck to have a good price and the lack of scruples required to exploit it.
The only way this is going to stop is if people stop paying NMT for turnip prices — that is to say, if they collectively withhold their labor and refuse to play the metagame that the scalpers are playing. If we were all okay with playing a slower-paced, laid back, casual gaming experience, we wouldn’t need to sell at the absolute highest price possible; it’s pretty reliable to obtain a small profit if you’re willing to sell at, say, 126 bells instead of 600+. But as long as people are competitive about it, as long as they need to have all the bells now instead of taking their time acquiring what is essentially an unlimited resource, we’re going to see that play out in the market dynamics that end up consolidating wealth in the hands of a few who know how to work the system.