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.)
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:
“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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?