New (And Expanding) Horizons: How Animal Crossing’s Character Creation Update Promotes the Peaceful, Easygoing Existence of BIPOC in GamingPosted: 26 Jan 2023
The date is March 20, 2020. I, like you, was indefinitely confined to my room, and palpably anxious of what the future held for me, my loved ones–the entire world, even. The four walls of my room had otherwise caved in on me. I am convinced that in those months, each night sky was darker than the last.
March 20th, 2020, however, was different.
The highly anticipated release date for the newest entry of one of, if not my favorite video game series of all time: Animal Crossing.
Little did I know that at the time that Animal Crossing: New Horizons was not only an exciting release seven years in the making, but a pertinent release at the inception of 2020 when all the world wanted was an escape from the gloomy reality of a global pandemic.
Animal Crossing’s 20+-year reputation as a rehabilitative gaming experience precedes New Horizons, however. With its sweet shibboleths from adorable animal friends, and a peaceful atmosphere perfectly crafted by its folksy soundtrack and tranquil world designs, Animal Crossing is the quintessential escape for when your brain is at wit’s end. My excitement for the d-day rested not only in my willing, lifelong devotion to being indebted to Tom Nook, but because this was the first main entry Animal Crossing game where my avatar would actually look like me.
Not seeing myself in video games is unfortunately not new for me, as it is for the rest of the BIPOC gaming community. It has been over forty years since the first BIPOC character appeared in video games–Sega’s Heavyweight Champ of 1976–but we have come a long way since those pixelated days. The courageous Miles Morales from the PS5 launch title Spider-Man: Miles Morales, the gritty Lee Walker from The Walking Dead, and the charismatic Lady Aveline de Grandprè from Assassin’s Creed are a few compelling BIPOC characters that come to mind.
But in that forty-year period between Heavyweight Champ and Miles Morales being the first Black protagonist in a Playstation launch game, the BIPOC community found themselves shackled in stereotypes. Black and brown people were stuck in sports games (mostly because they represented real athletes), or more egregiously so, were criminal caricatures in games such as the Grand Theft Auto franchise. Asian men were perpetual kung fu master fixtures in fighting games like Street Fighter; women of the same origins were fetishized to the point of dehumanization in games like the Dead or Alive Xtreme franchise and Def Jam: Fight for New York; indigenous and aboriginal people were watered down to mystical shamans, such as Nightwolf in Mortal Kombat.
These vapid characterizations of the BIPOC community are not an accident.
Professor Soraya Murray states in her book On Video Games: The Visual Politics of Race, Gender and Space that “…the isolation of game culture from culture at large functions to maintain the false notion that games do not work on you as culture does – that they are not part of that place where dominant values are conveyed and contested, alternatives produced and resistances generated.” How video games are created, and the worlds that subsist within that creation, are a reflection of not only how the industry understands the BIPOC community, but how the BIPOC community should, and will, understand their roles to be in the virtual and real worlds.
And that is troubling.
Especially considering the industry’s most active users are African-American males and Latinx males aged 13 and over.
Why are BIPOC protagonists with a nuanced story just now showing up despite this, and how has that affected the mental health of BIPOC children and adults who grew up in that forty-year period?
“Relationships with characters in video games have a social cognitive impact on gamers and can strengthen a sense of identity and social support,” Dr. Katryna Starks, a post doctorate professor of Game Studies says. “We deserve to feel that these gaming worlds were made for us to be in, too, and that we belong there.”
Black in Gaming, a foundation that provides space for Black game developers, conducted a study in 2021 that showed over 75% of the gaming industry is white, 10% Latinx, 4% Indigenous, 3% Asian, 2% Black. Such a disparity in diversity results in not a genuine interpretation of BIPOC characters by BIPOC themselves, but a commodified understanding of BIPOC characters, which has historically fallen into harmful stereotypes. While these percentages are increasing, the industry still has a long way to go.
The truth is that in that forty-year period where BIPOC characters were props to the permanent white protagonist fixture in blockbuster games, character customization is where we authentically saw ourselves, most notably in games like The Sims or Skyrim. While these games masterfully construct their character customization models to impact the trajectory of the narrative–giving the player a genuine sense of autonomy and accomplishment when completing the game–there is something profoundly simple in Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ revision of its character customization to make the BIPOC community feel seen in the gaming world.
I love a grandiose adventure that introduces me to new ideas and challenges me to be the best version of myself, but even though I can live vicariously through the bravery and toughness of Miles Morales, Lee Walker or Lady Aveline de Grandpre…I do not always want to be strong.
Sometimes, I want to rest in my skin.
Sometimes, I want my biggest concern to be whether I remembered to water my favorite peonies by the pond I created just for my favorite villager (which is Peanut by the way). Animal Crossing: New Horizons finally invites us to that getaway by introducing skin tones that match me, match us. Like its name, provides new horizons for a mentally exhausted, historically underrepresented community in gaming, and provides them the serene opportunity to come as they are, distance themselves from the stress of the real world, and build a beautiful respite of unlimited potential.
Megan Pitz is an Asian American writer, JRPG enthusiast, and lover of all things cute. She has published research on the impact of BIPOC representation in children’s literature in Critical Insights: Jamaica Kincaid, and continues to write and research about the impact of BIPOC, queer and neurodivergent representation in youth.