Animal Crossing is a life-sim, or life simulator, where you take the role of a villager who has just moved to a town inhabited by animals. You purchase a house, take out a mortgage, help to improve the town, and the lives of your animal neighbors. It’s meant to be a simple gameified representation of life. However, when some aspects key aspects about a person’s life are excluded then you have to ask the question of how that affects the player.
Games are unique because they are a medium which is created by one person for the purpose of having another person interact with it. Games represent limitless possibilities in some cases (Minecraft is a great example). But even in games with endless possibilities there is a place where it must end. Games are confined to how they’ve been coded.
A long time ago I heard a great explanation for how this concept works in game design. In real life when you play soccer you don’t pick up the ball because you, and the other players have agreed that you cannot do that. You obviously can if you wanted to. However, in FIFA you don’t pick up the ball because you literally cannot. There are no buttons that allow you to do that. You are limited by what the programmers thought of, and what they intended for you to do.
Animal Crossing was first released in North America in 2001. I have lot of very early memories with the game (I could go off on a long tangent just about them), but I really connected with the game. But the game was limited in some ways that I was just not conscious of at the time due to being well represented. The first Animal Crossing randomly assigns you a character at the start of the game. You choose male or female, but hair color, eye color, and the way your face looked were pseudo-random. One option that there was no way of affecting was the color of your character’s skin.
The game gives all players the same pale white complexion, with no way of modifying it. At the time I didn’t notice, after all I was being represented. Last post I wrote about how when the overwhelming majority of games represent a white male it causes those who play the games to feel like that is the expected default. In all aspects of gaming this is a big issue, but I would argue in life-sims it has even more of an impact.
A study done by Stanford looked at what they called the “Proteus Effect” which is the effect an avatar had on the player controlling them. They found often times players would inhabit and adapt to traits that they perceive the avatar to have. Often times self stereotyping based on what they think they should be.
When it comes to games like Animal Crossing the goal is to have a relaxing time connecting with animals, and watering flowers. But if someone feels misrepresented, it’s going to have an effect on how they perceive themselves. Games such as the Sims have been studied and found similar results. Players want to be able to represent and ideal form of themselves.
Flash forward to March 20th, 2020, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is released and for the first time in the game’s 20 year run you are finally able to select your complexion. Not only that, but there are extremely flexible options for gender presentation. You can wear any clothes you want men can wear dresses, and you can even switch your “setting” (they don’t even call it gender) at any time.
It’s a massive step in the right direction in representing people in a place that is meant to be a relaxing approximation of your life. With how Nintendo has handled the newest entry it gives me hope that for greater changes going forward.