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At first glance, Nintendo’s Animal Crossing may seem like just another video game.

But it’s also an exercise in borrowing that gives you a glimpse at the reality of what it’s like to be inundated by debt.

Let’s back up for a second. In the original Animal Crossing game, you’re a stranger in a town full of anthropomorphic animals. The first thing you learn is that nothing comes for free.

When you start up the game, you’re quickly thrust into a contract with one Tom Nook. You better get used to this raccoon, because from here on out, he owns you.

Nook, the most important non-playable character in the game, owns the local store, the economic centerpiece of every player’s town. In this animated world, you are an impoverished stranger. Nook has everything you need to start out: a place to live, and some tools to help you start you on your long journey of never-ending debt.

He starts small of course, giving you a measly single-room home with room for little more than a bed and a light, and a part-time job at his store. Then he plays on your own greed, roping you into contracts for bigger and grander houses until you’re his slave.

It turns out that one of the most challenging projects in the game is paying off the mortgage on your house. Animal Crossing allows you to upgrade your home, but doing so requires paying off a large note that you have to borrow to start the game in the first place (if you’re a student borrower, you’re likely feeling that first sheen of sweat appear on your forehead, as all this begins to sound all too familiar). Then you take out home improvement loans for even larger sums.

In a nutshell, Animal Crossing is a precious debt simulator fueled by the labor of fishing (players can make money catching fish).

While the game teaches you the simplest and most fundamental strategy of dealing with debt — just spend less — it doesn’t introduce you to some of the more punitive intricacies of long-term debt, like compounding interest, adjustable rates, and prepayment penalties. In the real world, there are many different types of loans available, and different strategies for dealing with debt.

Many people will take on various kinds of debt during their lives. You might start out taking on small amounts of unsecured revolving debt like credit cards, and graduate to more significant obligations like student loans, auto loans and mortgages. The costs and risks associated with borrowing can vary significantly by the type of debt, and there are many strategies for minimizing both.

Animal Crossing — which is aimed at children as young as age 6 (it’s rated “E” for everyone by the Entertainment Software Rating Board) — doesn’t take into account such subtleties. The game also doesn’t really acknowledge that depending on your situation, sometimes it’s to your benefit to take on debt to further a goal like pursuing a degree or home ownership.

Of course, you could take the game’s “just spend less” principle to heart and never upgrade your home, thereby making it easy to repay that original debt. But, just as in the real world, social pressure can make it hard to live simply; even furry animals can get snarky about your poorly decorated home, or lack of fashion sense. And of course, the game doesn’t come with real-world monthly temptations like Netflix.

Animal Crossing may not be the most accurate representation of dealing with real-world debt, but it does give you a head start by training you to gamify a system of making regular payments. Games like Animal Crossing can condition you to feel rewarded every time you make a regular payment — your character in the game will even do a little happy dance whenever a debt is paid.

AC-Debt-Free
For now…

Credible is a marketplace where lenders including Avant, LendingClub, PAVE, Prosper and Upstart compete for your business. You can compare personalized offers from multiple lenders on Credible.com without sharing your personal information with lenders or affecting your credit score. Ariha Setalvad is a Credible News staff reporter.