This week, PBS’s Idea Channel on YouTube posited an interesting notion: the recently released game Animal Crossing: New Leaf from Nintendo may promote "otaku citizenship." And for many people, that just causes more questions, like, what’s an otaku? What’s otaku citizenship? And for some out there, what's Animal Crossing and why are so many adults playing what looks like a game for children?
Starting with the basics, Animal Crossing: New Leaf is the latest installment in the popular Animal Crossing series, and the second handheld offering (this one is for the Nintendo 3DS). The premise is simple: your human character moves to a brand new town, and through a mix-up, you become the mayor. It is your responsibility to lead the town populated by anthropomorphized animals to prosperity and success while raising funds to build improvements and pay off your home.
As for why people are playing it, there's a much simpler answer: it’s an incredibly well-made game. The concepts are basic, are well executed and the game offers you lots of freedom because there’s no linear narrative to follow. With an overall score on Metacritic of 87, it’s been well-received by professional reviewers and players alike, largely for its adaptability and impressive evolution of the series. You can read more about why it's such a strong game in Christine Nutt's essay on Gamasutra.
Now, what's an otaku? You can get a better answer by watching the aforementioned Idea Channel video:
Basically, "otaku" is a Japanese term for someone who is a fan and a collector of a particular interest, often linked to fan communities related to video games, anime, television shows and comic books, but existing far beyond those categories. The argument from Idea Channel is that by encouraging a sort of fanatic collection in the game, it’s actually leading players to become good citizens in their Animal Crossing towns through that collection.
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Idea Channel’s argument is certainly an interesting thought exercise, but it doesn’t touch on one of the most interesting collection aspects of the game: other players. Animal Crossing: New Leaf has one of the most passive multiplayer experiences you could ever ask for, though the Nintendo 3DS’ Street Pass technology. Every time you pass someone else who has a Nintendo 3DS on and Animal Crossing: New Leaf in the device’s game slot, you pick up a copy of their home to explore and buy items from. Which furthers Idea Channel’s argument: you aren’t just collecting for the sake of pleasing the animals in your game. You’re collecting to also help other players, likely indirectly, and helping to improve the play experience for other people. And in North America, where Street Pass tags are difficult to come by due to how few players there are (as opposed to Japan), it's a great incentive for people to actually have the game system with them at all times. Big boost for Nintendo of America.
There’s another strange gamer phenomenon that seems to have emerged from this game, too: everyone is playing nice. I mean, you’re bound to get the odd person who won’t listen to the game’s little reminders that other people can see what you put in your town. But from my own experience so far, and what I've seen shared online, people are largely focused on maintaining the positive spirit of the game instead of maliciously destroying other people’s towns, telling the town’s animals to use foul language or placing inappropriate images around the town. Gamers are so often categorized as a social group of foul-mouthed, crude teens-and-twentysomethings, so a game that brings out the best in people across all gaming demographics does good things not just for those playing, but also for the reputation of the gaming community.
So what may seem like a kid’s game at first glance may actually be a glimpse into the sort of positive community that a great game like this can foster. The enthusiastic collection that the game encourages actually does manage to create a kind of otaku citizenship, and that can have ramifications beyond the confines of a Nintendo 3DS screen.
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