A large majority of video games in this world adhere to a philosophy that allows a player to experience an immediate reward for their actions in gameplay. When you stomp a Goomba in Super Mario Bros., you hear a satisfying sound effect and get some points. When you shoot a dude in the head in Counterstrike or Call of Duty with a satisfying BAM, you get some points/money/an ego boost.
This is instant gratification, an innocuous, short-lasting but powerful happiness that your brain experiences when you make those little accomplishments in video games. These little accomplishments are sprinkled all around these games, and they are the reason we play them. There’s a long-term accomplishment of completing the game, which may take hours, days, or even weeks, but the short-term accomplishment of stomping nasties is what feeds our reward center in the brain.
And then Animal Crossing came to town. This game is unique. It’s a quirky, cute, relaxing life simulation game where you maintain a life, a house and a community among amiable anthropomorphic animal neighbors. The main objectives in Animal Crossing include making money, keeping and upgrading a house, getting along with your neighbors, paying off debts, collecting bugs and fish, and as of the most recent installment in the series, New Leaf, presiding over your town as mayor.
The kicker is that Animal Crossing is a game that doesn’t attack us with instant gratification, it plays upon patience. To put it into perspective, many games utilize a virtual night/day system that follows real time. If it’s morning in real life, it’s morning in the game. It’s night in real life, it’s night in the game, et cetera. This is usually implemented as a measure to make the game world more immersive, but it’s usually a mostly aesthetic addition that doesn’t interfere with a player’s gameplay experience in any significant way.
In Animal Crossing, shops close at night. You start playing at 11 P.M.? Too bad the clothes store is closed so you can’t get that shirt you really wanted for your avatar character. See that? It’s a barrier to something that you have to wait for in real time! For hours!
You have to be patient for other things as well. When you want to upgrade your house, you have to wait until the next literal day for the renovations to complete. The shops may have one thing you want one day, and something completely different on another, so there’s only so much you can do in the game on a day-to-day basis. There’s no button to press to skip days, you can’t skip anything, you have to wait. It’s a game that forces you to consume its content in chunks, and it, unlike Super Mario Bros., sprinkles long-term accomplishments among even longer-term accomplishments. That’s where its genius addictiveness comes in, since it makes you continually want to overcome those long-term goals.
That, in a way, makes finishing a castle sized house and paying off the loan on it to Racoon Real Estate Agent Tom Nook so much more satisfying than stomping on that Goomba.
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