ALL ANIMALS, NO GUNS: ON SANCTUARY, OTHERNESS,

AND A KIDS' GAME

by Steffan Triplett

ISSUE ELEVEN | FALL 2018

It is my fake life, but each day I come home and check in on my animal neighbors.  First, I check on the cat, Kiki. She is black with wide pupils, yellow eyes, and a red mouth fixed into a gaping smile. Leaving Kiki’s home, I speak with a yellow dog named Goldie, chat with a red bear named Cheri, and run an errand for Camofrog, who is exactly what he sounds like, a camouflage-colored frog, green with brown and black circles printed on his body, a head slightly too big for his torso, just like all the animals here. Each cartoonish, each cute. I cannot pet them, but each gives me advice through the screen in my studio apartment—about staying positive, enjoying the small things. The sun is out in the game; the air looks warm. I will not disappoint them.

The original Animal Crossing is a video game in which mundanity becomes pleasure. Its creators understand that simplicity is relaxation. The driving force of the game is gathering items, of your own accord, for collection or home-display, helping your neighbors, and simply living and passing the time. Animal Crossing, the GameCube version on which I play, is now fifteen years old. It’s described as an “open-ended game” where players move into a village populated by “anthropomorphic animals.” These “villagers” serve as friendly companions who ease your transition into a new town that is yours to name, influence, and reside in. Originally created and released in Japan through Nintendo, Animal Crossing was released in North America in 2002 to critical acclaim. One of the biggest draws of the game was that it is played in real-time, synced with the game system’s internal clock. “The real-life game that’s happening every second of every day, whether you’re there or not,” the back of the game’s packaging reads. The leaves change color in fall. If it’s mid-December, it is likely snowing. The animal villagers visit with each other whether or not you’re there to see it.

I first played the game as a middle schooler. I would walk up the block to my neighbor’s basement, and we would take turns playing. If it was 5 o’clock in Missouri, it was 5 o’clock in the game. My friend and I would watch our human avatars, cutesy and bobble-headed just like the animal villagers, move through a world that seemed much bigger than the basement in which we played. Everything was joyous. Everything was easy. The game would turn to night as the sun went down.

* * *

By the end of high school, all I wanted was to escape my hometown. It became clear to me that southwest Missouri was not the best place for me. My father and I were the only Black people in the neighborhood, and I felt more aware of this fact each year I aged. I was also closeted, afraid to add another thing to my being different. My plan was to go to a university that had a visible queer population. I knew that was what I needed to accept some things about myself I still hadn’t fully come to terms with. I got into my top choice school, states away, and when I visited I imagined myself in the dorms, sitting on the green grass, going to campus Pride meetings, laying on blankets with queer folks of all creeds, laughing in the sun. This was where I wanted to be.

When the deadline for decisions came, my parents came into my room. I was lying down reading. “Hey Bub, we need to talk.” My parents told me I wouldn’t be able to go to the school I wanted. They knew that I had worked hard, but despite my tuition being covered by the school, housing would be too expensive. It made more sense to go to school in-state, where I was offered a little more money. They were right, but at 17, I couldn’t see that. But I had received a scholarship and financial aid. I didn’t understand.

“I can take out loans,” I said.

They told me it wouldn't be enough. I rolled to face the wall. I cried and cried and cried.

“I’m so sorry, Bub,” my mother said,“At least you’ll be close to home.”

This wasn’t what I wanted to hear.

* * *

Animal Crossing begins on a train, with you telling a wandering, sweater-clad cat, aptly named Rover, what your name is. This is the only portion of the game seen through your avatar’s eyes. “Remember, things are never as bad as they seem,” she tells you, encouraging you to enjoy your new life, to appreciate the fresh start. After this encounter, the perspective switches to that of the sky, looking down on your little character as they walk through the town. As you take in your new surroundings, you are leaving something behind. In the game, you have a mother and a “home,” but you never see them. You only know that you’ve left.

Your new town is not an urban one; it is small and mostly grass and forest. The grass, a mosaic of green squares of slightly different shades, is speckled with large rocks and bushes that are raised circles of petals. There are some concrete paths mosaicked of gray and purple circles, trees browned with tan circles, and rivers that lead to a sea at the bottom of the map. The hues of the foliage change as the time of day progresses.  These geometries are softened by the often bouncy, often soothing background music, playing alternate versions of a similar theme reprised at different hours of the day. All is pleasant. All is filled with an air that the world is vast and full of peace, that there’s beauty in the smallness of your home. 

In Animal Crossing, the town’s appearance is randomized, never quite looking like another before it. If the layout is the same, then the native fruit is different. Usually, it is an apple or an orange, but sometimes it’s a pear. While each town looks different, each is a (6x5) gridded layout. Each town has a museum, a seamstress shop, a police station, a post office, a store, and a fountain where the mayor, a tortoise named Mortimer, can sometimes be found muttering, “So much to do! Plant trees, pull weeds, go shopping, run errands—or just go fishing.” You get your own house that you can customize with furniture and wallpaper. Animal neighbors move in and out at different times, a rotating roster of cute and strange.  You can get across the town easily, from point A to point B in just a couple of minutes. It is easy enough for a kid to navigate and memorize, but there’s always a map if you need it. None of the animals say anything about you being a human. You are an other, but no questions are asked.

 

* * *

When I was a sophomore in college, I would play the same Animal Crossing with my best friends Camille and Jamal, pleasantly surprised that they too had loved the game as a kid. I felt so lucky to have my new group of friends; I thought perhaps this was exactly where I was supposed to be.

We would each take turns, with our own avatars, living in the same town, in separate houses. Being on different schedules allowed for us to enjoy the game both alone and together, depending on who was around in the dorms at what time. We debated which of the animal neighbors would be Black if they were humans, which ones were queer. It was our relief from the stresses of college, the fears of graduation, the realization that our time together in college would be fleeting, that we may not find a group of friends that looked like this out there.

The game moved just as we remembered, but our experiences of it were a bit different. We now had the lens of young adulthood. The simplicity was not only a pleasant form of nostalgia, but a reminder of how much the real world didn’t operate this way. But, wouldn’t it be nice if it did?

 

We’d mess with the game’s clock, something I was afraid to do much as a kid. It was often snowing, so we would make it summer in the game. We’d watch the reflection of fireworks blooming in the reflection of the river. Hungover, we’d rewind the clock so we didn’t miss K.K., the guitar playing dog, who came to visit every Saturday at 8 p.m. We made the town ours. A happy life within a difficult one.

That year, Trayvon Martin was killed in a neighborhood thought not to belong to him.

* * *
 

In Animal Crossing the 1% does not exist, nor does the wealth gap, or poverty, or other markers of Trumpian economy. In the game, greed belongs to one figurehead, Tom Nook, a raccoon, the local store owner. Still cutesy, he doesn’t have the light energy that the other villagers have. His brown eyelids droop a bit onto his blue eyes, making him tired and impatient. He is boss-like. He is “mean” in that he lacks patience, urges responsibility, and likes money. His greed is as cruel as the world gets.

There are no dollars here, though, only “Bells”—even capitalism is cheerier, more musical here. You go to work only when you want, in order to pay off debt for a bigger house. If you put in an hour of work a day, you will be debt free in no time. But, again, there is no rush. The luxury of freedom. Paying off debt is fun in a kids’ game. There are no debt-collectors here, no deadlines, your time is your own. In fact, there is no terminus to the game. I pay off my loan 1,000 bells at the time. Afterward, I am free to roam, to build relationships with my neighbors, or fish in the sea. I can build-up my town and just stay forever. I can remodel my house, decide to make the new roof sky blue.

This is relaxing. It has the pleasures of playing as a grown-up without having to be one. For a few minutes, I can pretend that being an adult is much simpler than it is.  It is a community where there are opportunities for anyone. There is a mayor in charge who is wise, not angry. Animals of different species live in peace. There is no competition that isn’t friendly. There is a cop dog, but no police guns.

* * *
 

This year, in the Intro to Journalism course I teach, I make my students read a reported piece of the life and crimes of Dylan Roof, written by a Black woman. They, mostly white, do not like the piece. Someone asks, “How does the author know people in his hometown are treating her differently because of her skin color?”

 “Yes, people are racist, but how does she know people are being racist here?” asks another. I’m not sure if we are still just talking about the author, or the crime itself. I’m not sure why we are questioning the writer more than the murderer at the piece’s center.

“Do we not think she, a grown woman, would have experience discerning this?” I ask. “And what does it say that Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people? Does that give her room to suspect racism all around her, even if she were wrong?”

I hear my own voice crack. My questions don’t seem to be landing well today. I am regretting assigning this to them. I thought they were more aware than this. Perhaps it’s just a bad day.

“I find it irresponsible to not consider race in a shooting that targeted Black people,” I know I am pushing them hard, but it must be said.

It becomes clear no one wants to talk about it anymore, and I begin to imagine the end-of-semester reviews. I wonder if they would take me more seriously if I were older. If my voice were more masculine. If I were white.

A student groans and asks why we’ve read so many articles about shootings. I want to say, This is the news.

* * *

I come home to my apartment after a long day. It is filled with piles of books and laundry, a box of a dresser I bought months ago and have yet to put together. I walk across the hall and drop my rent into my landlord’s slot. I want to wind down, so I plug in the AV cables and turn on the GameCube. I walk around the grids of my town under the moon. I am alone. Each of my neighbors is locked away in their homes, at peace, waiting to rise bright and early. I catch a fish, mail a letter, and return to my home to save before starting again tomorrow. Tomorrow is new. Maybe I’ll find the remaining T-Rex fossil and complete my collection. Maybe I’ll catch a swordfish or a rare bug. Maybe, the furniture that will complete my living room will be available at the store. Maybe the mayor will tell me how good of a citizen I’ve been, ask for my help in building a new bridge. Maybe the cops will give me an award, or a neighbor will tell me how happy they are that I am alive. Maybe we’ll watch the reflection of fireworks in the river. Maybe anything is possible.

 

Steffan Triplett received his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh and is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis where he was a John B. Ervin Scholar. More of his work appears in Electric Literature, DIAGRAM, Wildness, BOAAT, and Nepantla: An Anthology for Queer Poets of Color. Steffan has been a fellow for Callaloo and Lambda Literary. He was raised in Joplin, Missouri. You can follow his work at steffantriplett.wordpress.com

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