On March 20, America braced for impact. Incubated in Asia, a contagion swept through US cities and small towns, confining thousands to their beds. It consumed lives. You could get it just by talking to someone who’d already got it. Once you got it, odds are you weren’t going to recover any time soon.
I speak, of course, of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the second most infectious thing to hit the world in 2020. Like going out to play Pokémon Go defined the summer of 2016, staying in to play Animal Crossing on the Nintendo Switch defines the spring of 2020. Like that magical summer four years ago—four decades ago? hard to tell—the weather is brilliant this spring. Doesn’t matter. Can’t go outside. Gotta play Animal Crossing.
New Horizons isn’t the first Animal Crossing game. It’s the 19th. But it’s the first to stop all other videogames in its tracks. Square ENIX released a long-anticipated reimagining of its greatest game, Final Fantasy VII, and Animal Crossing ate it alive. A closed beta of Riot Games’s upcoming 5×5 first-person shooter Valorant launched last month, and I expect it to eventually shatter records. Not this spring. Spring is for the animals. Players often average three to five hours a day in Animal Crossing. I’m sure there are tens of thousands of people playing 12 hours a day. It’s an astounding time sink, in a world that has in just two months lost all conception of time.
We’re playing Animal Crossing 12 hours a day because we’re not playing life 12 hours a day. Animal Crossing gives us things that many of us can’t access any other way now. Most articles have focused on the intense interpersonal connectivity of the game; it is a way to see friends you can’t see in real life. These analyses miss the point completely. Animal Crossing is dominating life because it’s the only true workplace economy that makes sense anymore. It gives us the chance to understand how humans gravitate toward work even when play is an option. Let’s look at why.
Animal Crossing is a game in the life simulator genre. These games, often called sims, are some of the biggest games of all time: Farmville, Second Life, World of Warships, and, obviously, The Sims. Here’s PCGamesN’s description:
Sims differ from other PC games in that their raison d’être isn’t necessarily to entertain, at least not primarily. You want fun and excitement? Tough. Operating a submarine is not that. It is, however, fascinating, terrifying, and hugely satisfying as a long-form experience.
In Animal Crossing, you’re a new person in a world where stocky zebras, alligators, and octopi predominate. You’ve come to their archipelago after purchasing a plot from a raccoon dog mafioso named Tom Nook. As you meet your new neighbors, you discover you’re just another strange new animal to the villagers. You’re not anything special here.
You can’t die in Animal Crossing. But you do have to work for a living. If you want stuff, that is. There are thousands of things you can own. Some you make, some you get from animal friends, some you order from a catalogue, some you fish out of the sea, some you knock out of trees, and some you shoot out of balloons. (My wife shot a piano out of the sky today. Don’t ask.) If you want more than a tumbledown tent to live in, you need to work from sunup to sunset. You start out with a mortgage and you need to make your payments. For that you need bells.
Bells are the economy’s main currency. You can buy things with bells and you can sell things for bells. Notably, turnips. The turnip economy is robust. It has its own—wait for it—stalk market. Each Sunday, a cute boar named Daisy Mae shows up to sell you turnips for about 100 bells. Then during the week, Tom Nook’s henchraccoons Timmy and Tommy will buy them for a seemingly random amount up to about 600 bells. Market spikes are common and somewhat predictable (“never sell on the first spike,” the mantra goes). If you manage your turnips correctly, you can become a “bellionaire.”
Other people want to be part of your economy. You can leave your gate open so people can take seaplanes to your island. They can tend your fields. They can buy from your vendors. They can pick up fragments of the sky that fall on your beachfront. They can even tempt away your neighbor animals when they get tired of living near you. Playing Animal Crossing alone is possible but kind of pointless. Other people are vital to your continued advancement in the game.
Let’s review what I just described: a world where everyone has a home and can pay off their mortgage, where work is plentiful and valued, where travel and visitors are frequent, where the stock market works for everyone, and where death is kept at bay.
How’s your real life on that front?
Amid the pandemic, even if you have a home, you worry about how you’ll pay for it. Rent, utility, and mortgage relief has been slow to come, though evictions are mercifully barred for a while. Heck, if you rent homes to people, you’re panicked about where your money is coming from. This week, the House passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act to supplement rent and student loan payments, which the Senate plans to block and the president plans to veto if it reaches his desk. It’s “DOA,” Trump says. So are a lot of people.
The American job market has never seen a run like this. From mid-March to last week, thirty three million people lost their jobs. Thirty three million. The unemployment rate hit nearly 15 percent, a number unthinkable in the modern era. If anything, that number is probably underreported. Paul Ashworth, Capital Economics’ chief U.S. economist, theorized that the real unemployment rate is 23 percent. That’s one in four people who want to work not having a job they can go to. Thanks to Senator Bernie Sanders, people on unemployment got their full paychecks for a few months, and maybe a little more. But those months are ticking by, and jobs don’t seem to coming back in abundance.
Even if you have a job you can go to, you probably can’t go to it. This month, old divisions like “upper class” and “working class” fell apart, maybe forever. America reclassified itself into two classes this past few weeks—the essential class and the non-essential class. My wife is essential: she’s a bakery manager, and people need food. I am non-essential: I’m a corporate executive, and thus totally unnecessary. If you’re in the essential class, you can go to your workplace. If you’re not, your ass better be on the couch.
You can’t go anywhere. Certainly not by plane. It’s easy to bash the airlines for taking bailouts and then laying off their workers. But understand this reality: 2.4 million people passed through TSA checkpoints on April 2, 2019. On April 2, 2020, that number was 124,000. When your business drops by 95 percent in a year, your business is in serious trouble. People I talk to at air industry companies do not imagine a fast recovery.
People can’t come to see you. Unless they’re delivering you food, people aren’t just dropping by anymore. Just as importantly, your housemates can’t leave. That includes your kids. They can’t go to school, the country’s largest industry in terms of people leaving home. At least 54 million children are home from school, more than 9 million without internet and many without any instruction from school at all. Their parents have to monitor them during the workday. America’s workforce just got turned into an unpaid child care industry.
The stock market has lost its damn mind. After sensibly driving off a cliff when the pandemic wave hit, it rebounded in force in April as twenty million people got laid off. It was as if the age-old market mantra “buy in April, sell in May” was hard-wired into Bloomberg terminals that no one was watching, and they just bought all the stocks automatically. Now they’re venting them like an airlock in Alien.
Death is everywhere. As of this writing, more than 90,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, a number that is definitely underreported. Staying home has flattened the curve, but we are far from out of the woods. Immunologist Rick Bright, director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority before Trump fired him, just warned of the “darkest winter in the modern era” if we don’t take extreme precautions against the virus.
With all of this dysfunction, who can blame much of America for retreating into a videogame world? Animal Crossing functions. It looks like America on a good day, only with singing squirrels and hippos, while America looks like a red ring of death. In Animal Crossing, you can go to work, travel, and come within six feet of your neighbors. I want to go to there.
Of course, there’s a live, efficient, metastasizing virus outside my window. Still, I can’t see it. What you can’t see, you can ignore.
Now some governors and the president are pushing for people to go back to their everyday lives—“vaccine or no vaccine,” Trump says—putting the country at risk of a second wave of infection before the first wave is done killing people. Militant fools with guns shut down the Michigan legislature in protest of rules that keep them alive. In places like Georgia and Florida, where governors are weak and corrupt, beaches and parks are packed with unmasked sunbathers. People are trusting in God and chance and sheer cussedness to keep them safe.
Many employers are set on reopening fast. The CARES Act got some of the smaller ones through a few paychecks. The larger ones had banks to fall back on. Somehow, business is happening over Zoom. But you can’t imagine how hard it is for a CEO to sign off on paying people for doing nothing, on paying rent on empty buildings, on paying for equipment that enables employees to work effectively outside of their supervision. Actually, maybe you can imagine that, because Elon Musk told you. The Tesla supervillain reopened a plant against city orders, risking—nay, inviting—his own arrest.
But you know what? I agree with Elon Musk. Not about him getting arrested—okay, I agree with that too—but about wanting desperately to reopen.
I want to be out there too. I want my office to open again. I’m paying quite a lot of money for an empty hole of printers and prototypes. I need to get around a table with people to test my boardgames. I want my conventions to open again so I can sell my products. I want someone to prove to me that my employees can count on their hard work keeping them employed. I’ve been at this just two months, and I’m going bonkers. I want America to reopen, right now. I want to work.
Work is the fundamental activity of humanity. Whether paid or volunteer, it is demonstrably healthier to be active at something than to be active at nothing. Per a 2006 UK government study, unemployment leads to:
- higher mortality;
- poorer general health and long-standing illness;
- poorer mental health, psychological distress, and morbidity;
- higher medical consultation, medication consumption, and hospital admission rates.
I am not always happy when I work, obviously. Work can be dangerous and soul-crushing at times. But lack of work is just as soul-crushing, maybe more. Work is not just about utility, it’s about identity. After we ask people their names, we ask what they do. Except we don’t do that now. Now we ask how they are doing. It’s a big transition, one with some positive outcomes, but longterm it’s going to hurt. I don’t want to hurt, longterm or otherwise.
And I don’t even have kids. I’d guess any parent who’s gone through a chicken pox cycle can handle kids at home for a few weeks. Make it a year, and all of America goes crazy. All of it. Offices can’t function when most of the country is on child duty. When America reopens, America needs to know who’s going to watch their kids. We not only must reopen the workplace, we must reopen schools soon to make any sense of our society.
I find myself grasping at housebound musicians’ efforts to pacify my need for contact. The BBC’s version of the Foo Fighters’ “Times Like These.” Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do.” Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” Barenaked Ladies’ cover of Bruce Cockburn’s “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.” Charli XCX’s “Forever.” OK Go’s new “All Together Now” (watch to the end). These are songs that ground me in ways that they might not have otherwise. But the one that hit me hardest was Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s home version of “Something More Than Free.”
These lyrics hit home.
I don’t think on why I’m here or where it hurts
I’m just lucky to have the work
Every night I dream I’m drowning in the dirt
But I thank God for the work
And the day will come, I’ll find a reason
Somebody proud to love a man like me
My back is numb, my hands are freezing
What I’m working for is something more than free
This song isn’t even about people like me. It’s about people who labor hard to make things work for other people. I still empathize. These people need to go to work, not just because they need money but because they need work. We need to let them. That’s what I think.
And what I think is entirely wrong.
To know I’m wrong, I just look at Sweden. If there’s any western society that you could count on to handle a pandemic right, it’s the orderly people of Sweden. Right? Well, Sweden didn’t go the disciplined route of South Korea and Germany, countries that buttoned up tight and avoided the ravages that crushed Spain and Italy. It didn’t take the haphazard route of the United Kingdom or Brazil, whose ministers caught the virus and locked down too late to stop their nations from being torn apart. No, Sweden went a totally different route: It let everyone catch it. Yes, you read that right. Sweden decided that herd immunity would stave off excess mortality, with no evidence that it would. This is what it got out of it.
In Stockholm, more than twice the usual number of people died last month. Across Sweden, almost 30 percent more people died than is normal during this time of year, matching the United States and outpacing its neighboring countries. Next door, Norway had no increase in deaths at all. Sweden’s government, with one of the world’s best health care systems, trusted in failed science and needlessly killed a whole bunch of its citizens.
Yet there’s Rand Paul. The faux-libertarian Kentucky senator tested positive for COVID-19, didn’t self-isolate, didn’t die, and now thinks he’s invulnerable. Paul loves what Sweden did.
“We closed the schools before there was any sense of the virus in the schools. Zero! They didn’t find any kids in school with the virus and we closed the schools entirely. I think that was overkill and what we ought to do is open the schools and see how we do, and if we have outbreaks in schools we have to make judgments on that. But Sweden has left the schools open the whole time, and the death rate in Sweden is about the same as the rest of Europe, in fact it’s a lot less than Britain, France, Spain, and Italy. Sweden’s doing better than those countries even though they didn’t close down even any of their economy.”
Paul wants to gamble with your children’s lives. But here’s the thing, Rando: Herd immunity doesn’t work without a vaccine. Not on SARS-CoV-2, anyway. Despite the name of “Operation Warp Speed,” we’re a year out on a vaccine. Until we get one, we’re not getting rid of the coronavirus. We might figure out how to work around it, but we don’t have even the most rudimentary of a plan for that, and as Paul shows, we have absolutely no federal leadership at all.
This is why we have a federal government. This is why we have a president. Or at least, this is why we used to have those things. Because sometimes, the thing your brain wants isn’t the thing you can have. Not if you want to stay alive, anyway. In a pandemic, you need laws to stop you from killing yourself and killing your friends. This is what our last real president said in his address to the graduating class of 2020 this weekend.
“Doing what feels good, what’s convenient, what’s easy — that’s how little kids think. Unfortunately, a lot of so-called grown-ups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs, still think that way—which is why things are so screwed up.”
President Obama has some leaders who agree. In a few states, the laws are holding. California, Oregon, and my home of Washington banded together in a test run of the faux-nation Pacifica. These states, along with newcomers Colorado and Nevada, are reopening very slowly, despite what the corrupt mayor of Las Vegas might want. A similar alliance of states in the northeast is doing the same. And lots of business leaders are bucking against their own governors in resisting reopening quickly. Not every employer is Elon Musk, thank the heavens.
If we’re going to obey our need for work—not just money, work—we have to also guarantee that we can do so safely. An employee can’t be threatened with losing unemployment benefits if their company reopens in a manner the employee feels is unsafe. It’s on us employers to entice them back to work by creating the safest possible environments. That means contact tracing, masks at work, temperature taking, unlimited sick leave, staggered shifts, removing doorknobs, air filters, and dynamiting the open plan office. That’s just for starters. We have a lot of work to do. Thankfully, we have a lot of workers out there who might be willing to help.
If you don’t want to do the hard work of keeping people safe, you always have another alternative. You can play Animal Crossing. I hear turnips are going for 550 bells on my wife’s island today.
This is the 56th installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third party candidates, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, Trump’s mafia code, college admissions, William Barr, Brexit, Iran, the Mueller Report, Joe Biden, Oregon’s standoff, the environment, Jeffrey Epstein, Trump’s lies, Pelosi’s strategy, Trump’s conviction, political outsiders, Rudy Giuliani, the Berlin wall, protest art, political timing, religion, engagement, Bernie Sanders, progressive unity, the Democratic nominee, and the pandemic. The first 21 of these essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order by clicking the link.