Playing with Strangers

Seeing a Street Fighter tournament in action is a decidedly surreal experience. To a casual observer, it usually seems ludicrous that a group of 20 grown men would watch a videogame with the same intensity that most others would watch a boxing match or the Super Bowl, cheering on the competitors with roars of approval when a flashy combo or a perfectly timed reversal attack is landed, just like they were watching an actual street fight. To a first time competitor, the same scene is surreal for a wholly different reason: They are awash with the heady, nervous tension that comes from simultaneously enjoying the company of other like-minded gamers, and sizing each one up as they step up to the joystick and show off their best.

But I am neither of those. It was for a wholly different reason I found the environment at a weekly Street Fighter III: Third Strike tournament at San Francisco State University completely bizarre. It wasn’t the familiar clashing sounds of the games that did it, nor was it the intoxicating feel of competitive adrenaline slowly seeping out of my system. Rather, it was the sight of three grown men sitting around an open table with their Nintendo DSes, chatting between tournament matches about fishing and interior decorating and independent musicians.

Hmm. Something tells me they’re not talking about Street Fighter any more.

I sat down with them and peered at one of their screens for a second to confirm my suspicions. Satisfied, I fished out my own Nintendo DS from my backpack, still warm from idling in sleep mode, and announced to the table:

“Anyone here need peaches?”

The others just groaned. “All of us started with peaches,” one of them said to me, “but open your gates and I’ll give you some apples and oranges.”

“I’ve got a spare coconut you can have!” said another.

“What’s your store selling?” asked the third. We proceeded to spend the next hour visiting each other’s towns, chatting with the locals, exchanging tips and showing off furniture. One of the guys had every kind of fruit. Another had finished paying off his mortgage. All I had to brag about was, well, a giant arcade cabinet sitting in my living room. They oohed and aahed and took it in for a while. It does make a nice centerpiece. It’s quite a conversation-starter.

Welcome to Animal Crossing, the game about, well, nothing, really.

The original Animal Crossing found its way into my girlfriend’s GameCube about a year and a half ago as an anniversary gift and ended up stealing that anniversary evening from us as we ran errands to make the down payment on our house. One evening would gradually become a week, then a month of fishing, two months of fossil collecting, three months of planting trees, until she left for a semester in Scotland and her Cube fell into the possession of my freshman year roommate, who promised to tend to it once a week. His painstaking care of our town was clearly apparent; our house had swarms of roaches, our fields were choked by huge plots of hideous weeds, our mailbox was overflowing and our neighbors had mostly deserted us. (Thanks, Vince.) After about an hour of futile weeding and cockroach-chasing, we decided we might need to move on. Goodbye, GameCube, say hello to Wild World.

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Once you’ve gotten used to the Nintendo DS version, it feels like the perfect home for Animal Crossing. On the GameCube, it felt restricted in its confinement to the home setup; if you don’t know anyone else who has a GameCube – as was my problem – you’re just going to be wasting away in Margaritaville (or whatever you call your town), and it’s pretty hard to get your friends hooked on the game when they see just how much fun you have fishing and catching bugs all by yourself. The DS version, by contrast, literally sells itself. After the Street Fighter tournament, all the Mario Kart DS-toting chumps who came expecting some Time Trial action instead found us running around each other’s towns trading furniture. They were so jealous, they scoured the San Francisco East Bay Area for a store with remaining AC:WW copies. Up to four players can run amok in a town at once, and with the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, you can party up via the internet from any available wireless access point.

The sheer accessibility and ease with which Animal Crossing allows you to play with your buddies has allowed Nintendo to add all kinds of special multiplayer content. Profit motivates some of the socializing, of course; there’s money to be had in buying turnips low and selling them high (the “stalk market”), or exchanging fruits with your buddies to grow your own orchards of non-native fruits that sell for five times the going rate. But mere commerce only scratches the surface of networked multiplayer Animal Crossing. The animal residents of your fair town are free to live where they wish, meaning an internet rendezvous with a friend will often yield a new neighbor or two. What’s more, they come not only with their material possessions – including letters you wrote to them – but fairly detailed memories of their previous residence, including the town theme (which you compose) and whatever catch-phrases you may have taught them.

All of this, at first, tends to elicit the same reaction in the non-believers that the original Animal Crossing did: ” … so?” It’s not easy to communicate the appeal of a game like either of the AC titles; though the goal apparent is to have a complete town with a full museum and a complete furniture catalog and the highest graded house possible (yes, people grade your taste in decor), all these goals are ultimately self-imposed. Animal Crossing demands nothing of you; it would prefer that you keep your town clean and pay off your mortgage, it encourages you to get out there and meet people and relax by the beach with the sound of the waves muffling the background music, but there is no magical endgame that will result in a final roll of the credits and a drawn curtain – that happens every Friday night at the Roost, if you catch the K.K. Slider performance.

Before, this was a problem. Playing Animal Crossing on the GameCube was a novelty – or as retailers put it, your girlfriend would love it – because, ultimately, it was a game about nothing, and nothing is an awfully boring thing to do by yourself. Once the novelty of having your own little world contained in your GameCube wears off, it’s basically gaming busywork – catch fish, pick fruit, pay large sums of money to the wage-slaver raccoon, and so on. It feels like running the level treadmill of World of Warcraft or Diablo II, but at the end of the day, instead of an account worth $300 on eBay, all you’ve got is a memory card full of Classic Furniture, and that means precious little to most people.

Put Animal Crossing on the DS, though, and all of a sudden it’s a radically different game. No longer is your world contained to your living room TV; instead, it is in your backpack or your pants pocket or your glove compartment, where you can access it wherever and whenever you like, free to show it off to whoever may come by. Despite Animal Crossing‘s technical similarity to Animal Crossing: Wild World – and make no mistake, they are very similar games – the context in which you play one is so wholly dissimilar from that of the other, it manages to make the two feel like completely different games. Animal Crossing becomes a much more open, public space on the DS, where you are free to show off your fish collection to random passers-by if you so choose. People nearby can watch you play with the same bemused interest as one would watch a Street Fighter tournament, and, if they have their DSes handy, like one particular fellow at the Berkeley BART station whose name I never caught (I remember he has apples, though), they can feel free to join in.

Common wisdom was wrong about the original Animal Crossing. It wasn’t perfect for your girlfriend because girls love decorating houses and nurturing homes and towns and such. Animal Crossing was always about doing nothing, and it just so happened by accident that some gamers figured out their girlfriends might like using the GameCube to test out different wallpaper/carpet combinations or design their own T-shirts with a 64×64 pixel grid. It suffered for this, because no one wants to do nothing for too long when they could be playing Super Smash Brothers: Melee.

But doing nothing with other people; now, that is a game people can get behind. This is because, once we grow out of making play dates with our fellow fourth-graders, spending leisure time with our friends and family and loved ones often boils down to having a decent conversation and maybe finding something to nibble on or keep our hands busy or provoke more conversation – that is, doing nothing. Animal Crossing: Wild World, with its wi-fi and all its mindless little activities and secrets and characters and holidays and collectibles, is a social space that facilitates doing nothing quite wonderfully in a way that online environments like World of Warcraft can’t. For all the highly acclaimed social space massive online games provide, they just haven’t constructed one that allows me to do on my gaming platforms with my friends what I do with them in real life.

Because, honestly, nothing makes for some quality time with the homies or the ladies quite like, well, nothing.

Pat Miller has been doing this for way too long.

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