On April 5, 2020, a Chinese Animal Crossing:New Horizon player noted on Weibo that some players are using real cash to buy villagers in order to get scarce villager characters. This, in turn, has given rise to a dark chain of “villager trafficking”, which, although without any real human injury, recalls “human trafficking”.

Screenshot of @ Yi-no-li ‘s Weibo, Click to view machine translation

In the post, it was mentioned that the most popular villager Raymond(in the Chinese and Japanese versions, he is called Jack) has reached 800 RMB ($113) a piece in the market, which is already well above the price of Animal Crossing : New Horizon the game itself and even close to the price of a Nintendo Switch game console.

According to the introduction, this “villager trafficking” works like this:

Sellers use the cracked version of the Nintendo Switch to modify out popular villagers (like Raymond). By continually turning a cold shoulder to the villagers, the sellers make the villagers get the idea to move. At this point, use an uncracked Nintendo Switch to connect face-to-face with this machine and transfer this villager to a genuine Nintendo Switch.

Finally, repeat the abuse of the villager on the uncracked Nintendo Switch until it can be moved to the buyer’s game.

However, “villager trafficking” is just one of the many deals the game has made among the Chinese player community.

The unexpected popularity of games in China

Released on March 20, Animal Crossing: New Horizon is a popular game around the world. This game is the seventh in the Animal Crossing series and the first proper sequel to the series after a seven-year hiatus.

Its popularity overseas needs no explanation, but its particular popularity in China is worth mentioning.

It’s well known that mainland China is not a typical console game market, despite having the second largest gaming market after the United States. Chinese players prefer mobile and web games over console games. Compared to mobile games, the release of most console games doesn’t generate huge buzz in China.

But Animal Crossing:New Horizon is an exception, its popularity in China has jumped out of the player community itself.

Since the game is not officially available in mainland China, we don’t know exactly how many players in mainland China have bought the game. But some side evidence can prove the popularity of the game in mainland China.

First on Taobao, different sellers (more than 20) have all sold more than 1,000 Nintendo Switch consoles in the last month. As a consoles that has been on sale for over two years, monthly sales per store on a normal day wouldn’t exceed 300. by comparison, the Playstation 4 has sold barely 200 between each store in the same period.

Screenshot of Wechat Index, translated by Pandayoo

On the WeChat Index, the word “动物之森”(Animal Forest, the unofficial translation name of Animal Crossing) was 900 times hotter than it was before its release on March 30, and the release of other consoles games does not trigger such fluctuations. WeChat has more than 900 million daily active users in China, and the WeChat Index calculates how hot a topic is by what users say publicly on the platform. By way of comparison, the heat of Doom and Final Fantasy 7 reset looks to be a horizon line.

The text in this poster is: on Weibo, see the most complete Animal Crossing guide.

On Weibo, another social platform in China, Weibo officially set up a super-topic for the game and pushed an open screen ad for it for free. This advertisement is worth about 1 million yuan ($141,500).

This is quite unusual for Weibo, which used to be treated only by public welfare events or topics that brought a lot of activity to the platform. Since the topic was created in early March, it has generated 1.75 million Post posts.

Some Chinese government organizations have also begun to use the game to send messages.

A Weibo screenshot of the China fire and rescue. It implies that it is not safe to have a bonfire on an uninhabited island.

The official weibo account of China Fire and Rescue Department reminds the Animal Crossing player to pay attention to fire safety when holding a bonfire on the island. The official account of the Shanghai local fire bureau posted a similar video telling people not to pile up sundries in the fire escape.

The Shanghai Public Security Bureau also used the game scenes of Animal Crossing to remind everyone to abide by the quarantine rules.

There are many factors that contributed to Animal Crossing:New Horizon‘s success in mainland China, but there are roughly three reasons that made it go from being popular to being outside the gamer community:

One is that the game contains a wealth of content in a simple way of playing, which makes many Chinese players who are not familiar with the console game interested in it.

The second is that the game went on sale at a time when most cities in China were still under strict quarantine strategies due to the coronavirus epidemic, with students having to use video-conferencing software for their lecture and adults working on a limited basis in telecommuting mode. And this has led to a huge increase in their free time, generating more demand for the game.

More importantly, the game builds a virtual outdoor world, where you can fish, catch insects, pick fruits, feel the breeze and trees. This is the most desirable thing for people in long-term isolation.

However, as mentioned above, the players who try the console games for the first time not only bring the game sales and heated discussion, but also bring the grey transactions that are not common in the console games.

Buy everything with real cash

If you are a New Horizon player, you may have noticed that someone on Twitter has found that Chinese players have put Alipay and WeChat Pay’s QR codes into the game through custom design.

However, this is just a meme for Chinese players. The original player who did this quickly closed the payment channel, and he is not a professional props seller. Chinese players just like to try to insert payment QR code wherever possible, but that doesn’t mean they always support using leagal currency to buy game items.

In China, the real trade of game props usually takes place in Baidu Post Bar and Xianyu ( a second hand stuff platform), and new horizon is no exception. Villagers’ selling is only part of the scope of the transaction here, where you can buy almost any props in new horizon.

Baidu Post Bar is a forum product launched by Chinese search engine Baidu. It is similar to reedit, allowing users to create different boards (bar), which are completely independent and managed by the moderator. Because of its convenience in creating board, Baidu Post Bar is a gathering place for many Chinese game players. This means that if the moderator does not issue a ban, it will also become the first choice for props trading.

At present, the board of “动物之森”(Unofficial translation of Animal Crossing, meaning “Animal Forest“) is full of props trading information. Board administrators have banned the release of trading information and asked all trading information to be released to another board, the “动物森友会”(The official translation of “Animal Crossing“).

In fact, in both Board, you can see a lot of in-game props trading information, some people sell goods, some people buy goods, but maybe not all transactions violate Nintendo rules. Due to the deletion of posts by the administrator and the official regulations of Baidu, you cannot post information related to coin-issuing transactions in the post bar. Therefore, most of the transactions that exist in the post bar are “barter”.

For example, you can buy a cherry blossom furniture with 100,000 Bells or 5 air tickets, or a set of bait with 500,000 Bells. However, some players still try to use the secret code to release information related to the legal currency transaction.

Transactions using legal currency abound on Xianyu, a second-hand trading platform launched by Alibaba, similar to ebay, which allows any user to create a transaction and guarantee it through a third-party payment system. It has lower scrutiny of sellers and goods than Taobao to ensure that individual sellers can sell second-hand goods smoothly.

Using Animal Crossing as a keyword search in Xianyu, hundreds of results will appear. What they sell is not the second-hand game card, but the items in the game.

But this provides space for irregular sellers, and some “studios” take advantage of loopholes or cracked versions of Nintendo Switch to bulk copy and generate props and money from Animal Crossing, and then sell them on the platform. Some sellers even gave the price list directly.

A item dealer’s price list, part of which was translated by Pandayoo. Click to view the HD version

Almost all sellers will mention that the source of the items is “formal” and will not cause buyers and users to be punished by Nintendo, but in fact this is not the case.

Whether the source of these items is that the workers get them in the game little by little, or through the modification of the cracked version of the game. Using legal currency to trade game props is against Nintendo’s rules.

If a player continuously produces a large number of props and sends them to other players through the Internet, it will cause Nintendo’s suspicion.

In addition to being punished by Nintendo, buying these props may face moral criticism. At present, if a player posts a screenshot of Animal Crossing on Weibo, and the props in the screenshot are obviously beyond the normal scope. Many comments will question or accuse him of involvement in the gray trade.

Another interesting fact that does not break the rules, but is still related to it. Chinese players have set up Turnip‘s over-the-counter trading system for the game:

Among Wechat, a developer released a Mini Program called “Animal Crossing Wealth password”.

The interface of “Animal Crossing Wealth password”.

This Mini Program is not developed and operated by Tencent. It is developed by third-party programmers but distributed using the Wechat platform.

This Mini Program allows players to enter today’s Turnip prices in their own games and identify their current status (island opening or island closure, island opening time). When the island is open, it will show other players an island password through which other players can go directly to the island to sell Turnip, without becoming Nintendo Switch friends.

If you find that an island with high turnip price is not open in this mini program, you can also click “apply to open the island” in it, and wechat users who submit the island information will receive a notice. The owner of the island can also leave a transaction request, for example, all users on the island must pay a certain amount of turnip sales.

This doesn’t sound like a violation of Nintendo’s rules, but it turns this casual game into a cold-blooded Wall Street.

Reflection of item trading

Why does Animal Crossing have such a flood of props trading in China?

The purchase of animal forest props with legal tender is not unique in China, but also in Japan, where the game is made. But for a number of reasons, the practice is more popular in China.

On Mercari, a second-hand trading platform in Japan, you can also see Raymond and other villagers being sold, but not so many.

Part of the reason may be that props trading has always been very popular among Chinese mobile gamers.

Mainland China is the second largest game market after the United States, but it mainly consists of mobile games. In mobile games, it is very common to use legal currency directly to trade props between players.

Because the life cycle of most mobile games is relatively short, and there are a lot of internal purchase elements. For any new player who joins the game in the middle and later period, it’s better to buy an old player account with a large number of props and a higher level than to start with beginning.

Although this is forbidden in most games, online game studios will use some white handed sets to sell props to avoid being punished by game companies. This leads to the long-term existence of trading between off-site props and account numbers.

In China, there is also a grey industry chain called “online game studio”. This means that some companies hire workers to play games full-time and sell the props generated in the games to other players to earn RMB income.

Although this is banned by most game operators, online game studios will use some white handed sets to sell props to avoid being punished by game companies. This leads to the fact that the trading of off-site props and accounts has existed for a long time, and many users do not think it is a problem that needs to be corrected.

This kind of behavior is not popular among Chinese console game and steam game players, and it is despised. But as mentioned above, the popularity of Animal Crossing:New Horizon in China has gone far beyond the core player group, and entered the vision of ordinary Chinese players – mobile game players.

For many of these players, Nintendo Switch is the first game console they purchased, and the only one they purchased game is Animal Crossing. They don’t realize that this game is any different from a mobile game, where no player rankings, no competitions and internal buying elements don’t make the game more fun.

In addition, there is another reason that may promote this behavior of players.

Animal Crossing is a game that syncs with the real world, which means that if you want to experience the full content of the game, players must log in regularly for a year or more. For many light players in China (who are also the first to try a console game), this is unacceptable.

Furthermore, many Chinese cities were lifted from quarantine in early April, which means that many players have to put down their game consoles and go back to school or work. When they came home from a day’s work, they found that some friends in Weibo and WeChat groups had used the day’s play time to get better props and game progress, which caused a significant psychological imbalance.

But none of these factors constitute a reason to affirm the illegal trade in props. So far, we have seen a counterattack against these deals.

First, Nintendo made a series of updates to close several loopholes in Animal Crossing that could be used to copy props and money. And according to feedback from the Chinese-language community, Nintendo has begun to find traces of illegal transactions through more stringent inspections and to freeze accounts involved in illegal transactions.

Although Nintendo may not be able to stop all illegal transactions, the high cost (make a console never being able to use Nintendo Switch Online) has succeeded in keeping most players away from gray trading.

More importantly, many Chinese media have criticized the transactions that exist in Animal Crossing. An article called people who pay for Animal Crossing, which details and criticizes the gray trading of Animal Crossing, has garnered more than 440,000 views on Weibo.

Another review described the paid purchase of Animal Crossing props as a “abstinence reaction”, accusing Chinese mobile game players of being addicted to low-quality Free-to-Play games for a long time. The article has also received good readings and comments.

In these articles, they not only attack gray trading, but also reflect on the tendency of excessive trading and excessive games in Tieba and game groups.

In games without an in-app purchase system, use modifiers or gray transactions to obtain a large number of items that should not be owned.What will be the result?

That is, you will quickly get bored with this game. Because the moment you buy this modified virtual item, you have already surrendered with the game maker. You actively chose to abandon the fun of the game.

A well-known Chinese game media, G-Cores, described it in the article and attributed Animal Crossing’s success to the fact that the game simulates an ideal life: no comparisons, no injuries, no opportunism, and everyone is friendly.

Gray trading and excessive pursuit of the game process have ruined this ideal life, just like most people how ruined their lives in the real world.

However, as the popularity of the game subsided, and most communities about the game began to block information related to legal currency transactions. More and more players are returning to the regular way of playing the game:

“I caught a sea bass! No, wait- it’s at least a C+”