Gender Expression and Race in Animal Crossing

9 Jun

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I’m editing this while anxiously waiting for Animal Crossing: New Leaf to download from the Nintendo eShop. I adore this series. It’s simple and sweet and charming — the perfect relaxation game.

But that doesn’t mean the game is devoid of social justice issues. I’ve noticed two prominent ones while thinking a lot about the overall series during the last few weeks. (I swear this isn’t just an excuse to spend time feeling like I’m actually being productive while obsessing over New Leaf details.)

Personality Types

Now, I’m not going to try to defend the gender dynamics of the game. I think the game’s attitude is well encapsulated in the player’s very first interaction with the game. In fact, it’s the very first time the player gets to make a choice. I’ll take New Leaf as my example, although all of the games follow the same format.

To begin the game, a cat named Rover (oh, how I missed you, friend!) asks for the player’s name. Like the flatterer he is, he then gushes about how “fantastically great” you name is, to which the player can either respond:

“Cool, right?”

“Cute, right?”

“Oops, I misspoke!” (in case the player wishes to change their name for any reason)

Your choice between the first two options decides the gender of your character. “Cool” = male; “cute” = female.

It might seem like a small thing (and in the context of the game, it is small), but it serves as foreshadowing for the way the game handles gender. In general, female characters tend to act, dress, and decorate in a way that’s more cutesy/girly and male characters, while not necessarily fitting into standards of Western/American masculinity, act, dress, and decorate in a more masculine way.

And I mean this literally. Each character fits into a specific personality type. It’s difficult to find English information on New Leaf, so I’ll be returning to City Folk for a moment. In City Folk, the possible personality types for your animal neighbors are peppy, snooty, grumpy, jock, lazy, and normal.

These personality types are completely split along gender lines. Male characters can be Jock, Lazy, or Cranky, and female characters can be Normal, Peppy, or Snooty. Not only is it silly that personalities would belong to certain genders (I’m surprised the developers haven’t mixed it up by now), but the personality types act out gendered stereotypes that confine both men and women.

Let’s look more closely at some of the personality types.

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Jocks: Men are often pressured to be athletic and are believed to be more physical than women. Lack of athletic talent or the desire to do something that is not physically based has led to pain for many men that have been mocked and derided. Unfortunately, the jock stereotype is also harmful for men who enjoy physical activity and sports. They are often believed to be dim-witted (I’ve heard many jokes about “hits to the head”) and shallow. The stereotypes surrounding physical activity and athletic skill are unfounded, unfair, and often unquestioned.

Grumpy/Peppy: I think it’s easier to look at these two personality types in conjunction with each other. Grumpy villagers are male characters that are, well, grumpy. They are angered easily and bad at social interactions. Peppy villagers are always upbeat female characters. I’ve heard them described as “Valley girls” due to their speech patterns: lots of “likes” and “omigoshes.” Both types have very gendered speech patterns: Peppy with their words and Grumpy with the timbre of their voice, which is the lowest in the game. Grumpy characters play into stereotypes of men as being emotionally stunted and hot-tempered while Peppy characters are somewhat ditzy social butterflies.

Normal: This one requires a little explanation, because the name is somewhat misleading. Normal is a female personality type that is also called “sweetie.” Characters of this type are laid back, get along with everyone, and have low self-esteem. I find this personality type to be the most troubling, because the assumptions about women implicit in it are less immediately obvious. Women are raised to be accommodating to everyone around them (one of the reasons that many women have trouble saying “no” to others) even at their own inconvenience. I think enough has been said about women’s low self-esteem that I don’t need to comment further on it.

(There are two new personality types in New Leaf. One is uchi for female characters, which I have seen described as “big sisters.” The other is smug for male characters, which, from the limited information I can find, seems to be friendly and flirty. Apparently, they will flirt with female player characters. If this is true — and I’m writing this as a bit of an aside since I haven’t experienced it — then this personality type relies on beliefs of men as sexual instigators/aggressors/pursuers, with a nice dose of heteronormativity.)

Absolutely none of these personality types are bad on their own. For example, I would never claim that it’s a bad thing for someone to be kind and accommodating. The problem lies in the gender essentialism and strict separation of personality types by gender. Animal Crossing doesn’t exactly go deep into character development, and I don’t expect that from the series. Basic personality types are fine, but those types don’t need to be based on gendered stereotypes.

What’s the solution? There’s more than one, but an easy solution is to make the personality types gender neutral. A female Jock or a male Peppy character would help create true personality types rather than types of stereotypically gendered expression.

Gender Expression

Let’s take a break and talk about something a little more positive.

In New Leaf clothing is gender neutral. What this means for the Animal Crossing uninitiated is that, for the first time in the series, women can wear pants and men can wear dresses and skirts. And like in Animal Crossing: City Folk, all hairstyles can be unlocked and worn by any player.

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I’m thrilled about this feature. In a game that emphasizes customizability, the previous gender-based restrictions on what your avatar could wear were, to put it lightly, disappointing. Now, players can choose what gender they would like their avatar to be and they can also have that avatar wear whatever clothing they wish.

More types of gender expressions are possible, which can only be a move in the right direction. The player character’s body is gender neutral (no real secondary sex characteristics unless you count eyelashes — and some of the male eyes have eyelashes too), meaning, if the player would like, the distinction between male and female avatars has the potential of being blurred. Arguably, the player could choose to be a man one day and a woman the next. Sadly, speech bubbles are pink or blue depending on the initially chosen gender of the speaker. So close!

Skin Color

So in this game where players get to decide how they look by changing their hair and clothes, where they can decide to build a mad scientist’s laboratory in their basement, or have all of the villagers say vulgar catchphrases, we still have no choice on player avatar skin color.

I’m frankly surprised by Nintendo’s complete failure to address race in the Animal Crossing series. I’ve seen people defend it because the series is made in Japan, but this is an insignificant claim. Animal Crossing has been released internationally for years and has a wide audience. Nintendo knows this. In fact, they change starter eye colors between the Japanese and North American release of Animal Crossing games. In Japan, all of the starting eye colors are black, but in North America they are black, brown, green, and blue, presumably a recognition that there is more divergence in the population’s eye color in North America. So if they recognize an insignificant difference such as eye color (after all, you can change your eye color with contacts in the game), then why not have a choice of skin tones.

I’ll use the example of Fantasy Life, a Level 5 game that has in-depth avatar customizability and a social sim aspect similar to Animal Crossing. The player can choose between a range of skin colors in this game, and it’s primarily made and marketed for a Japanese audience. There is currently no word of a North American or international release, and even if it is, the game is more niche than Animal Crossing. And yet there seems to be no problem with including more skin color options for players.

Bizarrely, I’ve also seen people defend the complete lack of different skin colors by touting the ability to get tan in the summer (or on the island, in the case of New Leaf. This doubles as completely baffling reasoning and an offensive excuse. Dark skin is not the same as a white person tanning. You cannot become a different race by tanning.

Maintaining a perpetual tan is also a time-consuming and annoying process. In order to tan, players have to remain in the sun for hours. If you wish to get the darkest tan pictured here, then you must remain in the sun for five hours. The tan decreases by one shade (there are five shades in-game) each day and can also fade from being inside. Even if this were a legitimate option for those wishing to have a darker skin color, it’s a ridiculous hurdle to expect players to constantly jump over.

Animal Crossing

There is absolutely no justification for the continued lack of different skin colors in the Animal Crossing series. In a game where I can customize a pillow to have Lee Everett’s head on it (don’t think I haven’t considered it), it’s absolutely trivial to allow users more choice in creating their avatar. Skin color can already change within the game. Look at the picture above. Why not allow people to choose?

Not everyone chooses to make the player character into a representation of their real life selves, but many, many people do. Most importantly, everyone should have the option to create their representative in the virtual world. That’s what Animal Crossing is supposed to be, right? A virtual world that people can escape to where they can have fun with some very odd neighbors and a raccoon that squeezes you for every Bell he can get away with. No one should have to face the dissonance of being forced to play a white character when the developers could make a small change with a big impact.

Here’s to hoping the next Animal Crossing includes this choice. For anyone who is planning on buying this game and has a Club Nintendo account, I would recommend writing in the Club Nintendo survey that you would like to see skin color options in the next Animal Crossing game. Our feedback as gamers and consumers can create change in this industry.

What are some new options you’d like to see in the next Animal Crossing? Are you excited about the chance to wear every article of clothing?

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19 Responses to “Gender Expression and Race in Animal Crossing”

  1. Milly June 9, 2013 at 6:25 pm #

    I have never played animal crossing much myself but the problems you are noticing here are amazing. I live reading about gender n race stereotyping in games but people usually go for the most obvious offenders such as action games n shooters. The nuances you notice here feel more important since they are so discreet most of us won’t even think twice about the traditional confinement of color coding n personality traits. I know animal crossing has been popular for years now n it is slightly scary to know how deeply influenced it is by cultural prenotions. Now I’m actually eager to give some more time to study it, especially since I’m looking for a focus in my master thesis study 🙂 what platform is the newest game on?

    • howmanyprincesses June 9, 2013 at 8:46 pm #

      Thank you for such a thoughtful comment! The newest game is for the 3DS.

      I think some of the most dangerous stereotyping and prejudices are the type that are quiet. These issues are so ingrained, that we don’t typically notice them. And so they do wind up in a game as typically inoffensive as Animal Crossing. I agree that it’s a very important thing to think about — the more we identify these easy-to-miss problems, the easier it becomes to fix them.

  2. Anonymous June 10, 2013 at 6:37 pm #

    100% Agree the lack of skin color in this diverse game that is trying to be as diverse as the real world and has TONS of customization in it, is astounding. I was in the line to purchase this and there were five different nationalities when it came to others in the line purchasing the same product. The eye color example in this post is 100% spot on. They can change the eyes but not allow us to change color without some ridiculous tan bs?

    • howmanyprincesses June 11, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

      It’s particularly egregious to me since tanning shows that they have the ability to change the avatar’s skin color in-game. If the functionality already exists, why not allow players to choose a skin color at the beginning of the game?

      • Anonymous June 16, 2013 at 5:53 pm #

        I am the “anonymous” dude above, I emailed Nintendo asking them about this issue cause it bothers me, I feel with so many choices of clothes, EYES, and hair color that I should be able to change my skin color and really make a virtual me.

        They replied there is a Mii mask in the game and I can use that to be “me”

        The problem with that is #1 You completely lose the ability to wear head accessories like hats, glasses etc. and #2 your lower body is still the default Animal Crossing skin color.

        This seems like such a headache for something that should have been in the game to begin with.

        Sigh…

        It’s not like we are playing a main character like Mario who is supposed to be an Italian plumber and asking for skin color changes, this is a character we create and we are being forced into what it looks like regarding skin tone, when there are thousands of other options to change regarding the character.

        Nintendo definitely failed me on this one.

        • howmanyprincesses June 17, 2013 at 10:45 am #

          You are completely right — it is a failure on Nintendo’s part. The response you got was a canned PR response, because they have no real solution. But I’m still optimistic for the future. If people express their unhappiness through Club Nintendo and e-mails, Nintendo is more likely to make positive changes in the next Animal Crossing. It’s frustrating and it’s easy to feel helpless, but I hope you can take some heart in the fact that you actually DID something by e-mailing them. We can keep trying to spread the word and help people to see that this is a real problem.

  3. Jenny February 8, 2014 at 5:42 pm #

    You know what I love the game how it is yes they could have a skin colour, which you can chose but personally I think your getting to obsessed and worried about the game it’s an amazing game yet all your doing is criticizing it and to be perfectly honest no one would of thought of the skin colour which is causing such an issue to you. Sorry this is just my personal opinion, I love this game and I don’t think anything there doing is bad

  4. Jenny February 8, 2014 at 5:46 pm #

    Nintendo are really good game creators and shouldn’t be said so otherwise I love all there games and there absolutely epic, plz stop criticising everything I know it’s just your opinion but the game is amazing and Nintendo make great games which yh could be changed but shouldn’t be dissed on the internet, sending them an email or something is less public and it’s not basically calling them out for the whole world to see.

  5. mossyone February 10, 2014 at 3:01 pm #

    I’ve been thinking about the skin colour issue a lot recently as I watch my character’s tan grow and recede. I initially assumed that because your character is Japanese, the tan thing is because East Asian skin can become darker by several shades during the summer, and I figured it wasn’t my position as a white Westerner to be criticising Japanese society for being homogenous. I didn’t know about the eye colour thing (I think my character has brown eyes but she’s been wearing glasses covering them for ages now). The eye colour localisation that they decided to add really does change things. It would be great to add more options to Rover’s spiel at the beginning to be able to change skin tone.

    When I first met my smug character, Lionel, I was surprised by his flirtiness, and a little disappointed to find out later that he only flirts with female characters, because I think it would be kind of cool if he just flirted with everyone! Though I have to say that the ‘smug’ characters (putting that in quote marks as I hate that it’s called smug, it makes the characters seem like jerks and it’s not anywhere near how they actually are) are I think better described as dandys, they have a lot of traits that might be considered feminine which is interesting. Lionel does things like signing letters ‘Lionel of the Red Rose’, loves clothes and fashion, and his flirting is not at all aggressive, (though I’m guessing you know that as this is a kid-friendly game!).

    • Sean Pford August 12, 2014 at 8:14 pm #

      Au contraire! Henry (a smug male frog) flirts with me (a male) constantly. And I love it! 😉

  6. Anon April 27, 2014 at 2:11 pm #

    I think that there should totally be a skin tone option, but like eyes I think maybe you should be allowed to change it whenever but not in a complicated way like tanning. I guess that kind of defeats some purpose of it but I think the ‘change whenever you want’ option would be nice.

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  8. Sean Pford August 29, 2014 at 1:24 pm #

    One more thing–since the first one, the porters at the train station have always been monkeys. Hey Nintendo! Couldn’t they be ANY other animal in the animal kingdom?

  9. Kool-aid Jammer September 14, 2014 at 11:01 pm #

    I think it’s fair to assume Nintendo designed the tanning system to get around having to make Rover ask questions like “Hey, how black are you anyway?”, so I don’t find people defending the lack of a skin palette option with the island offensive at all.
    Secondarily, if you call your name “cute” as a boy or “cool” as a girl in Rover’s presence, you can mention immediately after the fact that you’re not a boy(in the case you chose cool) or not a girl(in the case you chose cute), and Rover will correct himself apologetically.

    I have to admit, seeing these personalities play into other genders would be interesting and more true to the real world, but I definitely don’t think there’s enough evidence to support that “Normal” personalities have self-esteem issues, contrary to what some wiki article you read says. I haven’t seen any citations for this nature, but I have dealt with them on a personal level.
    “Sadly, speech bubbles are pink or blue depending on the initially chosen gender of the speaker.” THAT is not the case. Not even a little.
    I know this because I’ve had another male player visit my town, and colors are different to more easily discern between who is currently speaking. I’ve had pink before- it could have something to do with who’s hosting..but that’s irrelevant and It’s more likely random.

    I have a sinking suspicion you haven’t done an apt amount of research on animal crossing as a whole to write up an entire article on how racially or sexually insensitive it is. You’re likely over it by now, but these issues are still worth addressing.

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  11. Pucktheoenguin October 10, 2014 at 3:46 pm #

    I think in the next animal crossing game nintendo will put in different skin tones, and not have the tanning hurdle for the different races. The reason I say this is because in the latest pokemon games you can chose you skin colour (I’m talking about x and y, not or and as). So this leads me to believe that animal crossing will follow in their next game.

  12. Hiroki Sato July 5, 2015 at 5:57 pm #

    I think it’s unfair and ethnocentric to comment on ACNL’s racial diversity. The avatars in ACNL are not white and I hate this misconception, they’re Japanese for sure and anyone mislead by diverse eye and hair colours should see Harajuku, Tokyo on a saturday night.

    The skin tones, eye colours and hair colours reflect what is in popular demand in japanese pop culture and japanese games on the whole. Although I’m thrilled to hear that the new AC WILL make it so that you can chose your skin tone as ACNL celebrated global aclaim it’s nice to see that the game has become multicultural while maintaining it’s own cultural identity as a Japanese game and there is a fine balance between trying to push Asian cultures into erasing their identities and catering to racial diversity in the west, and I’m glad we’re slowly reaching a nice compromise.

  13. Johnny Boy February 11, 2016 at 4:06 pm #

    It’s funny to call these new big-sister types “uchi” because in Japanese guides, they’re called “onee-san”, or “big sister”, while technically depending on the kanji, uchi can even mean “house”! I’m thinking this “uchi” is reference to “inside”, meaning they’re the rocker-girls who people clam to in high school, the kind of “in crowd” if you will.

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