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For years I played as white characters.
June 18, 2013 5:52 AM   Subscribe

Because New Leaf’s tanning doesn’t seem to happen in real time, and because it seems to take days instead of hours now, trying to get a particular mid-level skin tone is more precarious than maintaining a pale complexion. Not only is the outcome hard to predict, but someone who wants the default skin to stay only has to bring a parasol around with them in the summer sun. They literally have access to tools and methods I don’t. It is very hard not to just write “DO YOU GET IT?” over and over again. I don’t have a tanning booth, or tanning lotion. I certainly don’t have a way to lock in my current tan level.

The other implication is that it might be the case that tanning is a disincentive to overplaying. I hadn’t realized it until my friend with the cobblestone roads pointed it out. Let’s say, hypothetically, that you’ve kept your game running for five straight hours for some odd reason. You might notice that your town’s other villagers will greet you with an admonishment. You look tired they say, you should take a rest. You should stop playing. There is a strange, formal parallel between this directive and tanning. Both come only after hours of uninterrupted play. The same activity results in both outcomes. Coupled with the fact that players are outfitted with ways to prevent, but not cause tanning, it’s hard not to draw some connections.

My argument isn’t that Nintendo has gone out of its way to be racist, it’s that the question of race seems to have never been brought up to begin with, and that has its own problems.


Me, On The Screen: Race in Animal Crossing: New Leaf
posted by timshel (55 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
Great post.
posted by Going To Maine at 6:12 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I love this. I was in an IRC channel with some other people I play with when I first got the game and was sort of confused as to whether they all appeared as a white person with brown hair. The hair, apparently, is randomized; the skin tone isn't.
posted by NoraReed at 6:15 AM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


I say this not as an excuse, but given the entirely Japanese composition of the team responsible for the design and development of New Leaf, I cannot help but imagine there's a lot more to unpack in this whole situation than is discussed in the article.
posted by barnacles at 6:24 AM on June 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


This article made me feel old.

I used to love video games. The kind you had to put quarters in. (I could have funded my retirement with what I spent on Joust and Tron alone.)

When I was a kid there were video game magazines, not blogs, and the pieces in them, like the games, were not something people thought about too much. I can't remember any essays on gender roles or inherent racism (now these are quite common).

I sympathize with this individual. As a straight white guy I have no difficulty finding representations of myself, but I've walked a mile in his shoes (one mile, not a lifetime). I have Korean nieces and when they were kids finding anything that looked like them was near impossible. I remember one got a Mulan doll at Christmas because that was the closest you could get.

I say this not as an excuse, but given the entirely Japanese composition of the team responsible for the design and development of New Leaf, I cannot help but imagine there's a lot more to unpack in this whole situation than is discussed in the article.

He does address this to a degree. I don't think this piece is an indictment of the game, but rather of his life experiences going into informing his reactions to the game.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:26 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure how AC could add race selection in its character creation without being super offensive about it. It already fails a bit when trying to ferret out your gender -- another character will say he likes your hair, and you have the option to say it's "cute" or "cool". The game wanted to make me male, and my BF female, based on our initial responses. But at the very least there could be a tanning booth in Shampoodle that gives you a 'special tan' that never goes away, and she can straight-up ask you how dark you want to be. She can already do hair dye that never fades/grows out, and permanent eye color changes, so why not? And randomize starting skin colors, like hair is randomized, to be more fair about it.

I doubt it's supposed to be a disincentive to play, though. Tans only show up under very specific conditions (it's summer, with clear skies, during the daytime, and you're not carrying a parasol OR wearing certain types of hat), so the obsessive player who wants to avoid a tan can do so easily. I know a lot more people who accidentally failed to get a tan, by unknowingly wearing an anti-tan hat, than people who accidentally got one.
posted by purplecrackers at 6:27 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


@purplecrackers: Your points about permanent tanning are valid, but I don't think you have to assume that the animal crossing method of character selection by asking questions is some permanent feature of the game. If Nintendo became more concerned about race expression than about maintaining the status quo method for character selection, they'd change it.
posted by Going To Maine at 6:31 AM on June 18, 2013


My argument isn’t that Nintendo has gone out of its way to be racist, it’s that the question of race seems to have never been brought up to begin with, and that has its own problems.

On the one hand, race is important, yes.

But on the other hand, having Rover (is it still Rover who's doing the pre-game interrogation?) outright ask the player what his race is could also be seen as problematic -- seen as an opportunity to racially profile where it's not needed, harumph harumph. Rover is a cat. Cats don't know about the long sad plight of the Native American, or slavery.

And offering a editing screen where players can clearly specify their appearance is against Animal Crossing's aesthetic, where the player's appearance is determined by being questioned by an in-game entity. So what happens if that appearance doesn't match up with the player's expectation? Also, the game is intended to be kind of other-worldly, and we don't even know if Rover has a concept of race, or the long history of people of one color doing terrible things to those of another. All of its inhabitants are animals -- animals who don't even eat each other! Or have awkward conversations, or at least, not about species! (The article's characterization of this attitude, that it would be less "charming" to do this, is a strawman.)

Race is a big field of landmines and conflicting attitudes, and when you're designing games in relatively homogenous Japan is easy to pretend it doesn't exist*. I can think of a solition; give players a later in-game method of permanently setting their skin tone and leaving it at that. But there's the phenomenon where people assume, if they came up with an idea, that it must be immediately obvious to everyone and there can't be any unforeseen drawbacks to implementing it.

* Japanese culture doesn't tend to do race very well. I once got to see a tape of one channel's morning television circa about 10 years ago; there was this group of four adults dressed as children prancing around a set like cartoon characters, serving as hosts, introducing shows, etc. There was Japanese Guy A, Japanese Guy B, Japanese Girl (in overalls), and Black Guy, who acted in the same manner as the others, but actually sticking out more because of it. I felt immensely sorry for him; whatever he earned having to do all that crap, I seemed like it couldn't be enough.

another character will say he likes your hair, and you have the option to say it's "cute" or "cool". The game wanted to make me male, and my BF female, based on our initial responses

It might have changed since the versions I played (this is the fifth incarnation of Animal Crossing!**), but I remember Rover having a backup question where he confirmed the cute/cool check, and acted embarrassed if he got it wrong....

** 1: N64 (unreleased in the US). 2: Gamecube port. 3: DS version. 4: Wii version (Wild World). 5: This one (New Leaf).
posted by JHarris at 6:38 AM on June 18, 2013


Sometimes, in order to not be an asshole, you don't get to "maintain an aesthetic". Instead you just have to do the right thing. And in this case, the right thing is a three value colour picker.

You want to make cats ask you what your skin colour is? You get three cats, tone cat (saturation), a tint cat (hue), and a shadow cat (value).

Sigh.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:44 AM on June 18, 2013 [9 favorites]


He still does cute/cool and then double checks and asks if you're a girl or a boy.

Personally, I'd go for Shampoodle having skin dying options and let us pick from a bunch of colors. Or even textures. Let us be blue! Green! Drow!

TBH, I don't think a character creation game would kill the game. Just have a "quick start" option where the cat just does the weird coded gender question and then randomizes your starting choices (with the option of plastic surgery/magic skin dye/plain ol' magic in Shampoodle later) and also an option where you can choose from a handful of starting avatars.

Considering that they were willing to change stuff up to give us a variety of town maps to choose from, it wouldn't seem that weird to pick from, say, a handful of portraits or something for your starting avatar.
posted by NoraReed at 6:50 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Games engaging with race is an interesting question. I think perhaps its worth seperating how American games engage with race as opposed to how Japanese games do. I don't think I'm wrong in believing that Japanese engagement with race is quite different to America's in general.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 6:52 AM on June 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


[Yup, the article does indeed also address real-life racism. Derail removed; reading the linked content to the end before commenting is generally a good idea.]
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 6:52 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is a great article. Thanks for posting it, timshel.

I can't remember any essays on gender roles or inherent racism (now these are quite common).

Is this such a bad thing, though? Games criticism is evolving to reflect the growing complexity of the artform.
posted by fight or flight at 6:59 AM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Is this such a bad thing, though? Games criticism is evolving to reflect the growing complexity of the artform.

Or maybe more the mainstreaming of the art form, though the two go hand in hand. I mean, the writer here was concerned about race in Street Fighter 2, and that probably qualifies as back in the day for video games.
posted by Going To Maine at 7:03 AM on June 18, 2013


we don't even know if Rover has a concept of race

This is an argument that I, as a white dude, have used as well. But I also read an essay way back when were the author described how some WoW players told him that WoW characters didn't have "races" either. So I'm inclined to think that dismissing the existence of race for video games is less about the world and more about unthinking developers.

I can think of a solution; give players a later in-game method of permanently setting their skin tone and leaving it at that. But there's the phenomenon where people assume, if they came up with an idea, that it must be immediately obvious to everyone and there can't be any unforeseen drawbacks to implementing it.

This is the same solution that the article comes up with as well. Honestly, if there are unforseen drawbacks to that approach I'd love to know what they are.
posted by Going To Maine at 7:05 AM on June 18, 2013


Or maybe more the mainstreaming of the art form, though the two go hand in hand. I mean, the writer here was concerned about race in Street Fighter 2, and that probably qualifies as back in the day for video games.

Not to mention that Space Invaders basically says that a single pilot can destroy all them aliens if (s)he's well-funded enough.
posted by ersatz at 7:14 AM on June 18, 2013


Most of the Japanese games that I have played that dealt with race were much more, um... unsubtle, I guess, about it. (It's possible that something is lost in the translation, of course.) They're mostly RPGs, though, and the issues they dealt with were almost all either explicit narratives about religion with race stuff thrown in, generally in the form of elves, half-elves and humans.

The Western games (I'm hesitant to call them American since I play a lot of Bioware stuff and they are Canadian) that have serious world-building going on generally are trying to capture some racial political stuff-- Dragon Age is obviously borrowing ideas on how they characterize the elves from not only various sources on the fae folk but also from treatment of Jewish people and Roma; Mass Effect is doing some pretty obvious stuff with the alien/human racial relations while still attempting to keep people of color in the lineup (not that it always succeeds).

I think probably the most interesting race-related game is Morrowind-- though unfortunately you end up playing the sort of "messiah who comes to save the natives" if you play anything but the Dark Elves, there is still some pretty great worldbuilding going on there and a lot of exploration of imperialism. It's not without its problematic points, but as far as the race-video game relationship is concerned I think it's an important cornerstone.

I think the reason you're seeing more stuff about race and gender and other social justice topics in relation to video games is that there's a lot more to talk about in narrative these days and a lot more games with recognizably human characters. And by "these days" I mean the past 15 or 20 years, I guess. But there's not a lot of interest in engaging with the racial politics of Pitfall when Harry's only recognizable racial characteristic is hot pink skin (and honestly the variation in televisions probably make that pretty inconsistant).

Also, if the idea is that Rover has no idea of race, why make everyone pale-skinned? Why not make everyone Black? Or purple? The idea that you can't introduce a concept of race falls apart when you consider that not introducing it is just accepting the status quo of "everyone is white".

I should note that I'm talking about the Western interpretation of race here-- I'm aware that the way the Japanese tend to draw themselves gets read as Japanese in Japan and white in much of the West.
posted by NoraReed at 7:15 AM on June 18, 2013 [8 favorites]


"It might have changed since the versions I played (this is the fifth incarnation of Animal Crossing!**), but I remember Rover having a backup question where he confirmed the cute/cool check, and acted embarrassed if he got it wrong...."

Yeah, he did, but my point is that the gender guessing wasn't very accurate. The developers assumed that boys would want to be cool and girls would want to be cute, which is pretty tenuous. BF and I weren't trying to trick the game, we were just answering honestly. Coming up with a set of questions for race could be much harder, especially if people demand that it's treated as race, politicized as it is, instead of skin tone, just another character customization option. But I don't think that's going to happen. If people are angry that Rover doesn't let you pick your skin color at the start, people are going to be angry when he asks if you look more like whipped cream or chocolate.
posted by purplecrackers at 7:38 AM on June 18, 2013


It's so odd that this isn't a customization option from the beginning - I don't care if it would break some thin sort of game logic in the first five minutes. I'm loving the hell out of this game, but the avatar doesn't feel like "me" yet despite the fact that I'm wearing clothes that are unique to my amazing sense of sartorial style (a mint-gingham tee, plaid corduroys, red glasses and crazy Pikmin headwrap.) In contrast my "Mii" avatar is much more recognizably me even though I threw it together in 5 minutes, because those few shades of brown are available. None of this is game-breaking but it strikes me as very odd to be allowed to make the game world my own in the most minute ways, and yet feel like the character is someone who isn't me, really. Surely it would fit in with the game's mission to allow more customizability and personal touch rather than less?
posted by naju at 7:38 AM on June 18, 2013


I'm confused: if it's a game called Animal Crossing, why aren't all the avatars an animal, like an ocelot or something?
posted by jb at 7:39 AM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't know if this was linked previously, but this is also something to think about, from a queer/transgender perspective: Gender Identity in New Crossing
posted by naju at 7:42 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm doing reading for work right now on identity formation in educational settings, and my own research interests lie in games for education, so this is a great intersection of those two areas. Thanks for posting it.
posted by codacorolla at 8:23 AM on June 18, 2013


I may have over-thought this, but I think you could have Rover ask skin tone questions without making it a race issue. After all, Rover's a dog, and dogs don't see color well, right? So as part of the opening interrogation where Rover tries to determine your name and gender*, have Rover try to sketch a picture of you. Rover explains that he doesn't see color well because he's a dog, and asks you if he got the colors right. This leads to a full color adjustment screen (skin tone, hair color, eye color) where the player can adjust to their tastes (and where the initial values are all randomized).

Having all the other options later on (dyeing hair, tanning, etc.) is great, but this way players don't have to start with possibly uncomfortable or alienating defaults during the "Tom Nook Indentured Servitude" phase of the game**.

* This one's a tougher problem.

** Do they still do this part? I haven't played since the Gamecube version.
posted by hartez at 8:31 AM on June 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


...during the "Tom Nook Indentured Servitude" phase of the game**.
** Do they still do this part? I haven't played since the Gamecube version.


Oh yes. Big style. Just taking a break from catching butterflies and selling duplicate fossils, the money from which will make a tiny dent in the cost of my house extension, to catch up with MetaFilter. Tom Nook is the one percent.
posted by Wordshore at 8:35 AM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Interesting. I wonder why Nintendo would make such a fundamental mistake. Perhaps the original concept was aimed at a limited audience where such considerations were unimportant to that audience and the subsequent globalisation of the game failed to take into account the needs and views of the wider audience.
posted by BenPens at 8:37 AM on June 18, 2013


On the Wii, the Miis you make have customizable skin color. Does the 3DS not have such a thing? Seems like it should, and then games should use that color by default for PCs.

That or just make every player an African woman, full stop, just to watch privileged white males whine (and I say this as a privileged white male.)

I suppose that's a good case for the first person perspective, being able to immerse yourself into a character without the physical representation disconnects.
posted by davejay at 8:59 AM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


That or just make every player an African woman, full stop, just to watch privileged white males whine

Whine haha no we're talking gamers here, they would go full apeshit nuclear
posted by prize bull octorok at 9:02 AM on June 18, 2013 [12 favorites]


The first game had one character who occasionally lost her face and asked you to draw her a new one.

Make that the player character instead.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:21 AM on June 18, 2013


I'm not sure how AC could add race selection in its character creation without being super offensive about it.

Why not? Skyrim can do it, Mass Effec can do it, even bloody Saints Row let's you play with whatever race/gender combo you want. How difficult would it be to built in the kind of character creation tool into Animal Crossing that many other games have had for years? I'm sure people will whinge that some unique aspect of the game is lost when it no longer uses the cackhanded interrogation method it now does, but who cares?
posted by MartinWisse at 9:43 AM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


I really prefer games that give you a free hand to make your character any damn color you can think of. Rainbow goblins represent!
posted by prize bull octorok at 10:01 AM on June 18, 2013


MartinWisse: "Why not? Skyrim can do it, Mass Effec can do it, even bloody Saints Row let's you play with whatever race/gender combo you want. "

This was a central point made in this episode of Hey Ash Whatcha Playin'. (NSFW)
posted by vanar sena at 10:19 AM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


After all, Rover's a dog, and dogs don't see color well, right?

Rover, despite the name, is a cat.
posted by reprise the theme song and roll the credits at 10:25 AM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


As I mentioned upthread I really liked this piece because it’s the intersection of a couple of different things that I’m studying right now for work, for my own research, and just because I’m interested in them.

What the author is talking about, in part, is the idea of identity in video games. Two fields that are intimately linked to the study of identity are games and education. I think that learning more about education helps you understand game design better, and learning about game design helps you understand education better. My favorite games-studies researcher, for this reason, is James Gee, who looks at the way that well designed digital games provide ideal learning environments - so much so that you can teach a person do to incredibly complex things in game-space because it’s ‘fun’. ‘Fun’ (if you’ve read people discussing the relative merits of this game or that) is a nebulous term that Gee seeks to operationalize by looking at fun as the joy of learning to do something, and then succeeding in doing that. This is pretty similar to Raph Koster’s ideal of game design.

School itself has game-like qualities: scores, progression, roles, rules, a ‘magic circle’ (as defined by Huizinga) where there’s a moratorium from the real world to create a special space which is apart from it. The problem is that, for many students, this game isn’t engaging, isn’t ‘fun’, and doesn’t make much sense in their lived reality. These issues have been addressed for many years (at least since the sixties) by the socio-constructivist discipline of educational design, which stands contra to behaviorist educational design, and focuses on allowing the learner to use school time as a tool to build their own meaning around the ideas presented in the classroom, instead of as a tool to drill content into the learner through lecture / evaluation / punishment-reward cycles.

In turn, digital games have school-like qualities. You are approaching an unfamiliar system (perhaps the ball physics in Peggle, or perhaps actual Physics in the classroom) and you are learning how to master this system. Games that are too easy typically aren’t fun, because there is nothing there to grab a-hold of. Games that are too difficult aren’t fun, because there’s no realistic sense of progression. This idea has been conceptualized (I’d argue over-conceptualized) as ‘flow’ as derived from the work of the positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. A popular logic given for the use of educational games is that well designed digital games perfect the balance between difficulty and challenge. I think there’s a lot to that, but it’s also pretty strictly biological/motivational and ignorant of various cultural considerations - after all, people play games for a variety of reasons, and they play games that aren’t challenging in that particular definition of the word (like Farmville), and they play games that are brutally hard and have a ramp to mastery that's more like a brick wall (like bullet hell shooters). Why I really like Gee’s work as an analytic tool for game design is that he adds in a lot of the socio-cultural elements which explain the joy of games beyond a grim deterministic line on a graph.

Gee is a linguist by trade, who is interested in literacy as a social process. This means that literacy (in any given field: language, biology, mathematics, computers, etc.), for Gee, is intrinsically a social process. When you’re learning how to be a programmer you’re learning not only the literal language which commands a computer to do what you want, but you’re learning the cultural norms, the values, the associated tools, the practices of what a programmer does. So, that is to say, that you’re internalizing not only the doing (or the praxis) of a profession or trade, but you’re internalizing the being (or the identity) of that profession or trade. Many of the games that Gee cites as being games ‘well-designed’ for learning tend to incorporate identity formation in one way or another. He loves Morrowind, Deus Ex, Thief, KOTOR (also cited by the FPP article), Baldur’s Gate, Fallout (he was writing this around 2002, so I’m sure you could add in a lot of current games to this roster). Part of what makes games compelling, beyond creating a state of flow, is that they allow the player to engage in what he calls ‘projective identity’, meaning that the avatar of the player is not only a projection of their self in to game space, but also a project that they are actively working on developing.

In Gee’s work prior to video-games he developed a framework for the ways that people develop identities, and summed up 4 cooperating and/or competing ways that we are defined. There’s Natural identity, which comes from things that we’re born with, such as gender, genetics, and race. There’s Institutional, which are things that outside structures define for you, such as citizen, alien, police officer, or student. There’s Discursive, which are things which are defined for you by others through socialization, such as pretty, smart, charismatic, or poorly behaved. And there’s Affinity, which means things that you consume and do which align you with other groups in society, such as being a Trekkie, a gamer, a jock, or a Republican. As an example he uses a hyper-active student who might (or might not) have a chemical imbalance which is identified as ADHD, which in turn might lead him or her to be (or not to be) diagnosed as having ADHD by a medical institution, and in turn will lead other people to define him or her as being a troublemaker (or, if they weren’t diagnosed, as boisterous or energetic), and in turn may affiliate through affinity groups with other people who have ADHD. Overall, individuals have some control over how they negotiate with their identities, which often spring from some ‘natural’ (and Gee recognizes this term as troublesome, and tries to problematize it in the paper) aspect of the person, and are made concrete by institutional forces, and then reified in the discourse of their teachers and peers. For a child, who is taking things as they come, and likely naive to the massive superstructures that guide their lives, being born with a certain skin color, being called ‘at-risk’ simply by virtue of being born in a certain zip code, being treated a certain way by a teacher who’s coming from an entirely different origin point, identity is a treacherous thing to navigate. In his paper he uses a case study of a school where white students and black students in the same school exhibit similar classroom behavior, but because of these outside forces some are labeled as bad students and others are labeled as good and routed accordingly to at-risk and gifted and talented programs, and given the opportunities that one would expect either one of those designations affords.

I think that digital games, especially as they begin to incorporate more and more of what we call ‘RPG elements’, have become a battleground for identity politics for precisely this reason. For many people their identities are cruelly and unjustly defined by things that they have no control over, and this injustice is then backed up by massive state structures, and this injustice is parroted by other people who have been indoctrinated into the institutional Othering and presented as objective fact, and then capitalized on by the market as corporate powers offer people various commodified ways to define new identities through commerce. However when you open up a game you can, excuse the pun, turn over a New Leaf. In some games you can make an avatar that looks like you, but instead of being strictured by institutionalized racism or sexism you can be anything you can imagine. This sort of wide-open identity creation is something new and exciting and before unimagined thing. It’s identity play that’s finally opened up a privileged world before only experienced by people who had the ‘default’ identity (Cis-gendered white men) and the economic means to fully explore that world (by buying what they pleased, doing what they pleased, obtaining nearly any job or role that they pleased). The sort of role-playing game afforded by the amazing simulacrum machines of modern computers gives people who have been marginalized and assigned predetermined roles a chance to live another life and to play with what living that life means. I think this is a partial explanation of the recent (to my mind) explosion of ‘RPG elements’ as a selling point in modern gaming. In educational research massive tomes are devoted to the idea of helping people underrepresnted in certain fields gain the ability to identify themselves as the sort of person who does science, or who programs computers, or who loves mathematics - in other words, how to break free of an institutionalized conception that only certain people are programmers or scientists or mathematicians. In Gee’s work these ideas meet, and he presents what What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.

This becomes a sort of ludology of the oppressed, to cop a term from Freire. For Freire there was no such thing as a neutral education, and in my opinion, there’s no such thing as a neutral game. The sudden outcropping of critical responses to sexism and racism (and other forms of privileged discourse) in gaming is because the simulation power of gaming is meeting an underserved need of people who experience institutional oppression on a daily basis to define themselves in game space in a way that they (unfortunately) cannot fully define themselves in the Real. In the FPP article the author is glared at, thought lesser than, by people around him, and there’s nothing he can do to change that regardless of what he accomplishes, or what he does, or how he presents himself. In a game-space where it’s trivial to allow any sort of representation on the screen, which has no bearing on game-play outside of aesthetics, why do we not allow this? When you can program the game to act in any way, why do we still program them to act in the banal, cruel, and unjust ways that mirror the real world? And, when people who find solace in the identity play of the free and unfettered digital spaces of games, begin to ask these questions and critique the strange choices that game designers make which marginalize them, there is a rancorous and hateful response from people who have previously occupied a nearly sole position as ‘gamers’ (white, male, nerds). please note that i’m absolutely not accusing anyone in this thread of doing that, but rather responding to a general atmosphere in the larger discourse. A lot of these questions are in fact addressed by this blog post by Liz Ryerson, who critiques the ideas I've just presented, of games as an open and free space.

So that’s a lot of typing to say that I appreciate this article a great deal, as well as the article about Gender. Animal Crossing probably seems like a silly place for critical theory to play out (and this ‘silliness’ is probably one of the major albatrosses around the neck of games-studies), but I think games are an exciting and amazing new form of narrative and cultural expression, and it’s important to demythologize them.
posted by codacorolla at 10:29 AM on June 18, 2013 [14 favorites]


Rover is a fictional cat created from the ground up by real humans. The Japanese deva are employed by an extremely large, well-funded company that could afford an excellent American English localization; someone should have thought of the fact that not all humans look identical.
posted by kavasa at 10:46 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


someone should have thought of the fact that not all humans look identical.

Absolutely. This is a huge oversight. It was an oversight in the previous games in the series, and according to the article the problem has actually gotten worse in the latest iteration since player control over skin color has decreased.

This isn't an indie title we're talking about here, it's a major release with a fancy limited-edition themed 3DS XL to go with it. (And that model was only distributed in North America, so, no, the English release is not merely an afterthought.)
posted by asperity at 11:02 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


> Whine haha no we're talking gamers here, they would go full apeshit nuclear

Nah, they could easily pull out the usual "I just like to look at a nice ass while I play" argument with a side order of "like my women like I like my coffee". If you really want to see a (stereotypical cisgendered male) gamer explode, make their character even hint at having any non-cis identity.
posted by gilrain at 11:02 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


"I just like to look at a nice ass while I play"

Oh I so hope nobody makes that argument while playing Animal Crossing.
posted by asperity at 11:06 AM on June 18, 2013


Unless there's a donkey character in this one.
posted by asperity at 11:07 AM on June 18, 2013


Well, I agree that things need to change. I got tripped up myself by the cute/cool thing back when I first played Wild World on the DS. And even though the Only Allowed Skin Tone happens to match my own, I recognize that having an Only Allowed Skin Tone is definitely bad. But I don't have anything to say about it that other people haven't already said better.

It can still be Animal Crossing without the conversational beginning. Even with a conversational beginning, the colorblind dog thing can still work because it doesn't have to be Rover you're talking to (in fact, in Wild World it wasn't Rover, it was Kapp'n.)

I was just saying, Rover's a cat, not a dog.
posted by reprise the theme song and roll the credits at 11:08 AM on June 18, 2013


Like, Half-Life 2: Episode 1 was still a Half-Life game, even though you didn't ride a train into it.
posted by reprise the theme song and roll the credits at 11:10 AM on June 18, 2013



That or just make every player an African woman, full stop, just to watch privileged white males whine (and I say this as a privileged white male.)


I don't really care if the game has me playing a female/black/whatever protagonist. And yeah, as a white guy, I know, that's a privileged position.

However, when Oblivion first came out, I made a toon and started playing and the thing that irked me to no end..... That they were short. And not like, half-ling/dwarf short. Like maybe 2 inches shorter than most other NPCs.

I'm a tall guy - 6'4" and mostly, pretty cool with it. But this just annoyed and bothered the hell out of me. I was surprised by my reaction to it and recognized the irrationality of it all, but still, there it was. That character never made it past level one, and I spent a good chunk of time finding out what the tallest race in Oblivion was.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:13 AM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't really care if the game has me playing a female/black/whatever protagonist. And yeah, as a white guy, I know, that's a privileged position.

Personally, I think there's no excuse for those games where it matters to not let you customise your character.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:08 PM on June 18, 2013


Why not? Skyrim can do it, Mass Effec can do it, even bloody Saints Row let's you play with whatever race/gender combo you want. How difficult would it be to built in the kind of character creation tool into Animal Crossing that many other games have had for years?

Because, as I said before, different games are different, and Animal Crossing doesn't use a visual editor like those other games but introduces the player to the world with a conversation where the player reveals his character choices. Have you ever been asked by someone "WHAT ARE YOU, BLACK OR SOMETHING?" It's usually visually obvious. They do a trick like that once, with gender, but it's not as easy to pull off with race/skin tone.

I'm not saying that Nintendo shouldn't have come up with a way to have a darker basic skin tone for the player. They actually do substantial localization, for Animal Crossing, for each target territory. But I can't come up with a way to reveal the player's race in conversation without making Rover sound like at least like a jerk. (Although he kind of is, a little. I mean, maybe the player doesn't want to talk on the train? Geez!) We could actually tackle this productively: I ask, how could Nintendo get the player to reveal this knowledge in a conversation without making Rover into a kittycat profiler? This isn't rhetorical. I can't think of a way off the top of my head, but maybe some of you can.

someone should have thought of the fact that not all humans look identical.

I'm going to bat back your unthinking snarky hyperbole by noting that Animal Crossing already accounts for that, with its wide array of faces, hairstyles, hair colors, and two entire genders. "Ooooh, you mean racially identical!"
posted by JHarris at 2:42 PM on June 18, 2013


"I just like to look at a nice ass while I play"

Oh I so hope nobody makes that argument while playing Animal Crossing.


Why do we need to see this sort of veiled hatred for furries and otherkin on Metafilter, of all places? This is what we call progressive identity politics?
posted by Jimbob at 2:54 PM on June 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


I didn't really pick up on that, JimBob. I took that comment to mean it would be weird to be attracted to your avatar in AC because they are so child like.
posted by Our Ship Of The Imagination! at 3:05 PM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


But I can't come up with a way to reveal the player's race in conversation without making Rover sound like at least like a jerk.

Have him draw a picture of you; he asks which crayon you want him to use.
posted by painquale at 3:37 PM on June 18, 2013 [9 favorites]


painquale, I like that!
posted by JHarris at 3:45 PM on June 18, 2013


just to watch privileged white males whine

Thats fine, but the game was not made by privileged white males, nor was it made by a company run by privileged white males. Nor do I think it was made primarily for privileged white males.

(It was made by relatively-privileged-by-way-of-job-and-being-majority-race Japanese probably-mostly-males).

Race is complicated anywhere, and the politics and feelings about it in Japan are quite different than America and Europe. From what I've played of the game, it seems consistent with the idea that the character is basically Japanese, and they didn't really consider other races at all (for example, not wanting to tan / using a parasol to block sun -- which you hardly ever see in the US -- / etc are all pretty common things there). Thats... not terribly surprising, frankly. In a country thats 98.5% the same race, the politics are very different than America.

This isn't to say that the game is _right_ to do this, but applying Western/American perspectives on racism to it is likely to be quite wrong. The ways and reasons people are either racist or -- more commonly in my experience -- simply blind to issues of race, are not the same in Japan.
posted by wildcrdj at 5:18 PM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


"It is 1992.

I am 7 years old and standing in Tilt, the local mall arcade. I flip from character to character on the Street Fighter II: Champion Edition screen. Who do I pick? Maybe Ryu? Karate and headbands care cool. Maybe Blanka? Monsters and electricity, right? Woah, definitely not Balrog. He looks, well… He looks dumb. That’s what dumb people look like. He looks like the bad guy. And he is, he’s one of the bad guys. He’s not even the cool bad guy. He doesn’t get a cape, or a catchphrase, or a mask. I don’t know the word brute yet. I don’t know that he’s a crude parody of Mike Tyson, I just see a resemblance. I don’t know know why, I just know that I do not want to associate myself with the only African-American in this game.

There are other characters of color, of course. Sagat seems okay, I guess… Dhalsim can spit hot fire, so, okay maybe. Chun-Li maybe… sure she was a girl, but she was fast. And back then, and for years after, I wanted to play as everything I wasn’t. I wanted to be thin, quick, attractive. That word called a great variety of images into my head, but they were rarely (if ever) black men. Especially when we understand ‘attractive’ to incorporate more than physical attributes.

So I tried to find affinity in other places. That same year, the X-Men cartoon started airing on Fox, and I’d pretend I was Cyclops because, like me, he had to wear glasses all the time. I got good grades, so I’d choose Donatello on the TMNT machine—he was the smart one. But I never saw myself in any of the few black characters that were available. I chose to run with Vincent or Cid in my third party slot in Final Fantasy VII, never with Barrett—another brute, another parody. Other people saw me as black, but I knew that I was mixed, and I might have clung to that. That’s how I rationalized that I get to play as the white hero instead of the black sidekick. That’s how these things work.

I hover over Balrog for a second, one more time. I like Mike Tyson, but I hear he’s a criminal. That meant a lot. I was a good kid."
Quoting all of that for truth.
posted by Eideteker at 5:39 PM on June 18, 2013


Why do we need to see this sort of veiled hatred for furries and otherkin on Metafilter, of all places?

Hey, I did specifically exempt the donkeys. (Animal or not (and the player character is not), the AC characters are all pretty much the least sexualized characters in any game. Including Tetris. No insult to the furry/otherkin communities was intended.)
posted by asperity at 9:05 PM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm new to Animal Crossing, and to Dedicated Gaming Devices Since The Sega Genesis, and even still, fairly quickly in my play I wondered about this. I vaguely remember hearing release was pushed back at least once to fully localize it to North America; how did this not come up?

I posted a disjointed thought to Twitter: "Are all the player characters.. y'know.. honky colored?" And somehow I felt weird about posting that, because as a person who's as white as the thing that crawled out from under the belly of the blind cave fish, I don't know if I should be the one to open a dialogue on these things.

They do get points for clothing not being gender-restricted, but the one does not cancel out the other. I'm hoping for some kind of downloadable fix to this.
posted by cmyk at 9:35 PM on June 18, 2013


Personally, I think there's no excuse for those games where it matters to not let you customise your character.

Now look. I really do understand the protagonist's issues. I have spent many hours in Fallout 3 and Mass Effect and others trying to customize my appearance. When I'm offered the chance to customize, I often do try to make the character look like me.

But to move from there to saying that there is no reason, ever, game-wise, to not let you change your character, is a bit of a stretch.

Should the Alice games have offered you the chance to play as a boy? Walking Dead didn't allow me to play as Christa, the character I felt looked the most like me, but stuck me as Lee - a black man unjustly imprisoned, walking through a post-apocalyptic landscape. These games told stories that came from somewhere - the stories were rooted in who the character was. It was important in those games that those stories be told.

I think a better thing to say is that in games where your character won't matter, that it is important to allow customization. Animal Crossing does seem one of these, but that's not to say that all games are.
posted by corb at 4:54 AM on June 19, 2013


But to move from there to saying that there is no reason, ever, game-wise, to not let you change your character, is a bit of a stretch.

But games where you are playing a set character overwhelmingly stick you as someone who is white (or at least who reads as white to Western audiences). There's a reason for Alice to look like various popular conceptions of Alice in the American McGee games, but there's not a lot of reason for so many games with a fixed protagonist to force you into playing the same white guy over and over again, which it often feels like. (Obviously Walking Dead is an exception, but I can't think of any other games except Portal that force you to play a POC. Elves don't count.)

Hell, even games that let you customize your character often give you weird lighting conditions that seem to whitewash all characters (Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 3 both did this-- my Shepard had a medium skintone in ME2 but looked totally white in ME3 because of the engine changes; Isabella appears white in DA:O but isn't if you open up her character model); they also frequently only give a limited skin color selection. Ones that do offer a range often leave out olive hues, don't allow you to be all that dark, offer facial characteristics that appear "white" so that you can get the skin tone "correct" but not have other features that would be normal on POC, and often offer few or no hairstyles that would be appropriate for textured hair. Games with multiple fantasy races almost always show the majority of "human" characters as white and color-code other races so you can guess at a glance and from a distance who's a dwarf/elf/orc/drow/etc. One of the things DA2 did was that was really cool was it made your family get the same skin color (and maybe hair color, I don't really remember) as you, since in many games when you make a POC character they then proceed to drop you in a white family that is implied to be biologically related to you. (I'm pretty sure this happens in DAO in every non-mage origin story.)

I also really don't think that the whole "well, it's Japanese, so it doesn't count" thing is legitimate, because this is the sort of thing that does get fixed in localization. If Soul Calibur can make Mitsurugi blonde and add an eyepatch to un-samurai him for Korean audiences, I think we can figure out a way to adjust character creation in Japanese games to make them more welcoming to POC in Western audiences.
posted by NoraReed at 5:51 AM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I can't think of any other games except Portal that force you to play a POC

I'm a little more sensitive to this, so I'm always thinking of them - the one off the bat that I really love is the Assassin's Creed Series:
Assassin's Creed 1: main character: Desmond (mixed), in the memories of Altaïr ibn-La'Ahad (Syrian)
Assassin's Creed 2 + Assassins Creed Brotherhood: main character: Desmond (mixed) in the memories of Ezio Auditore da Firenze
Assassins Creed:Revelations: main character: Desmond (mixed) in the memories of Ezio and Altaïr (Syrian)
Assassin's Creed 3: main character: Desmond (mixed) in the memories of Ratonhnhaké:ton (Native American)
posted by corb at 6:18 AM on June 19, 2013


There's a reason for Alice to look like various popular conceptions of Alice in the American McGee games

Popular conceptions, nothing. The main character in those games - and this why I have some major problems with the series - is supposed to be Alice Liddell, who was a real person.

posted by reprise the theme song and roll the credits at 9:05 AM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I can't think of any other games except Portal that force you to play a POC

Hmm. San Andreas obviously, as well as GTA 5. There are a bunch of games where you play Asian characters, but your standard anime characteristics are easily read as representing whiteness. (To be honest, I'm never quite sure whether characters like Phoenix Wright are meant to be white or Asian.) Even if you don't count anime characters, there are still a lot of Asian protagonists: Waking Mars comes to mind. You play a black woman in I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, which is the only instance of that that I can think of. Prey puts you in the role of a Native American. I haven't played Call of Juarez, but that game apparently gives you Mexican ancestry (and has you suffer prejudice for it).

The main character in those games - and this why I have some major problems with the series - is supposed to be Alice Liddell, who was a real person.

Coming up next: American McGee's Christopher Robin.

It's an interesting point. There's apparently controversy over whether Alice in the books is meant to be Alice Liddell, or is just inspired by Alice Liddell. It's weird that it feels like this should make a difference to me, but it does.
posted by painquale at 3:58 PM on June 19, 2013


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