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Tyran Batten’s gardening company has 38 employees. They each wear khaki overalls and carry a handy green and brown backpack – on their heads they sport caps featuring the company’s logo “WeedCo” (the “W” is made out of a little green weed). Batten’s head office is a sleek white space with a rich mahogany desk – here he manages his team, who work zero-hour contracts weeding and gardening whenever a customer calls. The operation is so polished and professional that it hardly seems fair to note that WeedCo is not a “real” business – it exists entirely in the simulation video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
Here’s how Batten’s business works. An Animal Crossing player will contact the company over social media asking for help with tasks like watering flowers, weeding grass, or digging up trees. These are time-consuming jobs that are an almost unavoidable part of the game, so some players prefer to outsource them if they can. Batten allocates jobs to his staff, and spends three to five hours a week performing services for clients himself. A job can take anywhere between 10 minutes to just under two hours – seven employees once spent an hour and a half digging up flowers for one gamer. Though the company is just five weeks old, Batten estimates his team have done nearly a thousand jobs.
“Everyone I’ve brought into WeedCo has told me how excited they are to be a part of something like this,” says Batten, who is 23 and currently classified as an essential worker as he is employed at a sawmill in his home city of Vancouver. “I think so many of us have had very little to do, especially those who lost their jobs or are no longer going to school. People are looking for something to distract themselves from the world around us while still doing something that is both fulfilling and positive.”
Batten is not the only person running a business in Animal Crossing. A number of people offer similar gardening and landscaping services, but there are somewhat unexpected “companies” too. There are in-game photographers who use the Nintendo Switch’s Capture button to conduct photoshoots with clients, and there are wedding planners who provide everything from marriage ceremonies to honeymoon suites. Homeware brand Olivia’s is paying people £40 an hour to become virtual interior designers in the game. There are even Animal Crossing sex workers, who offer services in exchange for the game’s currency, bells.
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Yet most Animal Crossing businesses aren’t run in the hopes of pure profit. Although Batten spends a lot of time training his new employees (among other things, they must prove they can pick weeds while avoiding damage to precious flowers), most join WeedCo for fun, not bells. The company doesn’t charge for its services, as Batten has “been disheartened by some of the Animal Crossing communities that turn the game into a simulation of Wall Street rather than island life.” Still, generous clients do tip WeedCo employees with bells, furniture, and Nook Mile Tickets (a reward that allows players to visit mysterious islands in the game).
Since the end of May, Lucie – a 31-year-old freelance photographer from the south west of England – has run a photography service where she will visit strangers’ islands and take aesthetically pleasing screenshots, before editing them on her computer, and sending them back to players. She does two to three jobs a day – the photography sessions take 30 minutes each while editing can take up to an hour. Each client receives 30 to 40 images.
“I have always been interested in people’s lives and habits, people are my favourite thing to photograph in the real world,” Lucie – who does not charge people for her services – says of her motivations. “New Horizons has got to the point now where people are advanced enough in the game to really customise their island and make it their own… I love being able to explore these little worlds that strangers have created lovingly over hundreds of hours.” Like Batten, Lucie receives tips of bells, Nook Mile Tickets, and star fragments (a valuable crafting item in the game). “Some are more generous than others but it really doesn’t matter since I’m doing it for other reasons.”
Despite the lack of profits, its undeniable that many Animal Crossing businesses are highly professional, with founders dedicating time to crafting logos, adverts, and business plans. Megan Willcoxson is a 29-year-old from California who draws a comic series called Scuttlebutt Comics. Since the beginning of May, she has been offering landscaping services in Animal Crossing – like Batten, she weeds and waters, but she also teaches clients how to crossbreed flowers and shares plant facts. She also shakes trees for clients (in the game, trees house money and furniture, but it can be tiresome to shake hundreds of trees to find the one holding a new chair or bed). Her company is called Okie Dokie Lawn Service, and she has created eye-catching adverts for social media.
“I strive to be professional, even in a video game,” Willcoxson says. “No matter what job I do, I have a routine.” First, she dons a safety vest to “water, plant, weed, teach, tell fun plant facts.” Then she puts on a gas mask to do “Pest Control” by shaking trees. When she finishes, she changes into cargo shorts and a pineapple hat to show she’s off duty. “It has never failed to get a laugh out of my clients.” Willcoxson has now had over 100 clients, some of whom are repeat customers. “As a comedian, I just want to make people a little happier even if it’s just for a moment.”
Batten, Lucie, and Willcoxson’s real-world work hasn’t been too badly affected by the pandemic, so their Animal Crossing employment isn’t a substitute. But for Ilena, a 22-year-old from the pacific northwest who runs Isle Gaia Landscaping, Animal Crossing employment is “fulfilling”. Ilena is currently unemployed and is applying for disability payments because of her mental health. Although she sells art she creates, commissions are currently down due to the pandemic.
“Providing Isle Gaia’s Landscaping services for the wonderful patrons of Animal Crossing gives me a feeling of security, sort of. It feels just as fulfilling as a commission or a day out doing much-needed errands,” she says. “Something about it just makes me feel as if I’m actually doing something for other people.” Ilena describes herself as some who cares deeply for her friends and family – now she has to be physically apart from them due to lockdown measures, she says she finds “some solace” in taking care of other people’s Animal Crossing islands.
The pandemic has affected a variety of real-world plans, and many people have had to cancel their weddings in places where mass gatherings are currently banned. It is well documented that couples have decided to conduct ceremonies in Animal Crossing, so it is perhaps unsurprising that businesses have sprung up to help those hoping to tie the virtual knot. Miguel Deleon is a 30-year-old dentist from San Francisco who has created an entire wedding island that couples can use. Deleon spent roughly 200 hours creating his wedding island after his own August wedding was cancelled. “I tend to go overboard with my ideas and wanted to create something huge,” he says. Visitors to Deleon’s island can bring up to five guests for their ceremony, and he is willing to dress as a groomsman or a bridesmaid to even out parties. His character also has a series of costumes ready – he can act as a bartender, DJ, and officiate. His Animal Crossing house has rooms for brides and grooms to get ready in, a tea ceremony room, and a honeymoon suite. The island is free to visit but Deleon asks patrons support him on YouTube by subscribing to his channel.
If Animal Crossing players are exploring the business of love, it’s only natural that sex should be on the table too. Denali Winter is a 29-year-old non-binary sex worker who has worked as a dominatrix for more than seven years. Winter now humiliates clients in the game by hitting them with nets or forcing them to do their gardening. Winter advertises their services over Twitter and OnlyFans so they can verify their clients are adults. While they don’t charge, they have received tips and rare in-game items. “I’m not looking to make a lot of real dollars doing this. The best payment I’ve gotten was actually when a repeat sub drew some fanart for me,” they say. Winter is also a hairstylist and cannot return to work for the foreseeable future. “Being an already-established sex worker saved me from having absolutely nothing to do (for income or for socialising) during all of these months.”
From weedings to weddings, there is no shortage of ways entrepreneurial players can start businesses in Animal Crossing. “I love the fact that I have been able to create something that has genuinely helped people given the situation we are all in,” says Batten of WeedCo. “I am honoured that I am giving a fulfilling outlet for my employees, as well as delighting people with this fun service. It has been so rewarding for myself, and to pass that feeling onto others is a true blessing.”
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