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Digital Distractions: Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp

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Fans of mobile game systems like the Nintendo 3DS have long been waiting to see similar experiences emerge on mobile phones, and Nintendo’s recent forays into the mobile app world continue to raise hopes even as the leap from expensive console game to “free to play” models usually falls flat. However, there’s one title just released that I’ve been waiting for years to see make the leap: Animal Crossing. Animal Crossing, for the uninitiated, is a somewhat disturbing simulation that invites the player to become mayor of a town, continually going into debt in the search of larger and larger houses while serving as errand-runner and occasional mediator for a town of animal residents. Ian Bogost observed that previous titles in this serious have an unresolved tension between the grind for material goods and the appreciation of a virtual natural world:

“On the one hand, a rhetoric of affluenza encourages the player toward excess, toward more goods and a larger house in which to store them. In this context, the menial everyday tasks of gardening, fishing, and doing errands for the animals become an occupation, the necessary but undesirable frenzy of work necessary to sustain that lifestyle. On the other hand, a rhetoric of pastoralism encourages the player to tend the land, appreciate the rolling hills and bubbling waterfalls, and to socialize with others before returning to a modest homestead to retire.”

This tension continues in Animal Crossing’s mobile iteration, Pocket Camp, which is if anything a playable simulation of glamping. As a campsite manager, your goal in the game is to fill a luxury campsite with increasingly elaborate furniture in response to the demands of a group of animals with discerning taste. It’s perhaps made even more bizarre by the fact that this is a naturalist simulation carried with you: a curated alternative to the actual outdoors, in one’s pocket. In the place of the old economics of house acquisition, there’s the lure of bigger and better campers, as well as glamping-necessities such as drum sets, sports cars, and spaceships (yes, really.) The gameplay of gathering things, getting materials, and building bigger and better campsites does get repetitive fast, as reviewers have pointed out.

Given that, why am I recommending Pocket Camp as a seasonal distraction–and, indeed, why am I level 33? One obvious answer is that Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp is surprisingly adorable, despite having very little depth. But more importantly when played in short bursts can be calming and peacefully diverting. The end of the semester is upon us, and I for one find many games require more focus and attention than I have left after days of grading and meetings. Animal Crossing’s rhythms are soothing and peaceful: the meditative gameplay requires nothing more than a bit of focused visual attention on things like the proper moment to throw a net or draw in a line, with a difficulty noticeably reduced from the predecessor versions (which were also not particularly demanding.)

There’s also a weird performative aspect to Pocket Camp. Like Animal Crossing games before it, it’s possible in Pocket Camp to “visit” friends and total strangers and check out how they’ve arrange the game’s building blocks into a campsite. Thanks to Pocket Camp’s design choices, such as allowing animals to sit in any chair even if they can’t technically reach it and an array of fencing options, players have already been spotted creating everything from “lamp cults” to “prisons.” I myself have already wandered into what I can only describe as a well-appointed network of cages as well as a few creative arrangements spelling words or reflecting the arrangement of popular sitcom hangouts (including one that looked a lot like the coffee shop in Friends.) This semi-social dynamic is particularly interesting if you take the risk of linking the game to social media accounts. It will also give you immediate insight into which of your friends is also procrastinating on grading or finals, thanks to a handy timer that shows how long it has been since your friends last visited their camp.

One of Pocket Camp’s greatest challenges is apparently profitability: early reports suggest that while a number of players have downloaded it, not many of them are spending money compared to other games that rely on microtransactions. This is actually good news for the casual player: it’s possible to jump in, craft a thriving campsite of adorable if demanding semi-residents, and build over-the-top amenities ranging from street-corner musician spots to treehouses without spending any money. For an end of semester respite, that’s not a bad deal.

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