Neither Angel Nor Devil, Tom Nook is Just a Man

Okay, enough is enough. I was content to let the debate around Tom Nook, the raccoon/tanuki at the center of the world of Animal Crossing, proceed for quite some time. I threw in my two cents in some tweets, but it was all in good fun. Then I listened to a recent episode of Waypoint Radio, and heard an all-out slander campaign against the man. I cannot let this stand unchallenged.

Tom Nook is naturally the target of a lot of generalized hate because of his role as a landlord. In our real world, landlords are cruel beings that leech off the wellbeing of their tenants and grind them into the dust. They take too much of our money, neglect their contractual obligations, and live off of the sweat of others. Hatred of them is just, and it makes perfect sense that as a landlord, Nook also receives some of this hate. But a little consideration makes the difference clear. Video games have the power to grant fantasies, and Tom Nook is the realization of “what if landlords were benevolent?”

I can see your skepticism, so let me demonstrate with a fairly simple comparison. Take a quiet area of the United States with low property value: let’s say Iowa, because it’s a rural yet (I’m told) beautiful state, and my friend Kat was born there. The median price of a one bedroom home in Iowa is $79,600, according to Zillow. That’s comparable to the starting home you receive in Animal Crossing: New Leaf- which is a 10,000 Bell down payment with a 39,800 Bell loan for a total of 49,800 Bells. But what the hell is a “Bell” anyway? What’s the exchange rate? That question isn’t as hard to answer as you might think.

Today in New Leaf, I caught a salmon. I sold it for 700 Bells at my local Re-Tail. It clocked in at 41 inches. Using a chart to approximate salmon weight (link), this puts the fish at 27.27 pounds. Naturally, that’s an average: it could be more or less based on the BMI of the fish. So I’ll be generous and round down to 27 pounds. Then I’ll be EXTRA generous and assume this is literally the least valuable type of salmon on the market, a Washington Keta, or “chum,” salmon. The current market rate for whole, fresh Washington Keta is $3.99 a pound. That makes that fish worth $107.73 dollars. And again, I’m being very generous here: a Coho salmon is $10.99 a pound, and an Alaskan King runs $18.99 a pound.

So we take our $79,600 price of a one bedroom Iowa home, and divide it by our $107.73 salmon. All told, it would take seven hundred and thirty-nine such salmon to buy a house in Iowa. I will continue to be generous and not add any closing fees or taxes, even though any such price is included in the 49,800 Bells you offer Tom Nook. Which, by the way, at 700 Bells a salmon? A measly seventy-two fish. A tenth the cost of an Iowa home.

Plus, there’s the obvious: no deadline on the loan, no interest, no collateral. Everyone realizes they can take as long as they want to pay back the loan, but have you ever considered that you show up in your Animal Crossing village having never been there before, not letting anyone know you were coming, with no money, no ID, no anything. Nook gives you a plot of land and a tent purely based on your honest face, and then after a 10,000 Bell (just 15 salmon) down payment you could literally never speak to him again and he wouldn’t bother you.

It’s been a month since I wrote those preceding paragraphs. There were others that I’ve since cut: paragraphs that explained that New Horizons made Nook look even more generous, that the Switch saw his transformation into a full-on comrade. Given preview content, this was an easy assumption to reach. After all, Tom Nook was now offering Nook Miles, a new currency that rewarded you for acting in your own self-interest. And you could pay your loans with it! The answer seemed clear- Tom Nook knows we cannot easily adapt to a world without capitalism, so he creates an isolated socialist state that emulates capitalism in form but not function. It takes familiar shapes to reassure us, but is in truth subsidized and generous beyond anything capitalism is capable of.

I wish I could say that now. Having played many hours of New Horizons now, I know that it’s not true. Nook Miles can be used for your first loan, but after that, it’s back to bells. However fair the price, the Miles are used to give you a taste of home ownership, so that you crave more. From then on, the Miles more closely resemble credit card reward points. Here are points for spending money! Here are points for taking photos! Here are points for planting fruit trees, which enhances the property value of this island! An island on which you live, yes, but which belongs to Tom Nook. However generous he may be, he also wants you to remember who is in control. That’s why he gives island announcements every morning, and that’s why his sons control all the trade.

There are plenty of times that I butt heads with my mother, as much as I love her. Part of this is certainly due to me being careless, stubborn, or thoughtless: I’ll be the first to admit I’m a mess of a person. But I feel pretty comfortable in my political beliefs. I am a socialist, and I am proud to be such. I think that capitalism is an evil system. I think the accrual of mass wealth should be impossible. I think the state should take care of everyone, with a universal basic income, health insurance, disability, and more. And while my family is in general politically left, my views are extreme within our space.

None of us are fixed points, however, and over time I have seen my mother gradually shift left. We have conversations, bordering on debates, about issues of social welfare, of equality, and of the responsibility that capitalism has for our world state. I can’t take credit for her moving more progressive: there’s a whole world out there, and it would be sheer arrogance to claim that it’s my arguments that moved her. But there are times when she concedes I’ve made a good point, and she needs to reconsider an issue.

Still, for all of that, my mother is sixty. She has lived a lot of life, and has had lots of time to forge her beliefs. And while recent events and the world state may push her further left, she still has a grounding in beliefs more conservative than I. There are areas where, push as I might, she will not be convinced. I will never make a communist out of her, I will never convince her that the problem isn’t that capitalism needs to be tweaked, it’s that capitalism is the problem.

I see a lot of my mother in Tom Nook. I don’t think it can be argued in good faith that Tom Nook is a ruthless capitalist. His prices, his interest-free no deadline loans, and his dedication to providing in-person support for any issues loudly declare otherwise. But you can’t call him a socialist, either. He extols the virtues of capitalism frequently, and he insists on maintaining a money-based relationship between the player and himself. Scripted events make it clear that he didn’t just bring you and your friend to this island: he’s actively advertising to bring new villagers in, answering calls from curious customers as you watch.

So where does that leave Tom Nook? Is he a millionaire philanthropist? Is he an egomaniac who cares more about control than money? You may draw your own conclusions, but when I look at Tom Nook, I see a man who hasn’t kept up with the times. He’s yesterday’s progressive: today, he’s a left-leaning centrist. He thinks he’s a realist, that he keeps the naive and impossible dreams of the youth grounded and feasible through his actions. In truth, he is part of the problem… just not a big part. He’s the devil you know, if you can accept that devils don’t always have to be demonized. Tom Nook does want to help, and in his mind, this is what help looks like. He can’t imagine a better world.

If we achieve our goals, if we keep pushing left, towards socialism, towards a more equitable and good society, there will come a day that Tom Nook is holding up progress. He is stuck in the past, and not moving forward fast enough. But if the world around us today has shown us anything, it’s that we have bigger problems than Tom Nook. So for the time being, he remains our problematic fav. A hero by circumstance of a vicious world, but tragically unable to see his own flaws. Tom Nook’s not the ideal man, but he’s also not sending you emails about how you should be skipping meals to ensure your rent is paid on time. So let’s cut him some slack, for the time being.