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Animal Crossing and aspirational living

One of the key features in the latest Animal Crossing is the Happy Home Showcase, in which the houses belonging to the people you’ve encountered through StreetPass show up, allowing you to wander around them and maybe buy copies of their furniture. I liked this feature to begin with until I started getting flashbacks to my childhood, being made to put my coat on and be driven to the edge of the world to be dragged through ‘show homes’ with my parents.

Younger generations may not be familiar with show homes as they date back to a time when we, as a society, used to build houses instead of slicing up rooms in existing houses and selling them to existing homeowners who’d then rent them as flats. A show home was a model home on a new-build estate, decorated and fully furnished to give visitors an idea of what the place might look like with a family in it. That’s right; back in the day, what held people back from buying a new house wasn’t prices inflated to hilarious and tragic highs. No, it was that people couldn’t imagine what an empty house might look like once furnished and occupied.

As a child, I found the show homes to be awful, confusing places. Not only had I been dragged away from my books, my Spectrum and the latest episode of Pob, I’d been dragged away to visit some mystery family’s deserted house. These weren’t just houses with a few sticks of IKEA crap in them; they were more elaborately-furnished than anywhere I’ve lived as an adult, and as such were terrifyingly real. I went in one where five bowls of Kellogg’s Cornflakes had been poured out and laid on the table. What the hell happened here? Did the whole family then go out for milk and never come back? Were we going to eat the cornflakes instead? Or were they looking around my house at the same time?

These nightmarish Marie Celestes provoked so many questions, but I’m getting off track. In Animal Crossing, you can do more or less the same — visit people’s deserted houses and wish yours looked as nice.

At first, the houses that turned up were a lot like mine, smallish dwellings where nothing matched; places that had a sense of time to them, where acquisitions had accumulated piecemeal rather than bought in bulk with a single theme in mind. Mismatched, ramshackle affairs.

But after a while, giant, six-room mansions started showing up with a custom roof, cladding, door, mailbox and fence. Inside, every room was expanded to the fullest, heaving with rare and expensive items, every room given a perfectly-matched and complete theme; Mermaid, Gorgeous, Gold, Rococo. What had started off as a fun way to peek through other players’ curtains was starting to feel like walking mournfully through a branch of Heals.

What made it all so uncomfortably real was how far out of reach all this was to me. All of the above? We’re talking serious Bells here! And, as in life, there were only two plausible ways these people had achieved this: an insane amount of work, or by cheating.

I wasn’t sure which was worse, that I’d been encountering people whose lives were so empty and unfulfilling that they spent all their waking hours shaking down fruit trees, or that people were cheating just so they could pimp out their virtual property with identikit virtual goods. Who were they trying to impress, in the end?

Once you’ve seen one of these blinged-out pads, you’ve seen them all. I get a little sad when I encounter one of these places, furnished by these people who’ve treated the game as something to beat, or win. I wonder if this is how they are in the real world, workaholic hoarders or backstabbing cheaters, desperately seeking just the right amount and type of stuff to validate their existence. I wonder if they’ve missed the point of playing the game in the first place.

I leave their show homes behind, but not before I’ve ordered some of their furniture for my own house. As much as I can afford, anyway.