I can’t decide between two pairs of glasses. I like the pair I’m trying on now, but I’m not fully convinced I like it better than the pair I had on a moment ago. The store lady looks over.
“I think these ones. The other ones look a little too… girl.” Internally I thank her for making the decision easier. I tell her firmly and confidently that I would like the other ones, and then I begin to contemplate how she missed my makeup, my shoes, the fact that I had only been trying on women’s glasses… and somehow still decided I am a man. This is a pretty normal life experience for many trans people, but Animal Crossing: New Leaf provides this as an experience that can be repeated in a video game. For some reason.Players are asked for their gender at the start of a new game, and only given two binary options. Click To Tweet
This is true of almost every avatar creator conceived by humanity, but it’s still a disappointment to see it replicated here. The Animal Crossing games place a great deal of importance on self-expression; the official website for New Leaf advertises this with headings such as “Totally Unique… Just Like You”. These games focus on the value of allowing players to customize everything they can see, in order to create safe worlds that suit them personally. Overlooking certain people, excluding them from this opportunity, makes the way Animal Crossing: New Leaf pursues these goals feel problematic. And the problems don’t end with avatar creation.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf allows players to dress their avatars with whatever clothing they wish and even to create their own designs. The freedom to wear anything could have been deeply meaningful here, in that it allows people to create and express non-conventional gender identities for themselves in a space without social consequence. Unfortunately, though, that’s not how things work out here. Whenever a player asks to try on clothes “intended” for “the wrong” gender, they will hear a comment from one of the Able sisters, the owners of the store, that sounds something like this: “That item is from our men’s collection, but I’m sure it will look great on you!” I think this is meant to be encouraging. Instead, it is every bit as hurtful and insensitive as comments like these are when heard from humans in the player’s real life. Since the goal of allowing players to wear whatever they want is to help them express themselves, I find myself baffled that these comments were included at all.
Ordinarily, creating an avatar and dressing it as you wish is a pretty cool aspect of video games for transgender people. You say you’re a woman or a man and the game treats you accordingly with no qualms or qualifications. Many trans authors like Katherine Cross and Jessica Janiuk have written extensively about how powerful video games have been in helping them become comfortable with their genders. However, the eerie similarity of the comments Animal Crossing characters make about gender to real-life daily dismissals of trans identities cheapens this. These comments force the idea that gender is a rigidly structured concept, and this is harmful for all kinds of people, especially people who, like me, don’t necessarily identify as one binary gender or another.
We already feel like the world wasn’t built for us. Video games offer the promise of a world that is built for you, no matter who you are, and Animal Crossing puts special emphasis on this. But it fails to deliver on that promise.Is encouragement to do as you wish all that encouraging, if you're reminded that you're breaking rules? Click To Tweet
For a short time, I thought that Nintendo genuinely did not care about inclusivity. When speculation was thrown around that the protagonist of the next The Legend of Zelda game may finally not be a man or boy, series director Eiji Aonuma quelled these rumors with a statement that – and here I offer a salty paraphrase – “Link is supposed to be a character anyone can identify with, so his gender is not important. But he’s definitely always a boy for ever and all times.” My response was, essentially, “This is it. Nintendo truly has given its last damn. It is all downhill from here.” Upon further examination of the company’s actions and statements in recent years before and since, I no longer believe that this is the truth.
Making a game that appeals to a wide range of players was a major priority during the development of Animal Crossing: New Leaf. This is probably how we ended up with the option to wear any clothing independent of avatar gender in the first place. I was heartened to hear that the developers recognize what needs to happen to ensure inclusive direction and content; in a talk at the Game Developers’ Conference in 2014, director Aya Kyogoku said, “When you are trying to create something that will appeal to many types of people, I have experienced how beneficial it is to have diversity on your team.” And New Leaf truly is a much better and more welcoming game because it had women in important roles on the team. Can you imagine what kind of a game it would have been with openly queer people involved, too? AC:NL feels like a game made by developers who don’t even know what queer people are.
Clothing is the only aspect of character appearance in Animal Crossing: New Leaf that isn’t bound to gender. There is some variety to the faces assigned to characters at the start of the game, and players’ towns will eventually build a salon that allows them to change their hairstyle. Although there is a strong degree of variety among hair and faces, both are tightly locked along a gender line. This is curious, because the player characters all seem to have the same base model, so there is no technical reason for this to be the case. I feel that more freedom in these areas would have been viewed by the developers as a good thing, had it actually occurred to them.
The animal residents of the player’s village are very friendly, and ask for names and titles the player wishes to be addressed by. They’ll even pick up on what the other villagers are calling the player and ask for permission to do the same. Why not throw pronouns into this as well? As always, I suspect that the answer is: no one ever considered it.
Animal Crossing marketing copy
“Totally Unique…Just Like You!
Your game is what you make it—and personalizing your world is part of the fun. Create cool patterns for clothing or furniture, build new structures in your town, design gardens and museum displays, and so much more.”
Kat Cross on World of Warcraft
“[World of Warcraft] provided me with two things: first, a space where I could enter a social world as a woman unapologetically, in the form of my avatar and her roleplay backstory; second, an experimental virtual world where I could practise resisting patriarchy from the subjectivity of a strong, proud woman, and not merely someone shivering in the shell of a coercively-assigned gender.”