Haunted by a persistent "if you want something done right, do it yourself" attitude, Ness Io Kain tries to help people become better people in any space where there doesn't seem to be enough of that going around. Their current work includes character illustration, glitchpop music, and teaching elementary and middle school students to write better.

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.
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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.

I wonder why strict gender is assigned to player-characters at all. Click To Tweet

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.

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Nintendo’s handling of issues like gender and sexuality in recent times is relatively commendable for something that is, by all appearances, a “big, evil corporation”. Last year a misunderstanding led to some customers believing that the game Tomodachi Life would allow same-sex relationships, and people were very upset when this turned out not to be the case. Nintendo actually listened to their complaints, and they issued the following statement:

“We are committed to advancing our longtime company values of fun and entertainment for everyone. We pledge that if we create a next installment in the Tomodachi series, we will strive to design a game-play experience from the ground up that is more inclusive, and better represents all players.”

In part I’m sure this was just a big company trying to counter bad press. Part of it does feel genuine, though. When you hear enough of these statements about Nintendo’s commitment to include more players, you really start to believe it. Going forward, Nintendo almost certainly will get better at embracing a wider range of individual identities. It’s probably safe to assume that the next Animal Crossing game will be better in this area even if it’s not safe to say how much better it will be.

However, this remains a complicated issue. Nintendo is huge and has many arms, and across its products it doesn’t show consistency in regard to gender issues. That Tomodachi Life apology, happened in the same year as the statements regarding Link’s gender in the Zelda series. This year, Nintendo released Splatoon, which handles gender fairly well – it does only allow two binary options for players, but in addition to (for the most part) keeping all clothes gender-neutral, it pointedly separates character gender from real-life gender identity, and no reference is made to players’ or characters’ gender anywhere in the game outside avatar selection itself. Character gender can even be changed at any time, which is neat for genderfluid people (at least for those whose fluidity extends generally just to two poles). All that said, though, that’s one game and the year is not over.

How this bodes for the future of the Animal Crossing series, then, is difficult to say. One promising truth is that the developers have found prioritizing inclusivity to be a good choice, which we can assume to mean it is a choice they feel is worth repeating. In an interview with Wired, the game’s producer, Katsuya Eguchi, assured, “In hindsight, seeing how diverse the users and fans of New Leaf are, I feel we have taken the correct approach.” An attitude like this can be dangerous, though: if they think they did a good job once, they’re not necessarily going to take dramatic steps to do a better job. One only has to look at Joss Whedon’s response to dwindling feminist patience with his film and television writing to realize what this looks like after it has gone on long enough; if you feel like you’re doing something right, and enough people tell you that you are, you stop listening to the people who tell you that you still have a very long way to go.

I want to believe Nintendo will keep learning and keep listening to diverse players. Click To Tweet

I want to believe Nintendo is going to preserve its belief that it needs a diverse team, and that some future Animal Crossing game will welcome a wider span of gender identities, perhaps as a result of bringing on a trans developer or at least a trans consultant. Given a long-enough timescalecalendar, this is a very real possibility. Public acceptance of transgender folk is only increasing over time. Unfortunately, though, it’s not increasing very quickly. Transgender issues have developed differently in Japan to in the United States, leading to a conservative attitude in companies that try to appeal to a global audience. I think it will be many more years before we see a visibly-positioned trans employee who is out at Nintendo, and it might be more years after that before we see real fruit from it. I’m going to keep imagining a positive future for the Animal Crossing series and for all of Nintendo’s properties. But in the spirit of individual personality celebration Animal Crossing tries to encourage, I’m going to have to be my Gothic self and say we will all be dead before this happens. I’m still smiling about the cool video games our great-grandkids will get to play, though.

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Illustrations provided by Ness Io Kain

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.”

From official Animal Crossing website

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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.”

From Autostraddle

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Kat Cross on World of Warcraft

“I’m by no means alone in the trans* community for escaping to the virtual world. The virtual world is one of very few places we can safely escape to be ourselves. It’s where we can create an avatar that represents how we see ourselves.”

From Polygon

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