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beingcute

Being cute together.

Happy Home Designer (HHD) presents a new direction for the series, building upon just one concept of the previous games: decorating. While you’ll plot and design the homes of potentially hundreds of animals in this new town, you won’t be able to explore it freely, nor will you have a home of your own to customize and work towards paying off. In fact, despite the game being centered on working at Nook Homes, there isn’t even any money to earn in this game (making Tom Nook’s business practices, once again, appear very miserly). Unlike previous Animal Crossing entries, this one isn’t really a “life sim” so much as a doll house–imagine “buy mode” in The Sims, and you pretty much have an idea on what this game has to offer.

But the game isn’t different just in respect to what you yourself can do in it; most interesting, I think, is the difference in how people play the game with a perceived audience. Just as with the (also) very new–and very popular–Super Mario Maker, HHD is more of a passive online experience, where player content is shared–often over social media. Not far into the experience, the game interrupts the player to alert them to the screenshot sharing tools: you can take a screenshot simply by pressing the L + R buttons together, and then share it directly to Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr with the built-in photo sharing tool. You can just as easily submit screenshots to Miiverse, Nintendo’s own social network of game-based communities.

What the game does really well is encourage players to share their creations–and not just screenshots. Sharing has been a big part of Animal Crossing since the last game in the series, New Leaf, which allowed players to share records of their towns (allowing other players to explore a sort of “saved state” of them freely), screenshots of their experiences in-game or even designs for clothes or paths they’ve created. Perhaps in noticing how players loved to share their New Leaf creations on Twitter and Tumblr, the HHD developers have one-upped New Leaf‘s shareability by adding the Happy Home Network feature to HHD, an ecosystem where players can freely upload, browse, search and rate the homes and facilities they design. They can also download path and clothing designs directly when visiting a Happy Home Network lot as well.

Players can design homes as well as community spaces, populated by the game's characters.

Players can design homes as well as community spaces, populated by the game’s characters.

The Happy Home Network reminds me much of the original “Sims Exchange,” a Maxis community where players uploaded their homes and families for others to download and play with. Just as with the Happy Home Network, the Sims Exchange was searchable and invited players to rate the lots and families they found. (Note: I’m writing about the Exchange in past-tense, although each generation of The Sims had/has their own version of this sort of community–though I only had experience with the first generation’s Exchange.)

The Sims Exchange included something that, to me, was so much more compelling than gawking at lots or celebrities-turned-Sims: stories. Players would create illustrated narratives of their Sims’ lives using the game’s photo album feature, and the Sims Exchange thrived on this weird new medium for storytelling: where Sims were no longer seen as quirky, autonomous people acting of their own volition, but rather as actors–much like in theatre–cast in visual-based narratives. This was an interesting new way to play a game that was largely aimless and free of any built-in story, and perhaps what prompted the movie-making mode found in The Sims 2.

Dressing up and composing screenshots are akin to role-play.

Dressing up and composing screenshots are akin to role-play.

After spending some time with HHD, it’s apparent to me that this game seems to follow a similar pattern. On the surface, HHD is about designing homes and facilities, without the life sim aspects found in previous entries. But the mode of play in your character’s free time at the end of their workday is all about imagination, where it’s up to you to frame the spaces you’ve designed as actual living, breathing environments (because the game doesn’t exactly do that for you). You can simply observe the animals walk in circles around a room, but that gets boring fast. Like with stories found on the Sims Exchange, the real fun is in directing and modeling your animals within the spaces you’ve designed however you please, then sharing it online to, in a sense, validate it. You don’t just design the spaces; by “setting the scene” by inviting animals into an environment and giving them roles or things to interact with, you’re shaping their lives as well. In a way that parallels how we might selectively share and contextualize snippets of life on Instagram, players can contextualize themselves within the other characters’ goings-on with a little creativity and imagination. How other players creatively situate themselves in this anonymous new town–which, by the game’s design, isn’t “livable” for the player in the sense that previous Animal Crossing games were–is a sophisticated creative act in and of itself, and one that seems unjustly shadowed by the game’s more obvious creative feature of decorating.

Everything outside of HHD‘s core gameplay of designing a space is reduced to photo ops. Just like Sunday brunch with twee twenty-somethings, the real fun in HHD is in carefully composing a very specific aesthetic atmosphere, a backdrop for selfies and snapshots to share on social media. Some reviewers have criticized the game for having no grading system, how the animals will be satisfied with any way that you decorate their homes. Of course, it doesn’t matter what the animals think, as they’re little more than props in this game (more on that below). Instead, HHD is all about trying  to express your own creativity within the small constraints suggested by the game and, if you intend to share your homes and facilities online, trying to impress other players. When decorating or taking snapshots of these spaces, the only real rubric you need is what you think others on social media would be interested in seeing. I see this attention towards the larger community as a strength of the game.

tangyclass

In a community space, characters will each have only one line to say.

I’ve described the characters here as “props.” In previous games, the animals you meet and befriend have quite a lot to say–but not this time around, at least in the case of my eight hours with the game. In their homes, animals will alternate between just two or three bits of dialogue every time you interact with them during that visit. In a facility, where they will take on a role or occupation–say, as a teacher when visiting the school–they will each have only one line to give, no matter how many times you talk to them. Unlike your town in New Leaf, City Folk, Wild World or Population: Growing, the town in HHD isn’t really a breathing world with fleshed-out characters living in it. Instead, it’s simply a collection of scenes and backdrops that you’ve created, with animals that function as little more than extras in a movie. The world in HHD is comparable to a doll house: nearly static characters with little more personality than whatever you project onto them, dioramas that look cute but where nothing much “happens” outside of your imagination.

And the animals themselves are like dolls: when visiting a place you’ve designed, you can directly pick them up, dress them however you please and place them wherever you want. You might decide to make Bob a teacher at the school. Maybe the game randomly selected Tangy as the doctor at your hospital, but you want to switch her out for Caroline. Maybe you want to place Roscoe across the dinner table from yourself, so you lift him out of his bed and plop him right there in the chair. The characters aren’t really autonomous–like toys, you position them wherever you please and pretty much set a tone for the “scene” by snapping a screenshot and discussing the experience with others in the comments. You might come up with your own little narratives, just as others have done with The Sims photo albums. Some might complain that HHD doesn’t offer as much as previous Animal Crossing games, but it offers a ton of freedom to basically present your life with the animals any way you please, making the experience truly your own. One might compare it to LEGO before its product lines became brick-by-brick recreations of movie sets and licensed characters: HHD gives you all the things you need to construct a world–but it’s up to you, not the game, to invigorate those scenes with your own flair and personality.

Veterans of the series who haven’t played HHD might be disappointed to hear that on the surface there’s so little going on in town this time around. But again, this entry is just a different focus for the series: rather than integrating yourself into a community of digital animals, HHD instead presents tools with which to build a greater community online, where players can discuss and share their designs with one another all while performing their dream lives with their favorite animals. While very different than the typical Animal Crossing experience, I think that’s a great and unique thing that this game does, reducing a franchise that’s always encouraged simple living to its bare essential parts, which players can use to inspire one another.

Not too long ago, Matthew Crawford wrote in the New York Times a piece on the toll that pervasive advertising takes on its surrounding environments and viewers: “We’ve auctioned off more and more of our public space to private commercial interests, with their constant demands on us to look at the products on display or simply absorb some bit of corporate messaging.”

Crawford discusses the “cacophony” of private-public spaces dominated by advertising, though it’s worth noting that the problem of advertisements fighting for our attention isn’t confined to physical space.

It’s not uncommon to hear the internet mentioned as a “virtual plaza,” or the “town square” of the “global village“–and just as with privatized public spaces in the physical world, our meeting places online–our very conversations and dialogues–are increasingly open to brand names that (quite literally) follow us, entreating that we speak with them.

Here’s the most recent brand that panhandled a conversation off me: on a walk yesterday I bought a large coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts, and it wasn’t until I was later sitting at my desk that I noticed this message on the cup: “Share your Dunkin Donuts story. #mydunkin.”

Dunkin’ Donuts here creates a sort of digital coffee shop–a space (the hashtag stream) for people to gather and discuss, well, the very product that Dunkin’ served them. Of course, the messages within the hashtag aren’t confined to just a single stream; the covert Dunkin’ Donuts advertising/endorsement is broadcast to the writers’ followers. We all become spokespeople for the brand when sharing the #mydunkin story–though photos of cups of coffee are hardly unique or very insightful into the individuals’ lives; #mydunkin story might as well be yours, or anyone’s.

This much is obvious. Everyone on the internet knows how hashtags work. But I am curious about how brands have inserted themselves into everyday communication online, in fact creating the spaces for discussion themselves while encouraging us to join them. Consider when @tacobell answers back to your southwestern-flavored tweet as if to say, maybe disconcertingly, “Hey, I know what you’ve been saying about me.” Or make some popcorn as you eavesdrop on chummy brands talking to each other like tweens on the phone, curlers in hair and legs propped up as in a 90’s sitcom. Or, hilariously, try to make sense of brand bots talking to other twitter bots.

I wonder how many people who oppose corporate personhood simultaneously enjoy talking to their brands as they would other humans, becoming “friends” on social media and forming emotional bonds. It’s important to note that the faceless social media consultants and interns behind these accounts are themselves humans (sometimes–others may be AI), though they concept, construct and publish these SEO-optimized bites of communication solely for capitalist interest. It’s also worth mentioning that, unlike public-turned-private spaces in our physical lives, these virtual spaces provided to us for socialization have always been private, corporate, and ready to grow and harvest users for money.

If advertising of yore tried to prey on insecurities and the psychology of the public, today they’re scouring the glut of what we’re discussing each day for keywords that might as well be invitations to solicitation. We don’t just navigate through the advertise-patterned spaces Crawford discusses in the Times; our speech is the new architecture for advertising campaigns to develop upon–we’re the cacophony.

The data trail as Grecian shade

Checking my Android tablet before bed the other night, I was struck by an unfamiliar icon in the notification bar: a small clock. I was sure that I hadn’t set any reminder. With a flick of my finger I brought up the notification, which read “Leave now. The last bus leaves at 11:45.”

For a moment, I felt as though I might’ve been thrust in some sort of thriller: a strange, cryptic warning placed in my hands from an unknown source. What could it mean? Leave for where? And why so urgently? Of course, the source of the notification wasn’t a mystery; I pressed it, bringing up a Google Now card that featured a map of my surrounding area that traced a route between where I stood and the nearest bus stop.

Google wanted to ensure I could reach the last bus home before I was stranded in my current location–but I was home. Here I stood right next to my bed. It took me a moment to realize Google Now had a previous address listed as my home address so, despite Google’s location tracking, my tablet surmised I had spent the past few months in some foreign place.

Considering this moment again today, I am reminded of the shades found in Greek mythology, “the insubstantial remains of the dead, a phantom without a body or the power of thought”–in this case, the trail of data I leave behind me. While I am very much alive, I find it interesting to consider the data trail as a shade: it continues to exist, perhaps forgotten, in cyberspace and meatspace alike and, as with the memories of those who outlive me, the data will remain long after my body does.

On a recent episode of New Tech City, celebrity cryptographer Bruce Schneier explains how such data trails can be used to advertise products to ourselves: “Your face is out there. Facebook has a picture of you they could morph it with another face to be a third face, and you’re more susceptible to that advertising [because it looks like you]. It’s manipulative, but is that OK? There’s no law against it.”

It sounds dystopian, but it’s not difficult to imagine considering Facebook already does something similar by adding “likes” to accounts without the account holder’s consent. This means it’s not uncommon for the deceased to “like” a page–McDonald’s, Netflix, Samsung, etc–so that sponsored posts from those brands appear on their friends’ newsfeeds. Capitalist society that we are, our faith in money might trump ours of religious deities (“I remember a professor of the history of religion once saying that global confidence in the dollar is the greatest example of collective faith in an abstract symbol in human history,” writes Adam Davidson in the Times). Our digital afterlives seem to suggest the same, with the shades of the dead selling out and gobbling up the most popular brands to peddle off to friends and family from beyond.

I remember encountering a shade of my own delivered by an advertisement. In 2009, Coca-Cola launched the Facial Profiler, a Facebook app that would analyze a photo of your face and match it with a doppelganger’s profile. This was to promote Coke Zero: “If Coke Zero has Coke’s taste, is it possible someone out there has your face?” While photos were not saved to the database for users who uninstalled the app, Schneier’s words must echo in the minds of those considering the campaign today: that our own likenesses may be analyzed and used to goad us into spending money.

One might also think of celebrity performances via hologram long after their passing: Michael Jackson at the 2014 Billboard Awards, Tupac at Coachella, Elvis on American Idol. And in light of a legal battle over a Marilyn Monroe hologram, one might wonder if digital bodies will someday fall under public domain, shades given shape for anyone to do as they want with. Traditionally, a doppelganger might be a harbinger of bad luck or even death–and in these modern times, we are reminded when confronted with these shades of ourselves to consider what we’re giving up to corporations and server farms.

Perhaps the most disturbing story of a digital shade is that of Ellen Page, who lent her likeness to the Quantic Dream game Beyond: Two Souls. The game features a scene in which Page’s character, Jodie, takes a shower–and while the nude model can’t be seen when playing the game normally, alternate camera angles were used by hackers to capture images of the nude model. It’s important to note that according to Sony, Jodie’s body isn’t modeled on Page’s (the only true likeness is the head) but the situation may still serve as a cautionary tale for such shades being manipulated in unforeseen ways.

As far as artificial likenesses go, none top BINA48, a robot doppelganger modeled after Bina Rothblatt and programmed “more than one hundred hours in compiling her memories, feelings, and beliefs and is said to be able to have conversations with humans.” Bina is intended to replace her human source material after Rothblatt is gone, and while she is said to only operate at the level of a three year-old, one wonders about the possibilities decades from now–after many of us have amassed a whole lifetime’s worth of data, writing, and more to serve as source material for a new body.

I wonder: will all my writing–personal updates, essays, email, etc–end up taking a life, or even lives, of their own? As Google crawls the web to analyze writing (PDF) and speech, will my shade be just one voice of many swirling around the consciousness of Google Now, telling someone generations from now that it’s time to get a move on, the last bus of the night leaves in twenty minutes?