Confined to their homes because of the coronavirus pandemic, many people have turned to online, DIY cottage industries and projects to maintain some form of income and connection. Traders at one Chinese market now use WeChat and TikTok as a means to survive, and brands in the fashion industry have ramped up their presence on WeChat as a way to continue sales.
Animal Crossing New Horizons is about as far as you can get from a communications super-app geared toward in-app sales or collaboration. In fact, as a franchise originally made for children, it barely has a proper chat function. But as we watch real-world society grind to a painful halt, many players are now also using this game as an unexpected economic and creative lifeline.
Here’s the story of how this Nintendo Switch game has become an experimental playground for real-world businesses and creative experiences, letting players find new ways to mirror conventional culture with in-game resources.
Bell farming is the new gold farming
In the midst of COVID-19, some New Horizons players are turning to World of Warcraft-style gold farming methods to make ends meet. In early April, Lexy, a 23-year-old recent college grad, created a Twitter account offering up bells (Animal Crossing’s in-game currency) for real-world cash (she requested we refer to her by a nickname to avoid potential reprisal from Nintendo). “I got laid off due to COVID so I’m farming bells in ACNH,” she wrote. “I really need to make rent this month so I’m selling 2 mil bells per $5, please message me if interested, I’ll give you a discount the more you buy.”
Before setting up this unorthodox income stream, Lexy had been working at a supermarket while developing her animation portfolio. She began exploring the idea of turning bells into cash after showing friends just how much in-game income she’d been making. “One of them asked to legitimately buy some for me,” she recalled in a Twitter interview. “I did some research and found some people selling bells on sites such as eBay, but for pretty ridiculous prices.” (Current prices on eBay seem more competitive, with some sellers offering rare gold tools and gold nuggets to sweeten the deal).
Unlike many of today’s online collect-a-thons (and the mobile Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp), New Horizons doesn’t offer a way to purchase in-game resources directly. That’s somewhat fitting for one of Nintendo’s most laid-back properties, designed to be played in bits and pieces throughout the day with key items and abilities locked to a languorous real-world calendar. But as the game and Switch hardware set new sales records in March and Lexy’s business began booming, it became clear that people like her were serving a more acquisition-focused player-base.
“I was constantly busy and barely could enjoy my own game,” Lexy explained. “I do get very little sleep but I think it is worth it. I would spend a good amount of hours on just farming bells via bugs, fish, money trees, hot items, turnips especially…nowadays I can spend a night just making around 50 [million bells] and that will last me a while since requests have slowed down by a lot.”
Lexy says prospective customers slide into her DMs, where they give her a code to facilitate an online visit to their islands. She accepts payment through Paypal, Venmo, and Cashapp, which customers deposit after the bells are safely delivered. She declined to specify just how much she’s made so far, but said it’s a four-figure amount that covers a month of rent for a two-person apartment in Brooklyn. And though the initial enthusiasm for bells has diminished a month after the game’s launch, Lexy says she still has returning customers.
Understandably, Lexy adjusts the clock on her Nintendo Switch to speed up the game’s slow, “natural” money-making cycle of harvesting daily fruit, digging up bells from the ground, and planting a daily “money tree” that can yield big profits. This kind of in-game “time traveling” is controversial practice among casual Animal Crossing players, but it’s a practical necessity to maximize real-world bell-farming profits.
But time-traveling also carries a risk involving the game’s real cash crop: turnips. The most effective way to make bells is to play the “stalk market,” where players gamble with turnips that are bought and resold at fluctuating prices every week. Turnips are Lexy’s main money-maker, with her biggest single haul netting 60 million bells (that’s about $250 at market rates).
If you’re not careful with your clock resets, though, that time traveling can turn those turnips into a worthless, rotten mess, literally killing your investment. “I usually just reset the day by rolling back to 4:59am, but I try not to do it too much because of my turnip prices,” Lexy said. Then there’s the problem of storing all those turnips, which have to be stacked in groups of ten around the game environment. “My island for a long time barely had any trees. Needed that space!”
Lexy is far from the only person selling bells, but due to the nature of the hustle—Nintendo can ban players for this sort of thing—online bell farming communities have been slow to form. For Lexy, though, bell farming is less a lifestyle and more a stopgap measure to stay alive as the coronavirus continues its economic upheaval. “I view it as a side project in a way,” Lexy said. “I understand that I will definitely need to get a more consistent paying job. But luckily with the stimulus and the kind [Animal Crossing] community I am afloat for now.”
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