Drat. Yet another ugly carpet from that smug-looking camel. Within only a few days of playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons, I'd noticed I was already accumulating vast amounts of unwanted stuff, be it from balloons or suspicious travelling merchants. And as that unwanted stuff gathered dust while stored away in my house, I was also having problems finding items I actually wanted. In the early game, at least, New Horizons puts limits on what you can buy on your island on any one day, with most permanent stores run by the Nook family racket. The only way around this is to negotiate trades with friends, a painstakingly slow process I attempted on our Animal Crossing Whatsapp group.
There had to be a better way to do things.
At this point, I remembered an activity I'd done back in my Girl Guides days: Geocaching, which is basically orienteering using GPS to find hidden boxes. Geocachers often bring small items to exchange with something someone else has left, such as pens, toys and various other trinkets. So what if that concept were to be applied to this situation?
And so, I set about creating a "swap shop" for my island, the idea being for visitors to bring along unwanted items and trade them for things other people had left. To kick things off, I gathered all my unloved belongings and slapped them on the ground, then created a basic wooden stake fence, signs, and floor designs to give it the feel of a trading post.
The next stage was to see if this worked in practice – or rather, could I trust visitors not to abuse the system? I tested it by inviting friends from our Animal Crossing Whatsapp group, with only a couple of rules: a take one/ leave one policy, and no dropping off any complete trash, such as swapping a stone for a vanity dresser. No, no.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the promise of free stuff, my friends all poured in (a bit of a slow process thanks to the unwieldy online multiplayer system) and started browsing through the swap shop. Happily, all 10 of the people who came over found something they liked, and the process was a massive success. Conveniently it was also self-serving, meaning I could roam around the island collecting materials while my friends chose their items.
So, I could trust my friends (a shock in itself), but I wanted to push this social experiment further. Could I trust total strangers in the Animal Crossing community?
In preparation for throwing my doors to all, I expanded the shop from 12 to 15 items, and popped up a sign at the island entrance to point everyone in the right direction (unbelievably this still wasn't enough to stop someone getting lost later). I'd noticed my friends had also used their visits to trade fruit, so I formalised the process by creating a little area where people could swap fruits too. Finally, I placed a stool so that I could be on-hand to help with questions… and also discourage any potential rule-breaking. Not that I could have done much if they had – politely request they didn't? Hit them with a net?
Having seen an example of what happens if you just throw a dodo code out on the internet and let everyone join at once, I opted to take a more cautious approach by asking people to privately message me for a code. Almost immediately, strangers started appearing on my island and using the shop – with most seeming to instantly understand the process.
One of my visitors, a total stranger who happened to follow me on Twitter, decided to generously donate a whole bunch of items to the shop – not as a swap, but just to help expand the initiative. Then he dropped three bags of bells, worth 99k each. "To help with the shop", he explained over chat.
I was staggered that someone would give all that away (or even had that many bells at all), and immediately popped it in my bank account, hoping to separate the funds from my own earnings. It would have been enough to pay off my entire 198k debt to Tom Nook, and although the bells were burning a hole in my pocket, I resolved to only use them to decorate the shop or buy new items to keep the stock interesting. Then, it occurred to me that the bells might have procured using… unsavoury methods, such as time skipping by changing the date on the Switch. A true moral dilemma. I reasoned that if this was the case, charity was the best possible way to spend these potentially illicit bells. Right?
On the other end of the spectrum, one guest decided that the fruit swap could also include flower seeds. A little rule-bending, but not terrible. Then, another guest appeared who elected to swap one item with an orange, and another with… a single iron nug. I'm unsure as to whether this was out of meanness or if the player was simply new, but having just been donated nearly 300k, I allowed the swap to go ahead and simply changed out the bad items. So, in essence, it all balanced out – as that big donation allowed me to relax the rules for poorer players.
In that session I had seven strangers visit, a total that rounded up to 11 when some known friends arrived. Since the swap shop was established, I've had about 15 guests, with everyone finding something to take home that they liked. Aside from someone who showed up with nothing to trade, but he'll visit again in future.
It was pretty endearing to see almost everyone engage in the trust exercise and treat each other with respect. Even better, it was a collectivist experiment outside of the Nooks' control – a little bit of rebellion amidst the tightly-controlled island economy. Ignoring the fact we're all still in debt for our houses.
It ended up giving me some benefits, too: not only was all my rubbish gone, but people had another reason to visit my island, particularly after 10 o'clock when Nook's Cranny was shut. I also got a nice little table and incense burner for my own house via swaps. And that 300k, I guess.
Best of all, the idea seemed to spread on Twitter, with others setting up their own swap shops after me. I've enjoyed seeing the variety of designs that people are using, and hearing that the method has worked for them too. If you're thinking of starting up your own swap shop, I'd recommend sticking to just your known friends – as it's just a bit more relaxing.
If more players adopt the idea, it could be a really nice way for communities to trade, and an excuse for everyone to visit their friends – something that's particularly helpful right now, given the lockdowns taking place across the world. Let's all help each other – and not Tom Nook.