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Inside the black market trading communities of ‘Animal Crossing’

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At Nook’s Cranny, a white and pink “Cute Vanity” sells for 5,400 bells. On Nookazon, it’ll cost you an average of 100,000, a few Nook Mile Tickets, or an item from the seller’s wishlist.

If you don’t play Animal Crossing: New Horizons, these terms probably go right over your head. If you do play, you’re probably appalled by these prices. For the uninitiated, bells are the in-game currency. Nook Mile Tickets, often abbreviated to NMT, can only be bought with points players gain by fulfilling certain tasks, and allow players to visit randomized “mystery” islands that are full of valuable resources. If players are lucky, they can meet rare characters on those islands and ask them to move to their villages. 

Nintendo released the most recent version of Animal Crossing just as most states enacted stay-at-home orders. Since its Mar. 20 release, it not only outsold any Mario or Zelda game, it also inspired hundreds of thousands people to finally buy a Nintendo Switch. The game’s release is also directly correlated to a worldwide shortage of the console, which remains nearly impossible to buy from retailers like GameStop, Target, and Amazon.  

There’s no “winning” in Animal Crossing games, which have been released with every Nintendo console since 2001. In each version, the objective remains similar: befriend villagers, enjoy life, and pay off your debt to Tom Nook, a raccoon version of Logan Roy who seems to own every industry imaginable in the game. 

While Animal Crossing purists insist that the joy of the game comes from slowly accumulating wealth, nurturing friendships with the game’s characters, and learning to savor playing slowly, there’s more hustle around New Horizons. Players built Facebook groups and Discord channels that revolve around buying, selling, and trading desirable items. While most are staffed by a dedicated team of unpaid moderators, they tend to be too chaotic to properly search.

Two weeks after New Horizons was released, Daniel Luu launched Nookazon. The 25-year-old software engineer had just started playing the game, and was fed up with the unintuitive trade communities. As a side project, he built a searchable database that catalogs every item available in the game, and named it after Amazon. 

Inside the black market trading communities of 'Animal Crossing'

Image: screenshot via nookazon

Each listing on the site includes the seller’s Discord account, where buyers can message them directly, view reviews from other buyers, and their preferred method of in-game payment. Nookazon users can also add items to public wishlists. Sellers can post links from the site directly to the Discord server’s variety of channels, which includes sections for server announcements, trading items or villagers, and even reporting users who violate the server’s rules. In a month of running, Nookazon grew to a vibrant community of 7,000 users on the server. 

“I think buying and selling is so popular because people want to make their dream homes,” Luu said in a phone call. “With the rise of social media and access to the internet, people just feel like they can get items easier.” 

Building your dream island

Minnie Ng, 24, frequents Nookazon and TagBackTV, another Discord server run by the creators of a popular YouTube channel that showcases 5-star Animal Crossing islands. Her “most exciting” purchase was for Julian, a turquoise unicorn. The bidding process was intense; she started at 3 million bells and eventually outbid the other potential buyer. She paid 12.5 million bells to move Julian from the seller’s island to her own, but it was worth it because he’s the “only unicorn” in the game and “he had a cute house.” 

“So basically for Julian, I had to travel to the person’s island four times because I could only carry 4 [million] each time,” Ng said in a Twitter DM. 

For reference, fruit native to the player’s island costs 100 bells. If players sell fruit from other islands, they expect a profit of 500 bells. Players can net a few hundred thousand bells a week by planting fruit and harvesting it. 

Inside the black market trading communities of 'Animal Crossing'

Image: Minnie ng / discord

Inside the black market trading communities of 'Animal Crossing'

Image: minnie ng / discord 

For sellers, profiting off villagers is an opportunity to amass funds to build their dream island. 

Rowan Corless, a 19-year-old student, met Raymond by chance on a mystery island tour. The bespectacled heterochromatic cat has become one of the most sought after characters on Nookazon and other trade groups. She personally didn’t want him on her island, but knew she could turn a profit on the coveted cat. Since his starting price averages at about 15 million bells or 100 Nook Mile Tickets, Rowan hopes to use Raymond to buy her own dream villagers, send funds to her friends, and customize her island. She noted that because he’s a new character, he doesn’t have an Amiibo card

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