n our current era of global capitalism, we’ve come to accept you can’t get owt for nowt. Imagine my surprise, then, when on 6 May, a stranger from Leeds handed me four solid lumps of gold. Though I tried to offer money in return, the generous 20-year-old refused. Within minutes, she had disappeared.
Yes, it’s probably relevant that this exchange took place in the simulated paradise of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a game that has been purchased more than 13m times since its March launch. The encounter would have been only marginally more spectacular in real life because gold is valuable in Animal Crossing, too; it can take hours of hitting digital rocks to procure a single lump – and a stranger I met over Facebook gave me four for free.
Since New Horizons exploded in popularity this spring, headlines have lamented that it is a “capitalist dystopia” with a “dark(ish) underbelly”, and the game’s raccoon overlord, Tom Nook, has been nicknamed a “capitalist crook”. Because players have to take out loans in the game, many are coming up with innovative – and exploitative – ways to earn the in-game currency, Bells. On black markets, people are selling their villagers for millions, while others scam players out of their hard-earned items, charge outlandish entry fees to visitors of their islands, and inflate prices for rare furniture and star fragments on the fan-made website Nookazon, the game’s unofficial answer to Amazon. My experiences of the game, however, have been altogether more, well, communist.
James is a 13-year-old schoolboy from Worcestershire who runs the 42,400-subscriber-strong subreddit NoFeeAC. He set up the subreddit in April because he was tired of players charging each other ridiculous fees; on his sub, gamers have given each other furniture, watered each other’s flowers, and helped orchestrate in-game Mother’s Day celebrations. “It annoys me when people charge high prices, because my subreddit has proven that it’s not hard to do things for free,” James says.
His mother, Suzanne, is very proud of the service her son has built. “He has been chatting to people from around the world and it is helping him to understand what is involved in running a community,” she says, explaining that being part of the Scouts from a young age has influenced his values.
Thousands of community-minded players like James are offering the Animal Crossing equivalent of a free lunch. In the game, players can create their own custom designs that can be used to decorate furniture, paths, and clothes. Two months ago, one player coded a free database of these creations that is now home to more than 17,000 different digital designs. Other players have started free virtual businesses where they complete laborious in-game tasks, such as weeding the grass, for free. On a Facebook group for UK players, strangers have given me items multiple times for free – all I had to do was ask.
“When I first started [playing the game], I had friends messaging me offering to help out with simple things, so once I got to a position where I could pass it on I tried to do so wherever possible,” says Hannah Winters, the person who gave me gold. “In unprecedented times such as these, you can’t be kind to people in ‘real life’, so doing such small things in a game is the only option.”
Sally is a 19-year-old line cook from Alberta, Canada, who has used James’s subreddit to be generous to strangers. The most coveted neighbour in the game is currently Raymond, a smug feline with heterochromia (one of his eyes is brown and the other is green). Players have been selling Raymond for outlandish prices, with some even spending real-world money to get their hands on the cat. Sally chanced upon Raymond after three days of playing the game and was briefly tempted to trade him for a large sum, but ultimately gave him away for free.
Sally used the NoFeeAC subreddit to look for players interested in finding Raymond; at least six others have also used the subreddit to give Raymond away, with many more players gifting other rare items. Jennilyn, a 25-year-old from Los Angeles, says at least 20 people have given her rare “rusted parts” so she could build an in-game robot as a birthday gift for her boyfriend, who is a key worker. “I honestly thought I wouldn’t get any when I first posted on the thread,” she says, “I was surprised when I started getting many messages … No one asked for anything in return.”
James is proud of the service he has been able to build, one that proves Animal Crossing isn’t a hyper-capitalist hellscape after all. “Creating a like-minded community is more important than trying to capitalise from a situation,” he says, “and making the subreddit has cemented my view on that.”