12.22, Saturday 28 Jan 2006

I am Genmon. Here I am. As I've said before, I live in Londra, and I spend my time in Animal Crossing: Wild World doing things like paying off my mortgage, fishing, chatting with my computer-generated friends, tending my orchard and turnips, and digging up fossils. This is me about to dig something up. You can also see Lyle, who's hanging around trying to sell me insurance, and a red turnip that I've been watering 2-3 times a day since last Sunday. Digging up fossils is great. You take them to the museum where an owl identifies them, and if the museum doesn't have a stego torso (or whatever) already, you can donate it. If not, you sell it. It's either lucrative or you contribute to the town's culture--good both ways. The thing is, those holes in the ground appear slowly: 1-5 holes appear every day, overnight. Sometimes you fall into the hole, sometimes it's a fossil, and sometimes it's some dancing, clanking fire hydrant thing. It's random. Well, not quite.

This is my house. I have a cupboard and a chest, a bed, a bunch of plants, a table and some portraits of a couple of friends. I also have - totally out of place - a stove on the east wall. I had that stove there for a few days a couple of weeks ago, a time that coincided with a particularly lucky streak of fossil hunting (4 holes a day). I got rid of the stove because it didn't fit in, and around the same time my streak came to an end.

But now I've bought it again and put it back in its place, after I read something online which gave me a hint. When it was back on the east wall, I had that hint perhaps confirmed by Hopper (a grouchy penguin I'm friendly with), who said "Sasquatch!" (that's how he greets me) "Sunshine," (that's his nickname for me) "there's something better about your house today, I can't put my finger on it," (I paraphrase). Now I'm waiting to see if my lucky stream returns. It may, it may not. The thing is: Animal Crossing has built-in Feng Shui.

In terms of interaction design, I've never played anything so incredible as this game. I base my living - in real life now - on designing systems and items that fit in and augment sociality. I talk about things like locality of information, multiple win conditions, different levels of achievement and learning, multiply-entwined incentive loops and so on. But I have never seen anything so well designed as Animal Crossing.

There are several levels of mortgage so you learn how to earn, how to save and how you get something back. You make friends and eventually they may give you a picture. Sometimes your good friends move away, and you're sad and they're sad, but they say you shouldn't make too much of a fuss because then they'll stay, but really they want to see the world. So you let them go. When you're fishing, the music drops away and you learn how to drop into a super-focussed, super-dreamlike state where you can only hear the sound of running water and see the shadow of the fish. You learn mindfulness. You can run everywhere, but then you damage the flowers. If you recycle the tins and boots that sometimes you find in the river, instead of letting the shop-owner take care of it for you, you might find a nice shirt in the recycle bin. If you listen to your friends, you might be able to find them furniture they like and they might find something for you back. By trading white turnips, which have fluctuating prices, you learn about the market, investment and risk. I chat with Mable and Sable in the tailors each morning, and now I've built up a rapport with them, and that feels good. It's complex, and totally simple. All of social psychology and child development has been folded into Animal Crossing. When I play, I'm training my social empathy and diligence. I can feel myself identify issues in microcosm, and improving when I need to act the same way outside the DS.

And a lot of it is based on luck, right? Whether you shoot a present down from a balloon, or find a particularly good wallpaper in Tom Nook's place, it's just random numbers making it happen.

I don't believe it is just luck, and what gives Animal Crossing its special power is the fact that, at its heart, it's determinist.

When you move into your town, you chat with the taxi driver about the weather and what you like to do. This is the seed for your appearance. When Lyle asks you questions, that seeds whether he sells you insurance (and which type). Nook doesn't expand his shop after a set time: It's based on your activity.

Likewise, your luck in shaking money out of trees, finding items, and digging up fossils is based on the arrangement and pattern of furniture in your house. These are the Animal Crossing Feng Shui rules (more). Furniture generally has a favoured direction and if it's placed on the matching wall, you get that kind of luck. If I look up my stove in the master item list I can see that the east wall is where it's supposed to be. My house is my luck seed.

Animal Crossing is slowly teaching me about a certain kind of aesthetic. There's the Happy Room Academy who send me a weekly score of how well my furniture and decoration matches, but the Feng Shui is the brilliant part. It's the ultimate in an invisible but all-pervasive rulespace. It's the glue that joins the entire game, but it's never referred to. Whether I want to collect all the fish (I'd better get the right kind of luck), a bigger house (so I need to sell items, so I need more luck), or collect fossils (luck again), it all comes back to manipulating the thing that connects. And because the Feng Shui permeates everything, it's the kind of pattern recognition that my unconscious can be trained for. The training says that strategy and rationality can get me so far, but being in tune with the world and allowing my gut to arrange the furniture in my house is a valid and useful way too.

And what a lesson! In addition to illustrating that invisible currents underlie the world, it teaches that everything is interconnected: The behaviour of the self constructs the controlled surroundings, the aesthetics of which unfold into luck, which allows the self to move forward in the world. It teaches me that the self is a fish that propels itself in the turbulent flow of a self-created ocean. I can't mine this game enough for ideas of what I want to build myself. Animal Crossing is not just (with its wireless play) a stunning technical achievement and mapping of metaphors; it's very close to the perfect combination of play, social education, interaction design, and subversion of Western individuality.

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