On the surface, you’d be hard-pressed to find a gentler video game than Animal Crossing: New Horizons. There’s no violence of any sort. The world is jam-packed with adorable creatures who are always happy to see you and lend a helping hand. Heck, even the music makes you smile.
Historically, the players who gravitate toward Animal Crossing titles have fit that same mold – helpful and friendly. But as the series has seen a rush of new players, forced to stay at home during the pandemic, a seedier world has started to emerge beneath the surface. And while most players still happily fish their days away, chase butterflies, or gather seashells, there are some whose interests have turned to stock market manipulation, fraudulent deals, and character trafficking.
“In the last 20 years of playing Animal Crossing, I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Matthew Jakubowski, CEO and president of Warp World and a longtime fan of the series.
The problems, as they so often do in the real world, stem from finance. Turnip trading, to be specific.
Animal Crossing’s “stalk market” lets players speculate on the price of turnips. It’s the same basic philosophy as any market: Buy low, sell high. In some ways, in fact, turnips are the new Bitcoin – a digital currency that people are obsessing over.
It’s not a new game feature. The stalk market has been in every Animal Crossing game since its debut. But with players having so much time on their hands, the feature has become an obsession for some.
Just like Wall Street or any other type of market, people are looking for an advantage to increase their bell count (the game’s primary currency) and flaunt their financial acumen through conspicuous consumption and the building of in-game McMansions loaded with the finest furniture. That has led to the rise of websites and forums that both help you predict when turnip prices will be at their highest in your game (such as Turnip Prophet or the ACNH Turnip Calculator), and when you can visit other player’s islands at periods of peak market price.
The most popular of the latter of those type of sites is Turnip Exchange. One afternoon in late April, 20,000 people were on the site waiting to join one of 1,600 islands accepting visitors. People, on average, would wait 30 to 40 minutes before they received a Dodo code allowing them to visit.
The exchange is fairly straightforward. Players visit an island that’s paying a high rate and generally offer a present as their entry fee to the market. This can be anything from a set amount of bells to a percentage of their turnips to in-game items.
The site expected to get 50,000 visitors when it launched. It recently crossed 3 million for the month — and with that many visitors come scammers.
On a recent afternoon, 20,000 people were on the site waiting to join one of 1,600 islands accepting visitors.
Jakubowski is also the founder of Turnip Exchange. The site was born out of his own frustration of having to wait to get onto an island to trade turnips, but he says he was surprised by how many people took advantage of the system to ruin others’ games.
“I was caught off guard at the amount of people that get enjoyment over griefing,” he says. “There are users that will create an island and then not post the correct price or will take fees and then kick people out. We do as much as possible to warn people before they trade, and we have a reporting system. But we’re regularly updating the system.”
Animal Crossing players have been able to visit each other’s islands since 2005’s Animal Crossing: Wild World. Previously, though, people have only shared their codes with close friends and never had to worry about trouble.
But as people offer island access to let others take advantage of high turnip prices, some have found their carefully curated island paradises being overrun, with strangers – whether intentionally or accidentally – trampling flowers and ruining the aesthetics players have spent hours creating.
Others are reneging on the entry fee they promised to pay for access to the market – or picking up objects left by other players and walking away with a few extra bells and star fragments in their pocket.
To protect their islands, some players are enlisting help in the form of market security – or, bouncers if you prefer – friends who ensure visitors leave gifts and don’t drop them and pick them back up immediately.
“I had heard some horror stories in the past of other islands receiving less-than-favorable strangers,” says Erin Navarro, who had two friends act as security when she opened her market up in early April. “Before I first implemented the bouncer idea, I took note of other players creating trading posts at their island’s entrance to block off these strangers from accessing the rest of their area. I was curious to know if such a method could be used to let strangers into the island, but still limit their actions, ensure a proper trade, and improve efficiency and convenience. There aren’t any items that block or open a path on command, so I figured that another player can be used as that ‘automatic door.’”
Navarro’s bouncers were actually a pair of friends (with whom she split the profits from the day’s turnip session). One was positioned to block the path to the island store and would remain there until visitors fulfilled their trade promise. The other bouncer would then retrieve the bells, Nook mile tickets, DIY recipes, or other items visitors left to speed up transactions and make things more convenient.
“There aren’t any items that block or open a path on command, so I figured that another player can be used as that ‘automatic door’.”
Navarro estimates she had 50 visitors that day, with at least 120 requests.
“I personally did not have any disrespectful visitors during the stalk market session,” she says. “Many of the visitors were impressed by our setup, in fact – and complimented the idea after their visits.”
Other players, meanwhile, are looking to capitalize not on turnips, but on the game’s nonplayer characters. Villagers such as Marina, Octavian, and Zucker — or any cow, bull or rhino — are the least common. And there’s no way to work the game to make them appear via gameplay.
That’s not stopping some sellers from taking to eBay to auction off chances to lure these characters to your island for prices as high as $70. Technically, that’s a violation of Nintendo’s terms of service – and some sellers Digital Trends spoke with said they canceled their auctions after learning this. Many more are still live, however.
Other players, though, are sidestepping the terms of service by offering characters for bells instead of cash, an area that might be morally gray, but is less likely to get them banned.
One marketplace for this trafficking is Nookazon, a Tom Nook-inspired riff on Amazon. There, players who want to shortcut the game can buy or sell pretty much anything or anyone they want. While items like furniture, clothing and DIY, recipes are available at rates that are competitive with in-game stores, you can also purchase rare villagers, with the average going rate hovering around a lofty 1 million bells.
Once the sale price is agreed upon, the seller generates a Dodo Code and invites the buyer to their island, where the exchange takes place.
One million bells might be a bargain, though. Another marketplace, Nook.Market, shows characters for sale for significantly more. One of the most popular characters is Judy, a cub with stars in her eyes. On Monday, the asking price for her topped 42 million bells (or 420 Nook Tickets). Also in high demand is Raymond, a rare, glasses-wearing cat whose Grumpy Cat-like facial features have made him a hit with players.
One player, who goes by ‘Hanna’ on Twitter, has exchanged two villagers through Nook.Market, one for Nook Miles Tickets and one for a character she has especially wanted to lure to her island, but who is hard to encounter through normal day-to-day play. Her goal, she says, wasn’t to increase her wealth in the game, but rather to be able to craft the world she wanted to inhabit, without spending dozens or hundreds of hours hunting down a single character.
“In a game with a heavy focus on customizing, … villagers are a major part of that customization,” she says. “Getting the ones you want [can be]a hassle. … By selling and buying villagers, that process is made a little less time consuming. It is a part of the Animal Crossing experience only in as much as you want it to be and doesn’t make [the game]any more or less fun in my opinion.”
Some fans call it free enterprise. Others are less enthusiastic about it.
remember how the ac community said they were so cool and calm and “wholesome” before new horizons came out and now they're running a slave trade pic.twitter.com/GnJg21FoRw
— Buggy (@Buggy_Evan) May 1, 2020
Nintendo declined to comment on both the sale of rare characters and the controversy surrounding the stalk market.
Sure, malfeasance in a turnip stalk market isn’t exactly a capital crime. And trying to make a buck on rare items is nothing new in the gaming world. So why are these activities raising so many hackles among players?
It ties, in part, to the pandemic. Animal Crossing New Horizons, for many, is a chance to escape the stress and worry of the real world for a while – a safe haven, of sorts. So the introduction of real-world ugliness sullies that and can disrupt people’s routine.
“To some people, I believe, Animal Crossing has cemented a consistent order to their lives,” says Navarro. “It gives people a reason to wake up at a consistent time in the morning, offering new things to see and experience on the daily, especially when the ‘real world’ itself is not. … The game, for me, has given me tasks, opportunities, and events to look forward to when the world outside is on a standstill.”
Correction: This article originally misstates how long the stalk market has been in the Animal Crossing franchise. It has been present in all Animal Crossing games.