It’s impossible to discuss Animal Crossing without coming across ‘time travelling’. The game wants you to play it in parallel to real time; if something is happening tomorrow, you have to wait until tomorrow. You can look forward to it happening tomorrow. But by exploiting the game’s attachment to real time, you can change the clock to remove the game’s Unique Selling Point and the limitations the game is designed to provide.
Time travellers want the ‘end’ of Animal Crossing to manifest without adhering to the ‘means’ that the developers wove into the game and clearly signpost every second you play it. It’s unsurprising that, with the game itself regularly judging them for exploiting it, these people are incredibly defensive about their decisions. Do a quick search anywhere and you’ll find countless more people standing up for the way they play the game than people actually criticizing them. Complaining that the ‘time travel’ exploit has become normalized in the Animal Crossing fandom will get you called ‘toxic’ and accused of harassment. Speak up in forums and you’ll be booed and booted for trying to stop people from ‘having fun the way they want’. Time travellers will claim that the way they play the game is perfectly valid, even intended, and has no impact on players who don’t exploit the game the way they do.
This is bullshit.
Thanks to time travellers, you cannot look up tips on New Horizons without being spoiled by people who have already accessed things no normal villager should have access to yet. Time travellers will liberally share their accomplishments on social media, making it impossible to avoid being spoiled and shown up as an exploit-less player looking to connect with other people online. They’ll even think they’re doing you a service by telling you what events are coming up later in the year, as if anyone sticking to real time wants to know.
On top of that, if you want to share your own exploit-less island or achievements, you have to put a ‘time travel free’ tag alongside them if you want people to see things the way you do. Time travellers won’t mark what they share in a similar fashion at all; they believe that no-one cares, or should care, about the impression their behaviour creates for such a social-centred game.
Functionally, time skipping gets in the way of the game’s ethos of sharing in the fruits of each other’s efforts; two players’s completed museums and flower collections may look identical in screenshots, but the value of such a collection to a time traveller is but a shadow of a real Animal Crossing player’s achievement. The game obsesses over providing you with ways to customize yourself and your island in order to show off, and different ways to show off as well. There are mechanics for displaying bugs and fish you catch, the vast majority of items are purely cosmetic, and the main money sink of the game involves expanding your house to be able to store more collectables.
All of these aspects have weight when you operate under the game’s integral limits. There’s nothing special about skipping to another day or season in order to catch a rare fish that only spawns at a certain time. It’s like paying money online for a certificate for a qualification you never actually earned. A facsimile of what other people strive for, pointless beyond the superficial impression it gives to anyone who shares your own disinterest in the value of time and effort. A plastic flower.
Animal Crossing wants you to understand how earning something within strict limitations makes it so much better. The game signposts the importance of slowly down as a core message at every turn: running around non-stop will possibly scare off rare bugs and destroy flowers. In order to fish effectively, it’s best to close your eyes and use your other senses. Your island is far from vast, and at the beginning you can’t even cross the river or climb the cliffs. If something needs to be built, you’re supposed to wait until the next morning; your days in real life can be punctuated by increments of virtual progress.
There are also penalties for recklessly changing the clock: your turnips may spoil, your island may fall into disrepair and its reputation may tank, and your neighbours may simply fuck off because you clearly don’t give a shit about them if you’ve canonically been lying in bed doing jack shit for five days straight.
The game has other mechanics you can ‘exploit’, like the way Feng Shui encourages you to make your house look like multicoloured disaster in order to improve your in-game luck. But sacrificing something in game in order to appease a mystical force that ultimately gets you a better deal is perfectly in line with Animal Crossing’s view of an escape to nature; most religions involve exchanging something ‘nice’ for more rewards later in life. Time travel is, on the other hand, like playing God in a world entirely built around better appreciating the joy of human limitations.
New Horizons has no adjustable in-game clock, and the developers have shared their own disapproval for people who skip through the intended pacing of the game. It’s unlikely there’s a way to code the game so time travel isn’t possible. Regardless, the availability of that exploit, like the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, still has value for those who don’t time skip: you aren’t forced to play by the game’s rules. You choose to, and that agency gives you an extra sense of pride every time your patience for something pays off.
With its inclusion of Feng Shui and its focus on slow, almost meditative practices, Animal Crossing clearly draws a lot from Zen Buddhist philosophy. In Buddhism, the importance of silence is paramount to achieving enlightenment: you have to step away from the noise of the world in order to understand it better. An encounter with ‘ma’, the void, can be much more fruitful that avoiding it. Buddhist poems like Li Po’s ‘Looking For A Monk And Not Finding Him‘ capture this way of thinking in a way that parallels well with the goal of Animal Crossing: when faced with nothing, especially when you expected something, you should be encouraged to look around and see new value in your surroundings. In Li Po’s poem, a student learns his lesson through the absence of his master. In Animal Crossing, we too are regularly given an opportunity to learn in a similar way: when we know we have to wait until tomorrow for what we need, we could ignore the pause we’ve been offered, or we can use it to put the game down and realize we can take everything we’ve done to care for our village and use it to look after ourselves and our own world better.
Animal Crossing is a healing game, much in the way that many slice-of-life anime are described as ‘healing’ their audience. Being ‘good’ at Animal Crossing isn’t about getting all the cool stuff as soon as possible; it’s about resisting that temptation and being rewarded with a better sense of self and purpose. Why pay over fifty bucks for just a pretty virtual world when that same world could have been an engine for invaluable life lessons? You don’t get the value of Aria the Animation by reading a synopsis or skipping through it at breakneck page. It’s slow, and it’s supposed to be slow. All meditation should be.
There are a few valid reasons to adjust the clock in Animal Crossing. If you can only play video games at night, it would be worth playing as though you’re in a timezone with several hours difference. You could play the game like this regardless, as long as you don’t touch the clock after you start. But there is no justification for skipping over the pauses that the game begs you to use productively.
In this mass media era, many people have forgotten the value of pausing, even now, while so many people are stuck in quarantine, when almsot the entire planet seems like it’s on pause. They want new things, new information, new memories, new feelings thrust at them every moment they’re connected to an electronic device. Consumption without limits eventually consumes the soul; every religion, self-help book and therapist will tell you that discipline, not reckless abandon, is the key to improving your outlook on life.
That’s the worst thing about Animal Crossing’s time travellers: they remind me how so many people would prefer plastic flowers over the real thing, and I can’t talk about the game online without being reminded about that at every turn.
I was putting some thoughts together on this topic as an exercise and it turned into a full post in less than a couple of hours. So here you go!
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