BobPerstai1

Standing before my 2-story home in Perstai.  I hope to add a basement soon.

“You should get a home in Perstai, Dad,” urged Melinda.  I had reservations.  I was not looking for new ways to occupy my time, and I had seen how willingly Melinda would sacrifice a free hour here and there to amble about her virtual world.  I couldn’t quite get it.  It seemed like her avatar never did anything of much significance, yet unwinding within this mythical land apparently provided her much pleasure.  I had to admit that Animal Crossing, the Nintendo Wii title that made Melinda’s imaginary journeys possible, was a clever game.  Its designers had crafted a tightly controlled environment that gave a satisfying sense of individual freedom within a dynamic fictional society fueled by limited artificial intelligence.  Melinda was well aware that she was playing a game by herself and that her illusory interactions with pixelated neighbors were nothing more than simple, scripted encounters.  But she didn’t care, because it was fun.

“Maybe,” I said, by which I meant, “No.”

She had already persuaded Mom to establish residence in Perstai, and I had noticed Julie starting to take almost as much pleasure in this digital alternative existence as Melinda did.  Sometimes one of them would watch the other strolling about town for awhile, then the one playing would log off and the one watching would log on.  It didn’t seem to make much difference who was actually playing, as both gamer and observer appeared to be equally absorbed by Perstai culture.

“Look,” one of them would say, “Bones just clapped when I caught that fish!”

“Ha, ha!” the other would guffaw, and I would glance at them with withering condescension.  Time wasters.  It would be a cold day in Perstai before I indulged myself in that sort of pointless activity.

And so it was.  Snow covered the ground not only in Perstai but in Ohio as well, and as I was enjoying that most magnificent of perks that come to elementary educators – namely, the annual two-week break at the end of the calendar year – it seemed harmless to idle away a few of those hours in a virtual way.  Melinda would be pleased by my interest, and maybe it would even be a little fun.

“You’ll start by working for Tom Nook,” Melinda informed me.

“Who?”

“Tom Nook.  He’s the raccoon who runs the store.  He’ll give you different jobs around town, and when you’re done, you can pay off your mortgage.”

“My what?”

“It’s like rent.  He’ll let you expand your house, and when you pay it off, he’ll let you expand it again.  When that’s all paid, you can get a second floor.”

“Why would I want that?”

“More room for your stuff!”

I wasn’t quite sure if I liked the rather materialistic bent of the game, as it seemed to eerily parallel the reckless home-buying practices that ignited our nation’s housing crisis.  “Don’t worry about the money, just pay me back as you can,” is the message parroted by Tom Nook, who seems eager to lend without any evidence of consumer responsibility.  In fact, he never even mentions interest, which conveniently does not exist in this virtual paradise.  Pay off your house renovations, however, and he’s all over you to expand again, hinting that you must be somewhat dissatisfied by your current lack of space.

I diligently began running errands for Nook, and soon I had enough money to enlarge my squalid starter shack into something more comfortable.  There didn’t seem to be much point in the whole endeavor, although I did register a twinge of pleasure at replacing my standard-issue cardboard box and candle with a decent end table and lamp.  Soon afterward my indentured servitude to Nook was rapidly fulfilled, leaving me free to seek my own fortune.

Seeking one’s fortune in Animal Crossinginvolves participating in a cycle of redundant activities to generate income.  Sometimes just shaking trees and banging on rocks with your shovel releases currency, but most money is earned by acquiring goods and selling them to Nook.  Picking fruit, catching fish, and digging up fossils are the beginner’s route to financial freedom.  Oranges go for 100 bells apiece in Perstai, and some of the rarest fish can fetch up to 15,000 bells.  The bell, by the way, is the official monetary unit used in every Animal Crossing town.  If ya wanna make it big, ya gotta have bells.

I had noticed Melinda and Julie scurrying about Perstai trying to generate bells by engaging in these mundane tasks.  As a mere observer, I perceived only irony in their efforts.  Why would anyone fritter away their free time on work?  Virtual or not, that’s what it was.  Run here, run there, fill your pockets with oranges, go sell them to Nook, run here, run there, fill your pockets with fish, go sell them to Nook.  You wouldn’t do that for less than minimum wage in the real world, but Animal Crossing players gladly do these things for no real recompense.

Having a go at Animal Crossing myself gave me some insight into the human condition.  We are definitely a goal-oriented species.  It does not matter if the objective is particularly meaningful, nor must it be real.  Provided that all basic needs are met, give your average homo  sapien a sufficiently stimulating challenge and he or she will not rest until that aim is accomplished.  As I became immersed in Perstai life, I chided myself for having once dismissed this virtual existence as pointless.  I had been terribly closed-minded.  Because now that I had increased the footprint of my home to its maximum area, I was only 248,000 bells away from adding a second floor.  So it wasn’t like I was wasting time, because I was actually accomplishing something.  I was saving bells.

But it wasn’t all about making money.  Well, mostly it was.  Yet in addition, I had become charmed by the pre-programmed residents of Perstai.  The amiable dogs Bones and Marcel.  The endearingly boastful bear Teddy and the similarly macho eagle Pierce.  The girly-girl bear Tutu and the lady rhinoceros Rhonda.  Even the somewhat bitchy duck Mallory.  They would tell me amusing little anecdotes and sometimes send me on errands for which I’d always be rewarded in goods or bells.  Once in awhile, one of them will suggest a game of hide and seek, and my inevitable victory yields even more loot.

And they are wonderfully gullible.  The residents of Animal Crossingtowns love to use catchphrases and customized greetings, and they will frequently ask for suggestions along these lines to keep conversation fresh.  If, say, Marcel approaches you for some help in coming up with a clever new phrase, and if you propose something that is less than tasteful, and so long as the game designers did not foresee the sort of drivel your deviant mind is capable of concocting, then Marcel will henceforth trot happily about town repeating your crude remark.  This simple pleasure does not get old as quickly as you might think.

Plus, if you take the time to write them letters with an enclosed gift, they will ecstatically return the favor.  Your mailbox will soon be flooded with a bounty of free furniture, clothing, and exotic fruit.  The best part is that they are thrilled with whatever you give them, even if the items are totally worthless.  Thus, I write a flowerly love note to Tutu and enclose an old tire.  She gushes with appreciation and sends me a lovely violin.  I give Marcel a smelly boot that I fished out of the river, and he presents me with a computer.  This delightful practice also does not get old with any rapidity.

As life in Perstai evolved from Melinda’s solitary preoccupation into a family pastime, more and more evenings included the warm, animated glow of Animal Crossing emanating from our television.  Only eldest daughter Amber remained a staunch holdout, declaring the whole enterprise a total waste of time.  We regarded her sympathetically, as a zealot looks upon the unsaved.

It was somewhere around this time that Julie and I became more frequent visitors to Perstai than Melinda.  One of us – I can’t really remember who – wondered naively if there might be some useful information about Animal Crossing on the Internet.  It so happens that there is far more to our virtual existence than we had ever anticipated, and once we discovered this, there was no turning back.  No longer contented innocents, we were compelled to fulfill our destinies.  There were so many more species of fish for us to catch, a plethora of insects still uncaught, and untold varieties of fossils yet unearthed.  If you had enough bells, you could even add a basement.  And there was something that Melinda had not yet tested:  the stalk market.

Every Sunday morning, a warthog named Joan shows up with turnips for sale.  She always has one red turnip seed that can be turned around for a 14,000 bell profit on a 1,000 bell investment, providing that you remember to water it daily for a week.  Even more enticing are the white turnips, a highly volatile commodity.  One week Julie bought a few at 108 bells and waited to sell until Nook offered her a buying price of 459.  That was all it took for us to start dropping in at Perstai on a fairly regular basis.

On my most recent trip, I had been logged on for no more than five minutes when I had the good fortune to land a rare stringfish, a great catch at 15,000 bells.  Melinda was watching.

“Go sell that stringfish to Nook and let me play.”

“But I just got on,” I protested.  She looked askance at me, and I surrendered the controller.

“At least I’m not addicted to it,” she added reproachfully.  “Unlike some people I know.”

SecondFloorStudy

Relaxing in the comfort of my second-floor study.