Two days into Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, Jericho Palado realized that he could transform the game’s colorful, creature-filled world into something its designers never intended: a prison yard. Using the white fence panels and cots that most players use to build charming campsites, the second-year UCLA student funneled the pastel mammals that populate his game into inhumanely small holding cells; he situated a blushing, purple cat near the entrance as a makeshift guard. Palado published photos of the results to social media, his own contribution to the ongoing trend of “Animal Crossing: Prison Camp.” Although you might encounter one in-game, you’re far more likely to find images of these camps on Tumblr or Twitter.
These Pocket Camp prisons or “cults” are part of a larger phenomenon in simulation games, where players look for innovative ways to bend the game’s rules in darkly imaginative ways. Animal Crossing’s main activities have always been about wholesome activities like picking fruit, catching bugs, or buying a cute furniture set for your apartment. But left to their own devices, some players aren’t coming up with goofy ways to pay off their house debt. Instead, they turned the game into a role-playing exercise in the incarceration of anthropomorphic woodland creatures.
“[Pocket Camp] can get boring from time to time, so changing things up a bit and playing the game in a way it wasn’t intended to makes the game more exciting,” Palado tells The Verge over email.
Simulation games like Animal Crossing where you develop a digital life of your choosing are the perfect playground for this sort of subversion. It’s highly unlikely that Nintendo ever anticipated players imprisoning and torturing their animal neighbors, but once a game is in the hands of players, it’s their prerogative to tinker with their new toy. Unlike a mod, which changes crucial game components, or a glitch, which exploits how the game is made, players who turn a cheerful simulation into a nightmare scenario are still abiding by the rules of the game — and getting away with it is part of the fun.
For the aspiring virtual sociopath, there are countless message board threads, comments, and articles offering advice on not just on how to murder characters in simulation games, but how to construct the most elaborate torture scenarios possible. Few games are better for this purpose than The Sims series, given its long history and popularity. Reddit is home to subreddits like r/simstorture and r/SimTorture, but stray threads outside of such communities still circulate. Two months ago, a Reddit user solicited others for stories on the worst thing they’d ever done to their sims. One user, Journeyman351, explained how he would construct a windowless, doorless room, rope in a clown and a baby, and start a fire.
Other sim games, like RollerCoaster Tycoon, offer more advanced avenues for creative punishment. Why speed up a rollercoaster until it goes off the rails when you can create a purgatorial ride that traps participants for 3,000 in-game years — and 210 real-life days? Or, for a more passive method, a maze that takes in-game decades for park-goers to escape. Animal Crossing, The Sims, and RollerCoaster Tycoon share only the faintest of commonalities, transgression is the common thread that ties their experiences together. It’s why a game like Grand Theft Auto that explicitly encourages mayhem and murder has its share of players who enjoy obeying traffic rules.
“I think people do these sorts of things out of getting enjoyment of ‘breaking the game,’ so to speak,” sats Journeyman351. He finds it interesting to tinker with the normalities of a given game, but that he would never purposefully harm characters like the titular creatures in Pikmin. Cruelty isn’t the point. To most players, pushing these boundaries is a joke, or something to share with friends. “I honestly think it's just because of curiosity, or maybe some sort of deep-seated mental issue, who knows,” he says.