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Five Lessons Animal Crossing is teaching my Kids during Lockdown #6

In short:


A few months ago, my children managed to save up sufficient pocket money to buy a Nintendo Switch. Fortunately for their father and me, this momentous event coincided with Lockdown #6 here in Melbourne. We decided they could each select one game and we would buy it for them. We pretended that this is not a total abandonment of our long-standing policy of no presents between Christmas and birthday. But as of this week, we live in the most locked down city in the COVID-19 world. We are desperate and slightly deranged at this point.

Our youngest (aged 7) chose a game called Animal Crossing: New Horizons. He’s a gentle soul and wanted a game without violence. Having never heard of this game six weeks ago, we are now all sucked into it. It's been around for around 18 months and is on track to being the most popular Switch game of all time, so its not just us.

Granted, we have literally nothing else to talk about in our lives except the COVID situation and the children forbade us from that during Lockdown #4. As Lockdown #6 drags into its third month and glaciers are melting faster than people are getting vaccinated, each day we turn to Animal Crossing to give us something new to talk about at dinner.

It has occurred to me that my kids are learning some useful life skills from it.

NB: The game is playable online but we don’t allow our kids to play it that way. Mostly because we can’t be bothered policing it.

What is Animal Crossing?

Animal Crossing is called a life simulation game, but with animals. So if you spend your life fishing, diving for sea creatures, catching insects, chopping at trees, digging up fossils, building furniture, renovating and decorating your house and surrounds constantly, collecting random consumer items that fall out of the sky, then occasionally jetting off to tropical islands to do the same there, then it’s exactly like your life.

To begin, the main player selects an island map to settle on. On their new island, there is a small tent containing a residential services animal called Tom Nook, who guides you through a series of tasks to complete to help settle the island. As the player sets about collecting resources, he receives Nook Miles. This is like a frequent flyer program (remember them?!) where the more of each task you complete, the more points you accumulate. The points are primarily used to fly to different islands but they can also be spent on buying consumables.

Tom Nook also provides the player with recipes to make tools to help you; like a shovel, a fishing pole, a butterfly net, and a watering can. Along the way, you also earn and find other recipes that help you acquire clothing, make furniture and build other random things, like beds, shelves, a sleigh, a lectern, and a mermaid wall (whatever that is).

There is also a shopkeeper animal called Timmy at Nook’s Cranny who will buy anything you lay your hands on, including fish and insects you catch, weeds you pull up, and items you acquire that you don’t need. He will pay you in the local currency called bells.

Lesson #1: There’s lots of reading

It is a matter of great personal heartbreak that both my kids are competent readers but don’t really read for fun. Animal Crossing requires players to read a steady stream of instructions. If you don’t read them, you don’t really know what is expected of you to progress through the game.

This means playing it gives them lots of practice reading they would otherwise not be seeking out themselves or undertaking because I’m forcing them to do it.

Lesson #2: How to devise a routine for daily tasks

As the player progresses through the game, it becomes clear that there are a series of tasks that are useful to do every day. Over time, my son has devised a routine for himself:

1) Check mail

2) Search beaches for the daily message in the bottle

3) Visit other residents’ houses to look for recipes

4) Dig up fossils, collect any interesting bugs around and/or catch a few fish

5) Sell items at the shop and check turnip prices (more on that in a minute)

6) Run back and forth randomly (did I mention he’s 7?)

7) Decide on major task to complete during session and begin undertaking it.

Since lockdown means he has very little control over anything in his life, the game has helped him retain some autonomy over his life.

Lesson #3: negotiation and time management skills

Now we have not completely absolved ourselves of parenting responsibilities during lockdown. We do still limit the amount of time each child is allowed to play games. At least I like to think we do because time has no meaning to me anymore.

Anyway, my son will play anywhere between 15 minutes and one hour each day. He also has an older brother who wants to play on the Switch too or play a different game with him. So if he has a large task he wants to complete for the day in Animal Crossing, he then has to work out how to prioritise his time in the game and negotiate playing time with his brother. The pair of them have become quite good at doing this so I guess they’re learning time management and negotiations skills.

Lesson #4: What debt is and why you need to pay it off

After playing the game for a week or so, Tom Nook offers the player an upgrade of his tent to a house. He will lend you the bells to build it and it’s the player’s responsibility to pay it off. It’s not a very big house and it will quickly fill up with random stuff, so it is not long until the player will want to upgrade to a larger, more expensive house.

The thing is you can’t upgrade your house until you pay off the loan. Then when you do upgrade, the loan is much bigger (250,000 bells) and requires more effort to pay off when you make 20-30,000 bells a day. At the same time, the player is also completing tasks around the island that require large quantities of bells too, like building bridges. You can also not build another bridge or incline until you have paid off the first one.

This is still a work in progress for my son. We’ve gently encouraged him to prioritise paying off the debt for the second room in his house. But every so often, he’ll give in to the urge to buy a swimming pool or a stove oven for his house, rather than pay off the debt.

But he is slowly learning to find a balance between paying off his debt responsibilities and buying things he wants. He’s now started to use the drop-off box at Nook’s Cranny at the end of his playing time because the bells from those items go straight to his bank account, rather than into his pockets.

Lesson #5: Learning profit and loss on the turnip market

Every Sunday, a creature called Daisy Mae visits the island to sell turnips. She sets the selling price for each turnip and then throughout the week, the player can sell the turnips at the shop, Nook’s Cranny.

The thing is the turnip price varies every day. Some days, it’s higher than the purchase price, some days it’s lower. So the player has to make a judgement call on how much profit he anticipates making. Should he sell on Tuesday when the price is slightly above his purchase price or hold out for a better one on Thursday? But by then the price could be half what he paid for them and he’s made a significant loss. If he goes past Saturday, the turnips will turn rotten and he’s lost all his money.

It’s basically the share market but without real money. Since he’s got less than no chance of owning a house any time soon, it’s a good way to learn about the risks and benefits of investment.

The first week he played the turnip market, he bought turnips for 80 bells each and sold them for 140, making a tidy profit. The second week, he bought them for 107 bells and waited too long. He was forced to sell on Saturday for 60 bells.

So now he is starting to think about how much he is comfortable spending on turnips in the first place, what kind of profit margin to expect and whether it’s better to get some money back even if it’s a loss, or if it’s worth buying them at all.

Lessons still to learn about capitalism

  • Maximising his resource collecting endeavours by not carrying around lots of unnecessary items in his pockets, especially before going on a trip to another island to collect resources. At present he is carrying around six items of clothing for no particular reason. That’s six spaces in his pockets that he could fill with items worth far more than clothing.

  • Becoming less sentimentally attached to random items with no purpose – like a batter’s helmet or a candlestick – and keeping them in storage. There is a hoarding gene on his father’s side so I believe that’s where that comes from!

  • Exterior and interior design. There is a strong creative element to Animal Crossing that he is slowly starting to develop. At present, he is having fun making paths and terraforming. Other people have written about this side of Animal Crossing.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for a Switch game without violence that helps kids learn a few life skills, I can definitely recommend Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

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