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Real Insight From A Fantasy Island

Animal Crossing New Horizons screenshot of a player character among flowers.
screenshot by Amy Laburda

I was late to the “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” party.

Blame the Nintendo Switch shortage – I didn’t already own the console and getting one became challenging as most of the country found itself stuck at home this spring. But joining the Animal Crossing community a couple of months late meant I could enter a virtual world in full swing. I’m having a good time, which I expected. I’ve also been thinking a lot about my relationship to money, which I didn’t expect at all.

If you managed to miss the Animal Crossing fad, here are the basics. “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” is the latest entry in a series of video games from Nintendo. While the series has attracted devoted fans since the first game’s release in 2001, the historical accident of “New Horizons” arriving in March 2020 created an explosion of attention and popularity. The game is family friendly and doesn’t require much technical skill, which means barriers to entry are low. It also offers the ability to play with friends over the internet, which held obvious appeal in March and April this year.

Players receive islands to develop and cultivate at their own pace, partly by earning money in a variety of ways. Between the popularity of “New Horizons” and the quasi-financial component of its gameplay, it was probably inevitable that publications would offer articles in short order covering what the game can teach you about investing, personal finance or economics. But now that I’ve actually played the game, I can say the thing it has made clear to me is my relationship to money outside the constraints of the real world.

In “New Horizons,” necessities are taken care of. You don’t need to eat, and if you want to, there is plenty of free fruit growing on your island. Your tent, and later your house, are funded with loans – but these loans involve no down payment, no repayment schedule and no due date. The only constraint is that you must pay off one loan before you can get another to build new rooms. Travel within your island happens on foot, and flying between islands is free if you’re visiting a friend. Getting to other destinations is just a matter of easily obtained frequent flyer miles. The future is also worry-free. You don’t need to save for a child’s college tuition or your own retirement in “New Horizons.” If you need a reminder that the game’s economic system is fantasy, look no further than the fact that you can literally grow money on trees.

Working at Palisades Hudson taught me that real-world financial planning should involve an honest assessment of your goals. In our world, these goals include needs and wants. But what do you do if needs are off the table?

One of the aspects of “New Horizons” I find most intriguing is that, to a point, you define for yourself what winning at the game looks like. Sure, you can try to maximize your wealth (represented by the in-game currency, “bells”). Lots of people take this approach. But it’s far from the only option. You can help the local museum curator to fill his displays by donating insects, fish, fossils, and eventually art. The more social players may get invested in luring new animal neighbors to their islands. If you want to design your home, or your entire island, to be as beautiful as it can be, you can do that too.

All these goals may involve bells to a greater or lesser degree. But in most of them, the bells are a means to an end.

As with many games, “New Horizons” leads some players to shell out real dollars (or pounds, or euros, or yen) in pursuit of rare or desirable items. Yet my experience, and that of many other players, points to a concurrent thread of generosity. Some players freely share custom designs, provide rare building materials, and even swap animal neighbors with friends and strangers alike. One aspect of the game is the “stalk market,” in which players buy turnips on Sundays and attempt to sell them at a higher price before they rot a week later. My friends who play the game routinely alert each other when their island’s shop offers a good turnip price. Such a heads-up offers no in-game benefit to the lucky player; it’s just a way to help out a friend.

I’m in the early days of island-building, but a few things about my approach have already become clear to me. In the absence of necessity, my main motivator is helping the other residents of my island. When a neighbor was sick, I was quick to run out and buy him some medicine. I’m a regular museum donor. When the island administrator asks for help picking out plots for new development or sites for bridges, I’m eager to pitch in. Selling things I can’t donate and don’t need frees up space in my pockets and my home storage. (Have I been KonMari-ing my island this whole time without meaning to?) It also – not incidentally – gets me hearty thanks from the local shopkeepers.

The game emphasized other things I already knew about myself, too. I’m fairly risk-averse and I value my time more than optimizing my earnings. My approach to the “stalk market,” at least so far, has been to limit my buy-in and to go ahead and sell as soon as I can make a profit, even if that might mean forgoing more profits later in the week. Sure, I’m leaving bells on the table, but I’m not obsessively tracking turnip prices, either. I also empty my pockets into my bank account on a regular basis, even though interest only compounds once a month. This way I don’t need to keep an eye on the calendar to be sure of securing a return.

In our firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55, Larry Elkin observed that we define winning for ourselves in our lives, too. In the book’s introductory chapter, he wrote, “I have yet to meet anyone whose most important financial goal in life is to die with the maximum possible net worth.” Video games have their own conventions, of course. But “New Horizons” highlights that focusing only on the bottom line can mean passing up chances to build relationships and have simpler kinds of fun.

There isn’t one right way to play “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” which is part of its broad appeal. The enthusiasm of my friends and family for the game meant I wasn’t surprised when I enjoyed it. But I was surprised that one of the first questions the game answered is: What do you do with money when you can do anything? So far, my answer has involved a lot of watering flowers and an ongoing attempt to catch an oarfish to donate to my local museum. Your answer can be anything that makes you happy… though I will note that my blood pressure seems to be a little lower than that of some of those turnip-market guys.

Administrative Manager Amy Laburda, who is based in our Stamford, Connecticut office, is the co-editor of our firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.

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