Island Utopia

4 minute read

It’s been a while since there have been blank spots on maps. If one would like to start over, away from everything, there are few options left.

It doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been tried. These days, the typical person trying is an entrepreneur trying to get away from what they see as an oppressive government. The solutions usually fall into two categories: buying land or moving to sea. Sea is popular, because on international waters you’re outside national borders, and therefore outside the area national laws – and taxes – apply to. Not surprisingly, this is mainly a libertarian dream.

Probably the best known example is the Republic of Minerva, which sounds significantly more grand the reality of the 1972 attempt at independence. A few Americans, led by the real estate millionaire Michael Oliver, sailed to Minerva Reefs next to Tonga, and set up a flag on an island they first had to make out of sand and construction materials. They tried to get other countries to recognise their claim, but none were particularly willing. Instead, the neighboring states agreed to support Tonga’s claim over the reefs. Soon, the Republic of Minerva was reclaimed by the sea, along with its libertarian project.

The dream of escaping government and taxes didn’t die there. For example, the libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel has co-founded the Seasteading Institute, which aims to build artificial islands for “pioneers and innovators” to live on. He’s also buying land in New Zealand, in case the islands don’t end up floating.

For those of us that don’t have millions to invest into our own little kingdoms, there aren’t many options available – but fortunately Nintendo did provide one in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Latest 2020 release in the series of life simulation games, New Horizon is all about that island escapism.1

At the beginning of the game, you buy a getaway package from the serial entrepreneur Tom Nook, familiar from previous installments of the series. He flies you over to a deserted island that he’s presumably bought for this purpose. Like Minerva Reef, this island is small, but the similarities end there: it’s a lush paradise. There is more than enough fruit growing in the trees to feed you, but even that is optional; on this island you don’t get hungry or thirsty. A few others join you in running away from society, but mostly the island is exactly what Nook promised: deserted.

Soon Nook reminds you of a small detail that needs to be taken care of: your debt. You didn’t actually pay for the trip beforehand, but instead you owe Nook for your island escape. He let’s you know that you can pay him in bells, a currency that he will also pay you in for selling him items. What was framed as a escape at the beginning of the game turns out to be a form of debt bondage, where you must work for Nook on a island owned by him, for currency issued by him. At least the magical nature of the island means that you won’t starve or die of thirst.

The debt isn’t impossibly large and it’s easily paid by collecting items on the island and exchanging them in the shop – owned, of course, by Nook – for more bells. When you’ve finally paid the debt, Nook gently reminds you that you’re free from bondage – but isn’t your tent awfully small? He offers to replace it with a small cabin for only a small fee. Why not? It’s not like you can use the bells for anything besides getting more stuff from Nook. When you finally pay for the cabin, you know what comes next: wouldn’t it be nicer if it was slightly bigger?

When labouring on the tasks Nook gives you, it becomes clear who controls the island. You might be living there, but on Nook’s terms. His power is subtle, manifesting only in nudges, suggestions and small rewards, but it’s constantly there. You’re not completely without agency: you can cut down all the trees on the island, if you so choose. But it’s only through Nook that you can leave a permanent mark on the island, by building new items and expanding the place you call home.

While you’re running errands for Nook, he doesn’t stay idle either. More people move onto the island, Nook expands his shop and visiting merchants turn up. The island becomes a booming paradise of tourism and commerce, built on Nook’s capital and your labour. Nook has succeeded in what Michael Oliver failed in: building his own island utopia, away from government oppression.

If Thiel wants, he’s free to join me on my island.

  1. Ian Bogost wrote about the original Animal Crossing in pretty much the same terms, so much about the series hasn’t changed:

    Bogost, Ian. 2008. ‘The Rhetoric of Video Games’. In The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, edited by Katie Salen, 117–39. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.