I am still playing Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, despite most of my real world friends abandoning it. They claim something about real lives but they really just don’t have the grit to earn enough wood and cotton to craft the treehouse. So here I am trading cherries and fish for friendship powder and it has me wondering what my Animal Crossing friendships really mean.
Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp isn’t alone in being a game the uses friendship as a reward system. Pretty much every RPG uses the ‘you scratch my back’ approach to relationships.
We’ve all embarked on those quests where you have to find the person to give you the thing. Then when you’ve fought all manner of beasts to find them, the NPC will only talk to you after you’ve done them a favour. Travelling across the world map isn’t enough for these people. So you get them the thing and they tell you the thing and you either go your separate ways or you’re friends for life and they join your party.
In Pocket Camp, the animals will only visit your camp if you fill it with things they like. This is like agreeing to a friend’s dinner party invitation, but then stipulating that they must redecorate first. And then handing them an Ikea catalogue with the items you’d like them to buy underlined in red biro.
Some of the animals are quite rude, but they are also very pleased when you hand them a fish, so it’s not all bad. However, their demands never stop, they just become more expensive.
I am enjoying the game still, but it does frame friendship as a transaction. If I buy someone the things they like, then they will like me. There’s no opportunity to strike up a conversation or share a sense of humour. They just want stuff, but it has to be the right stuff.
Each of the animals also fits into a category of cute, sporty, cold, rustic and natural. This determines the sorts of things they like. But people don’t fit in boxes that neatly. It would be good if a ‘cute’ animal suddenly changed and became sporty as the game went on because people change.
In Animal Crossing in particular, I find myself wishing I could do things for my friends. I’d like to give them bells or surplus wood supplies. Or maybe even craft them something cool to go with the style of their camp. This would subvert the friendship as reward system to allow you to give because you want to, not because it’s the only way to buy their affection.
Of course this kind of capitalist friendship mechanic takes a darker turn when it’s a romantic relationship. Games like DOA Beach Volleyball expect the player to buy a woman the right things to be rewarded by their affection and a sexy cut-scene.
Outside of more narrative led games like Life is Strange, friendships and relationships are reduced to transactions, but there must be a way to reward care and support, rather than simply implying that friendships are bought.