Last week, for the first time, we gave the CheckPoint community the opportunity to suggest characters they’re interested in psychologically. Then, we asked the CheckPoint patrons to vote on who would get an article of psychoanalytical treatment, like those we’ve done for the likes of Cloud Strife and Joel from The Last of Us.
They chose Tom Nook. “That’s cool,” I thought, “I’ve never done a profile like that. It’ll be fun.”
Two days later, I was deeper than Alice in Wonderland down a rabbit hole of obscure Animal Crossing lore. Let me tell you – the internet has very strong opinions about Tom Nook, and he is apparently completely polarising. Sure, there are back stories and fan theories about Isabelle, Redd and even Resetti – but none carry the emotional loading of those about our favourite businesscritter, Tom.
I began to wonder not just about Tom as a character – but also about the audience and their fiery debate. What is it about this raccoon that inspires so much psychological ire? What specifically is it about him that gets people so worked up?
Let’s start with the facts – what we know about Tom Nook and his past – and work up from there.
The Tom Nook We Know
Tom was born on May 30th, making him a Gemini who shares a birthday with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the English language releases of the games he is a raccoon, but the Japanese versions refer to him as a Tanuki, a species renowned in folklore as mischievous but absent-minded shapeshifters.
He was born into a socioeconomically deprived situation in a small country town. In fact, in his younger days, he slept in a stump. He befriended the Able sisters, particularly Sable. This connection was emotionally important to Sable after her parents died and her elder sister Lable moved away, leaving her to independently raise her younger sister, Mable. As an adult, she fondly recollects their time spent together, such as climbing on the roof to name constellations.
At some point, Tom moved from his country hometown into the big city. However, things didn’t pan out as he would have liked. He was refused a loan by the bank, and later went into business with an unnamed fox – this resulted in significant conflict and ongoing, unresolved resentment, which is never fully explored. There is a hypothesis that the fox in question was actually Redd.
Ultimately, due to his struggles and lack of success, Tom returned to a country lifestyle, and began his current business of real estate and town management. According to Sable, he was a “different soul” when he came back. Their friendship is affected and it takes the pair a fair amount of time to repair the relationship.
Tom never married or had his own children, but he did take in two aspirational youngsters, Tommy and Timmy. They work for Nook, and at some point will take over the business. At the time of New Horizons, he is approximately 40 years old.
To try to figure out who Tom is now, I decided I would put forward different models of what he could be, then apply it to a psychological analysis and try to work backwards. The two main categories I came up with were:
- A Generous Businessman
- A Sociopathic Capitalist
The Generous Businessman
This is probably the simplest view, and the one which requires least depth of thought. There is quite a bit of evidence to support it, too: Tom literally builds you a house, and allows you to live in it with an interest-free loan without any payment schedule. He, presumably, does this for everyone in town. He makes his money by selling the resources you forage for him, and of course, from your loan repayment.
In fact, Tom is quietly a philanthropist, who uses the vast majority of his wealth in evangelical ways.
“Why, I’ve personally donated over 90 percent of my earned Bells to an orphanage three towns over. Ah, but we must keep this between us. I have a reputation to uphold, hm?”
He justifies the non-disclosure of this substantial generosity as a way of motivating the townsfolk.
“I’ve heard some folks believe I’m a ruthless and heartless businessman. Hm, perhaps I can see the value of having a boogeyman everyone can unite against.
Could this be a selfless way of modelling to others what he learned the hard way, so they don’t repeat his mistakes? Or is it a convenient excuse to keep others out, to maintain interpersonal walls no one can scale? This would explain his incredible lack of intimacy with – well, anyone.
The third possible explanation is somewhat more sinister. This is that he is well aware of the reputation he has, of being a shrewd and cold businessman, and he is completely indifferent. That he uses – perhaps unconsciously, the rationale that he is trying to impart wisdom on financial management is false, and indeed he maintains an aloof front in order to retain power over all others. Leading to…
The Sociopathic Capitalist
There is evidence that Tom lacks empathy, and values only his own financial gain. In an article on Vice, Ricardo Contreras calculated exactly how much money Tom makes from you. He sells what you bring him at roughly a 300% markup, in exchange for hard labour and a tent you never asked for. Is this ethical? And if not, how could Tom do it? In an earlier instalment of the franchise, he literally threatens to send “goons” after you if you don’t pay your bells. This is, admittedly, framed as a joke – but from the lips of Nook, it is terrifying nonetheless.
There are others who share this disconcerting opinion of the Tanuki. Villagers occasionally speculate that he is actually a man in a suit. Dr Shrunk comments at one point on how we all wear masks, and that Nook “wears a raccoon suit, but it serves the same general purpose”. Is the implication here not that he is literally in a suit, but that he is wearing empathy, or even basic human decency as a mask?
“Yes, my yard always puts me at peace. It’s because it reminds me of my humble beginnings. I was not always a successful real-estate mogul, no, no. I had to start at the bottom like anyone else. And now here I am, quite happy with my success! It is truly good to be Nook, yes, yes!”
Others feel that Nook has arrogant and narcissistic traits. The villages he’s established do have a cult-like quality, with a grassroots ethos, anti-establishment sentiments, and, of course, a unifying leader. In fact, in New Leaf, Saharah refers to Tom as “King Nook”. And let’s revisit the huge charity donations: Tom mentions that the orphanage named a wing after him. So, they are not exactly anonymous; perhaps more of a status move?
A Test of Character
So, is Tom a misunderstood philanthropist or a fragile narcissist?
In the interest of brevity: neither.
Of course, no person is as simple as a unifying stereotype. We all take little bits from here and there – some good, some bad. And we change, constantly. We evolve over time and in response to what happens in the world around us.
Now, let’s move onto the real work. It’s time to formulate. This means making a conceptual model of Tom’s personality, motivations, and inner psyche. Without a formal interview, we can’t know for sure, so instead we can make a series of hypotheses and try to fit them together. We wonder, if these things happened to you, what sort of person would you become?
Let’s begin by modelling Tom’s experiences based on known psychological theories. I couldn’t find any data about his parents or his early upbringing, which would have been helpful in establishing Tom’s attachment style – that is, a blueprint of how he forms and maintains relationships with others into adulthood. We do know that, as an adult, he tends to hide his emotions from others.
We also observe that he feels acute distress and chooses not to explore painful memories, such as this moment in Happy Home Designer when he begins to recount his time in the city, and how hurt he was by the fox who betrayed him.
This might suggest that Tom has an avoidant attachment style. These are folks who feel, unconsciously, that people are untrustworthy or incompetent, and that you can only rely on yourself. They tend to keep their emotions private and suppressed, sometimes even finding it difficult to put words to how they feel; preferring to use actions to communicate and process their own emotional state. We can certainly see these fiercely independent traits in Nook, who had to sell his own childhood home in order to pursue his dreams, and who pioneered his own business from scratch.
This is quite the intuitive leap, as we really don’t know enough about Tom to confidently postulate his attachment style. We do, however, have longitudinal information about his activities and motivations through several life stages, which led me to think about him through the lens of Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development.
This model suggests that at every “stage” of life, we face a dilemma which we must overcome. Failing to do so can leave us stuck, or with lasting effects that cause psychological dysfunction.
As I write this, Tom is just entering his Middle Adulthood phase, trying to compensate for some of the difficulties that emerged prior. If we assume that time in the Animal Crossing franchise timeline has run parallel to the real world (which is safe, as it literally syncs to the system’s clock) – Tom is 40 years old in New Horizons, making him 21 in the original game of 2001.
It would appear a lot of Tom’s struggles took place during late Adolescence (ages 12-19), and we even see some through his Young Adulthood (20-39).
Adolescence is a stage when young people grapple with the big existential questions: Who am I, and who do I want to be? They can use their social connections to explore these roles, and figure out where they are wanting to go – where they will fit in with society as a whole. Failure to do so effectively leads to role confusion and a weak sense of self.
There are some really important events that occured during this stage of Tom’s life which I believe would have influenced his development, and subsequently contributed to some major challenges. At school, he was a self-described “rapscallion”, and didn’t work very hard.
“Schools always make me feel rather nostalgic, yes, yes. It may surprise you, but I was quite the rapscallion. I’d rarely turn in my schoolwork, instead deciding to pursue other activities with my leisure time. It took many years before I learned the value of hard work. Ha ha ha!”
However, at the same time, he was living in fairly difficult circumstances, resulting from his financial limitations and being in a rural community with scarce resources. He could see his best friend, Sable, struggling with parentification, an orphan left to raise her sister. There was clearly a conflict arising in Tom – he didn’t particularly believe in hard work, and valued the freedom of being “naughty”; but he could see around him the benefits of learning responsibility, in that he would be able to provide both for himself and for those he loves. This was likely the time he decided to aspire for success, and ultimately, security; leading him to decide to move to the big city and risk everything.
If he’s 21 by the time of the series, that implies his turbulent city years were in his late teens and early 20s. It’s likely he left his country hometown prior to age 18 – an incredible burden on such a young mind. Sable recounts his ambition much later, adding that she wondered if he would cope with the pressure.
“Sweet, young Tom Nook… His call to arms, his ethos, was “Dreams before money!” He was so pure that people wondered if he’d survive this crazy old world. I did too. Every night before falling asleep, I would wish him… ‘Please keep Tom Nook’s pure spirit protected,” I’d whisper in the darkness. “Keep him safe from the apathy that breeds in the alleys of the big city…’”
Unsurprisingly, the challenges of city life were a huge blow to Tom and he struggled significantly. He was declined a loan, and responded to this by essentially throwing an emotionally dysregulated temper tantrum, which he calls a tirade.
This behaviour would fit with a young, vulnerable person thrown into a significant psychosocial dilemma, leaving him feeling confused, inadequate and blindsided. Tom would then need to decide whether to continue pursuit of his dream, and if so, would quickly need to overcome this sort of reaction. It appears he persisted on this path, and was able to learn emotional regulation skills that later served him well and persist through his appearance in the series. And so, perhaps, this stage of psychosocial conflict was resolved, leading Tom into Young Adulthood.
From ages 20-39, Erikson theorised that we are faced with the challenge of forging strong partnerships and social bonds. This may be romantic, or other long term commitments, including friendships. The alternative is to risk isolation and loneliness.
There’s the obvious example of unresolved conflict here, with whatever it was that happened with Redd. Tom hates talking about this, and advises you that “foxes are never to be trusted, hm?” Given Redd is a professional con-artist, it’s a pretty sure deal that he double-crossed Tom financially. But there appears to have been something more than that – the betrayal of friendship that left a lasting mark on Tom’s ability to trust others.
Then there’s Sable. Whether it was romantic or platonic, Tom clearly had a strong attachment with her, even throughout their separation. He wrote her letters regularly, and sent her a pair of expensive fabric scissors on her birthday, using much of his limited savings.
“No, inside the box, there was a pair of fancy, burnt-orange colored… scissors. Incredibly strong and sharp scissors! The finest scissors I’d ever laid eyes on. The enclosed letter said, “Happy birthday, Sable!” So…sweet… At the time, I was so busy that I’d even forgotten it was my birthday. To think Tom Nook had remembered it… I’m sure life was hard for Tom Nook in the city during that time… I know his job paid poorly, so for him to buy those scissors for me… When I think about it, it makes me so happy that I cry!”
But on his return, they are distant from one another, rarely referencing their past memories. It takes several games for them to repair this rift, to show warmth again. So what happened, when they were so close?
Tom obviously valued his relationship with Sable deeply, and as we’ve discussed may have used her situation as a motivation for his own ambition. However, when he fails, he would realise that he essentially abandoned her in the town alone, for a dream he could never achieve. He would be filled with remorse and even shame. With an avoidant attachment, and a newly learned skill of emotional suppression, these feelings would be kept deep within and Tom’s coping mechanism for them would likely be to avoid confronting the situation at all – hence their physical, and emotional distance.
It is my belief that Tom found himself unable to reconcile the inherent juxtaposition between his drive for financial success, and his desire for interpersonal closeness and social fulfilment. He never overcame his initial business failure, Redd’s betrayal, and thus the implications this had for him as a partner. Part of him even believes he is unworthy of partnership – being loved, even – and so on the surface, he puts on a veneer of valuing self-sufficiency above all else; of not needing or in fact wanting praise and the affection of others. So, he never married or settled down, but instead was left with a deep internal lacking that has gnawed at him for decades.
To deal with this isolation, he literally creates a family – the town you inhabit, and the villagers therein. He gives them tasks, to make them feel productive and busy; he holds tournaments and events to give them a sense of accomplishment and excitement; he sets communal goals to bring them a sense of unity. He tries to make the community feel wholesome, to bring its residents satisfaction.
Ultimately, however, their ties to Tom rely on a business transaction as opposed to true emotional bonds. The townsfolk are financially indebted to him. He’s familiar with this feeling of inadequacy, he is ashamed of it in himself and cannot face it, and so he psychologically projects it onto those around him. This is a statement not only of ownership and manipulation, but perhaps, the only way Tom can feel like he is on an equal enough footing to have a real relationship.
For Tom, this is safe. This is what he knows. And of course, now, he can never be abandoned or alone.