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Character Creation and the Privacy of Playing with Gender

Video games have offered queer nerds a safe space to explore aspects of themselves for decades.

I’m not the first to have noticed, and more personally felt, this phenomena and I most certainly won’t be the last. From romancing characters of the same gender, to opening up a new save and creating a character of the opposite one, games have always been playgrounds for positive exploration of sexuality and, especially, gender.

Gaming is often a solitary hobby with the majority of releases focusing on single-player campaigns. Because of this, gaming is often also a very private hobby, with players retreating to their bedrooms or studies after school or work to tune out the rest of the world and dive into the one loading up in front of them.

It’s this privacy that is important to why video games lend themselves so well to gender exploration. Players can dive into a new skin with a sense of security, knowing there’s nobody to perform for.

See, there is still an awful societal pressure for queer people to know exactly how to label themselves as soon as they are comfortable coming out, particularly queer youth. Society perpetuates the idea that changing your mind, discovering something new about yourself, or growing into a new identity is something to be ashamed of. I’m sure you’ve heard the stereotype prescribed to bisexuality as the ‘in-between’ step towards ‘realising you’re actually a lesbian / gay man’ or the similar belief that coming out as non-binary is just one step away from coming out as binary transgender.

For many people, discovering themselves does lead them from one label to another, but these stereotypes have come to assign a certain amount of shame to that. These should-be-comforting moments of self-discovery can become tainted as wrong-turns, when in reality they’re often natural progressions.

This is where the privacy of video games, and character creation, come in. Not only does creating a new persona to inhabit allow you to test the waters of presenting and identifying in a different way, but you can experiment and change that persona as you go, sometimes within games and sometimes between them. All within the privacy of your own save files.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons, for example, was the first game in the Animal Crossing franchise to remove gender restrictions in the game. Previously you would be asked to choose ‘girl’ or ‘boy’, often in bizarre dialogues where the question isn’t specifically asked but is instead assumed on whether you think your name is ‘cute’ or ‘cool’…you know, the two genders. Clothing options and haircuts would be restricted depending on this choice, and it couldn’t be changed without creating an entirely new character.

New Horizons, however, let’s you change your gender marker whenever and clothes and haircuts are available to all. In an interview with The Washington Post, Aya Kyogoku, the game’s director, spoke about this flexibility of gender in New Horizons:

“We basically wanted to create a game where users didn’t really have to think about gender or if they wanted to think about gender, they’re also able to.”

This freedom offers small and private moments of gender affirmation, including when that affirmation comes in freedom from gender; letting you run around knowing your character’s gender marker is set to boy while you terraform in your most ‘girly’ cottage-core dress with not a single villager caring (something I did myself).

What happened with New Horizons is just one of the examples of the ways game designers are beginning to push better representations of gender. More games are allowing a mixture of traditionally feminine or masculine traits within one character, including non-binary identities, and are providing a wider / mixed choice of pronouns. While this has been in the works of several developers over the years, it came more to the forefront during Covid when separation from society was greater and people had the space and privacy to experiment in real life as well as in their
games.

During this time, I myself remember playing Arcade Spirits, the already very queer dating sim from Fiction Factory Games. On opening the game, I was met with a character customiser where I was able to give my ‘me’ a cute blonde bob, a masculine build, and, for the first time, they/them pronouns. It was one of the first times I had been able to experiment with these pronouns; despite wanting to see how they felt for me, I wasn’t yet comfortable asking others to try them out.

But there, alone in my bedroom with a cup of tea and my laptop propped up on plushies, it felt private and personal and good. After I finished the game, I was able to recognise that, while those pronouns did feel right for me, there were times where I missed more gendered ways of presenting and interacting in-game. This Arcade Spirits version of me didn’t quite capture ‘me,’ and it was affirming to uncover that without the onlooking eye of others.

That experience could not have been the same were it broadcast and shared with others, and Arcade Spirits is only one example of how powerful the intimacy with video games can be. It’s why there is so much queer joy waiting to be found in games, because there is always excitement in the fact that we can try again and again to learn more about ourselves whenever we load into the next character creator.

Skills utilised:
News

Promoting Positivity In Animal Crossing: New Horizons by Georgie Peru

The Animal Crossing series started way back in 2001 with Animal Forest. Since then, Animal Crossing has offered casual gamers a safe place to relax and unwind.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons was aptly released on March 20th 2020, just as the global Coronavirus pandemic hit and created extremely turbulent times.

For many countries around the world, Spring marked the beginning of lockdown measures to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. Causing a dramatic change in pace for many people, Animal Crossing: New Horizons offered a break from the stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic.

A Sense Of Normality

Released on Nintendo Switch, Animal Crossing tasks players to clean up, make a home, and develop an island life. Starting their residence with a simple tent, Animal Crossing players can complete tasks, collect items, and welcome new villagers in order to claim island status. Players will eventually own their own island home which is customisable, from the rooms inside your house to how your mailbox looks.

Animal Crossing offers daily activities which gave people a sense of routine that was missing from real life. Meeting and making friends with residents and other players certainly offered a source of positive psychological wellbeing, bringing a much-needed calm in the storm most of us are slowly easing out of.

After immersing yourself in a few minutes of play, Animal Crossing can definitely lighten the load through its use of beautiful environments and imagination. Throughout the year, Nintendo released regular updates to the game like Bunny Day where players could join in on Easter-themed festivities like an egg hunt. 

Psychological Recovery

While it isn’t possible to label recovery as a single definition, the “recovery model” is often used to display the importance of supporting individuals with mental health conditions by recognising their identity and boosting their self-esteem.

The recovery process is sometimes described by the acronym CHIME; Connectedness, Hope and Optimism, Identity, Meaning and Purpose, and Empowerment. 

Animal Crossing ticks the boxes of psychological recovery by offering:

  • Connection with island residents and other players
  • Relaxation
  • Opportunities to learn
  • Feelings of control
  • A sense of accomplishment

Engaging in the game’s lighthearted activities, people can find a place to stabilise their mood and develop a sense of mindfulness. Offering players a space to restore their psychological energy allows a more calm and logical approach to coping with real life.

Animal Crossing allows people to soak in a wealth of visual opportunities, including the vast ocean, luscious landscapes, catching fish, chasing bugs, and interacting with other players.

Talking to other island residents certainly adds to the feeling of positivity through engaging and positive dialogue. Once you’ve started to build a rapport with these villagers, you can give and receive gifts and even help them in repairing their own relationships.

Expressive and Creative Play

The routine behaviour in the game helps to encourage positive feedback. Mindful tasks are uplifting and offer a sense of reward and accomplishment through simple and casual play. New Horizons definitely offers a level of self-expressive play, allowing players to showcase their creativity in a safe space. Whether it’s expanding your home, buying new wallpaper for your bedroom, or purchasing a new item for your island, this safe space offers people a leg up in the psychological process.

You could easily spend hours designing your island through the vast tools Nintendo offers in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. 

There’s an in-game phone (NookPhone) that contains a multitude of apps for you to discover, including:

  • Camera
  • Nook Miles
  • Critterpedia
  • DIY Recipes
  • Custom Designs
  • Map
  • Passport
  • Call Resident
  • Rescue Service
  • Island Designer
  • Nook Shopping
  • Best Friends List
  • Chat Log

All of these apps encourage players to explore the different possibilities available to them. 

Each day in Animal Crossing leaves where you left off, but represents actual times, dates, and seasons comparative to the real-life world. As the seasons change, players will see their islands transform, with snow in the Winter, and more bugs in Spring/Summer. The way in which the game coincides with day/night and season cycles makes it a positive escape from reality, without going too far off course.

Another representation that Animal Crossing nails on the head are that of the psychological resource of agency. The feeling of autonomy is accurately depicted through the use of meaningful engagement with the environment. Whether a player chooses to spend time weeding and catching bugs, or visiting other islands, all are classed as valid actions.

Allowing players to practice curiosity is another positive element that Animal Crossing successfully achieves. People tend to indulge in curiosity when they feel safe, and every part of this game offers a safe space to explore. There aren’t any bad actions as such, there’s no death, no respawning, and no checkpoints. 

Promoting Positivity

As restrictions start to lift and we step cautiously out of the woods, Animal Crossing: New Horizons continues to be an invaluable escape. 

This wholesome gaming experience encourages positive behaviours and feelings and is a beacon of light that’s sold more than 31 million copies.


Georgie Peru’s Muckrack

Georgie is a bright, friendly and outgoing person. She is a highly analytical and technical individual who has a passion and the right mind-set for thought-provoking work, particularly focusing on content writing and web writing.

Skills utilised:
News

Safer Together: Mental Health Month Fundraiser & Save The Dates

Safer Together is around the corner, so here is some useful infomation about what we’re up to for Mental Health Month.

ABOUT SAFER TOGETHER

This Mental Health Month we’re encouraging everyone to talk. Whether it’s to a friend, colleague, or a professional, talking is the first step to getting support, and we believe we’re safer together. 

We launched our first public Discord server: Safer Together, with the purpose of providing a public platform for gamers and industry folk to connect, find players for multiplayer games, discuss games, and be a safe community for all to talk or find resources. 

The Safer Together Fundraiser is looking to raise money for our future initiatives, invest in the evolution of the charity and will allow us to continue in our mission.

We are aiming to eliminate stigma surrounding mental health within the video games industry and its communities, so that every player and employee feels safe to reach out for help. 

The fundraiser will span the whole month of May, with Safe In Our World All-Star Community streams every day from the 1st – 7th May.


USEFUL LINKS & HEADLINES

Imposter Syndrome Panel in partnership with Ukie: On the 29th April at 4pm BST, we will be chatting with a wonderful panel about imposter syndrome and the effect it has on our mental health across the games industry. Tickets are *free* and you can grab one here.

Now available to watch here

Fundraiser Page:

Whether you’re looking to donate, support others or fundraise yourself – the fundraising page is where all the action will be across May.

For those fundraising for us, we’ve created some pretty fancy Safe In Our World limited edition merchandise that you’ll be sent if you hit fundraising milestones, including a 2021 #SaferTogether Pin Badge, Safe In Our World facemask/bandana and Safe In Our World Resuable Coffee Cup!


Safe In Our World Community Streams: Play With Safe

For the first week of May, we’ll be celebrating our community, and the power of social games, by having 7 days of Safe In Our World Streams! Kicking things off on Saturday 1st May with a custom lobby of Fall Guys hosted by Hannah Rutherford, followed by Mariokart chaos on Sunday with Gamebyte over on their Facebook page.

Monday is going to be back to Gamebyte for a wholesome stream on Animal Crossing Islands, and it’s to No Man’s Sky on Tuesday with our friends at Wired Productions.

Curve Digital and friends will be hosting a Human Fall Flat stream on Wednesday over on their Steam page, and we’ll be building what makes us happy in Minecraft on Thursday.

Finally, to tie up the week, Hannah will be hosting Among Us with the Safe In Our World community, which you will not want to miss!


For the remainder of May we’ll be looking to share and continue to spread the message that we are #SaferTogether and will continue to rally for mental health to be normalised within general discussion.

There will be giveaways, there will be freebies, and there will be multiplayer mischief.

Skills utilised:
News

Finding Your Own (Virtual) Happy Place by Ian Collen

It’s no big secret that video games can be great for offering a virtual retreat within which to interact and connect with others, and you’ll often find some familiar titles listed. However, there are also plenty of hugely rewarding experiences to be found outside the mainstream.

When it comes to those more popular examples, Animal Crossing: New Horizons may be 2020’s prime candidate, combining online friendship and cooperation in both single- and multiplayer modes. We could also point to the ever-popular open world creativity in Minecraft, setting up online fireteams in Call of Duty or to tackle Destiny 2’s latest raid, finding a like-minded community in the likes of FIFA or just having fun in cult hits such as Fall Guys or Among Us (and their respective Twitch feeds!).

However, in a year that has seen a lot more people finding themselves socially distanced from the outside world, many have sought solace with a few rather more unusual pet gaming projects – not only for simple entertainment or to answer that ‘what do I do now?’ question that often rears its head when you’re on your own and with lots of spare time, but also for an almost motivational sense of structure and purpose; albeit a largely flexible and personal one.

For example, while there are plenty of iOS and Android titles for your phone and tablet of choice there’s a lot to be said for those in the mould of The Simpsons: Tapped Out or SimCity BuildIt – games that involve setting objectives into motion that can take hours to complete, with other variants including the likes Township and Last Shelter: Survival. Once you’ve cleared the basics in these games you can find a nice routine in dipping in first thing in the morning and then later in the evening to gather up the rewards and set the next sequence of missions into motion – where both personal and community-driven goals help to combine for a series of ongoing small successes from one day to the next.

When it comes to finding a happy place for slightly longer experiences, that obviously falls down to personal preference and how much time you have on your hands. For example, sports fans could look to the likes of F1 2020, which can not only fill the hours if you commit to a full racing weekend set-up or shaving tenths off your lap times, but can also provide a great multiplayer community if you find a lobby of fierce-but-fair rivals to test yourself against.

Following the references to SimCity and finding comfort in those small victories from self-governed gaming, another such title that springs to mind is Cities Skylines. For those unfamiliar with the game, it’s a city-building title in a similar vein to SimCity and its ilk, which may be a few years old now but can still be an absorbing way to while away more an afternoon or ten.

Perhaps the main difference is that once you’ve got to grips with the basics (not putting water pumps downstream from sewage works etc) it essentially boils down to a traffic management game as you try to find the most efficient way to combine your residential, industrial and commercial demands. It’s not too complicated once you’ve clocked the fundamentals, nor is it overly punishing if you make any mistakes (there are few pitfalls that can’t be fixed!), and so you’re mostly free to play around with building some fun and potentially creative cityscape solutions.

It is a single-player game but, as is so often the case, the internet can be an invaluable community-driven resource to find working answers to your ongoing problems (be warned: you might find yourself watching way too many YouTube videos on road interchanges!) – but finding your own solutions, sometimes more through luck than judgement, can be a hugely rewarding way to keep your mind active and your brain in gear.

It might be a hard sell to an unknowing audience, but there’s a heart-warming joy to be found in hooking up both a passenger train and cargo transport network through a series of raised roundabouts that somehow flow seamlessly around the city (your own ‘Isolation Station’ as Bob Mortimer’s Train Guy might call it). Or maybe you just throw down a crazy one-way street that runs over two bridges and underneath a highway as a last-gasp ‘why not?’ solution to a gridlock that’s stagnating your city’s development – and it changes everything. Who knew traffic management could feel so good?!!

In the absence of a more conventional sense of structure or routine which may otherwise come from a direct connection to the outside world, finding one or two games that scratch your own individual itches in these difficult times can add a small sense of purpose or control over your day-to-day life – even if trying to justify to someone else that you’ve had a busy and productive day might be a stretch! Regardless, simply finding that happy gaming place and letting it play out on your own terms can be as satisfying as it can be rewarding for your self-esteem.

Who knows? Maybe each morning you’ll crack your head off the pillow to dig out your phone and harvest a few crops, kill some zombies and then set a few things in motion to catch-up on later in the day (adding a few ‘to do’ items to your diary based on when their respective timers end). And then the answer to that ‘what do I do now?’ question could well be: ‘oh yeah, I was going to build a bridge across to that island, which I can then turn it into a tourist resort and hook up a passenger station to the train line like this and then run a connecting road to the distant highway like that…’.

Of course, the seemingly mundane world of traffic management in Cities Skylines isn’t going to float everyone’s boat. Perhaps you’re more of a survival fan looking to face off against dinosaurs in Ark: Survival Evolved, or happier simply playing Scrabble with a few strangers on your laptop, or maybe shooting them in Fortnite… The point is that there’s a place in the gaming world for everyone to find a second home (and a third, fourth…) to escape into and unwind in on their own terms.

It needn’t be in the same ‘cool’ or popular titles that you’ll see splashed all over your social media feed (Cyberpunk 2077 anyone?), or even in a dedicated online or multiplayer game that provides an obvious connection to others. Sometimes it can be found in a very personal and often unique world, but one that can be grown and expressed through shared ideas and experiences – and one you’ll be rewarded by with every small victory that you’ll encounter along the way.


 

Ian Collen is a writer and editor with more than 20 years experience – with well over half of that spent working in videogames. He’s worked on the likes of XBM, 360 Gamer (later known as One Gamer), and the innovative digital publication, Gamer Interactive. He also learned more about drones than he thought possible as editor of the self-explanatory Drone Magazine and is currently working as a freelancer.

 


 

Skills utilised:
Covid 19, News

University of Oxford Study Says Video Games Are “Good For Well-Being”

A recent study from Oxford University has found that time spent gaming is positively associated with wellbeing.

The data, derived from Plants vs Zombies and Animal Crossing (with over 3,000 surveys) has suggested that competence and the social elements of the games may contribute to people’s wellbeing.

Contrary to many, fears that excessive game time will lead to addiction and poor mental health, we found a small positive relation between game play and well-being.

Whilst finding this positive correlation, it is imperitive that more data is available to be able to be analysed to find out more about the intricate relationship between gaming and well-being in the future.

 

The authors have agreed that collaborations with industry partners are possible, can produce adequate data for analysis, and further collaborations to create longitudinal data will only improve insights into video games and our health.

To read more on the article, please click here.

Skills utilised:
News

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

In this hyper-cute life simulator, you are the proud owner of a deserted island getaway package and are free to create, explore, and relax. 

During the time we’ve spent with Animal Crossing: New Horizons, we’ve shared fruit with our neighbours, been meticulously designing our wildest desires, and have happily lazed on a beach somewhere far removed from our daily lives. 

Animal Crossing is the perfect getaway package for the mind, allowing you to create and explore in a low-stress environment with user-friendly systems. Everything from the meditative sound design down to the soft, rounded aesthetic is entrancing. 

Animal Crossing teaches you to set yourself small daily goals and is at its most rewarding when played in short sessions. The game moves in real-time and you will have to wait until the following day to reap some of the rewards of your daily efforts. This means that you consistently have something to look forward to and you can plan your time how you want, while seeing positive progression. 

Feel like gathering materials in the morning? Great. Fancy visiting the island museum at lunch, which is full of critters and fossils you have collected on your travels? Fantastic. Want to wind down with a trip to the island of a friend? Perfect. Feel like doing nothing at all while watching the sway of the ocean? That’s OK!

Animal Crossing helps you realise that downtime for yourself is worthwhile, no matter what you choose to do with it. If you have checked one thing off your list today, then you have achieved something! 

Your enthusiasm in Animal Crossing: New Horizons will spill over into your real-world lives and your mind will thank you for it.

Skills utilised:
Games & apps

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