Feature Article

Finally, I Can Be Me In Animal Crossing--But I'm Exhausted

Animal Crossing: New Horizons has added more inclusive character-creation options, but it's a small step forward for representation.

This article, originally posted on May 11, 2020, has been republished to amplify black voices in GameSpot's support of Black Lives Matter. Donate to the effort to fight systemic racism here.

In 2013, I was a high schooler with way too much free time on my hands. It was the last few weeks of school and a bunch of my friends and I would routinely skip class to play video games in the back of the library. It was a forbidden gamer paradise. Animal Crossing: New Leaf just dropped and we were all desperate to play it. There was a game where you could go to a town with your friends, become a home makeover demi-god, talk to animal neighbours, and be the mayor? Why wasn't every video game built exactly like that?

Self-expression is the core element of ACNL; it's a feature embedded into every aspect of the game. You choose the colour and style of your clothes and the location and architecture of your dream house, and since there are no pressing time constraints like other social simulators, you even choose what you do all day, every day. It's a game about freedom. I was so incredibly excited when I picked it up, but that feeling dwindled fast. There were no options to have black skin colour or any black hairstyles. A game all about freedom and customization refused to let me be me. It was beyond alienating; out of all the things that could have been excluded, why those things?

For a while, the only way to create a character with a darker skin tone in Animal Crossing: New Leaf was to use a tanning mechanic.
For a while, the only way to create a character with a darker skin tone in Animal Crossing: New Leaf was to use a tanning mechanic.

I headed straight online to figure out if I had just missed out on an option, but I hadn't. That's just how it was. The wackest part was that the options for darker skin tones were in the game, but you couldn't access them from the start. The only way you could make your skin darker was through a convoluted temporary tanning mechanic that had to be used on an in-game day between July 16 to September 15, during a morning that had a clear sky. Many forum posts with titles like "Can I be black in this game???" or "So... Can your character have dark skin?" popped up as others wondered at the lack of skin tone and hair options. It spurred people to write out their thoughts on race in games, and players were even tweeting directly at Nintendo to express their frustration.

The audience was quite vocal, but Nintendo never responded to anyone's comments, acknowledged the issue, or made a public statement about it. Six months after launch, an item called a "Mii Mask" was added to the game that gave the player the ability to look like their customized Mii characters. But when they were first added to New Leaf, the masks didn’t even properly adjust Animal Crossing characters' skin tone. You’d literally just be wearing an uncanny black Mii face on your character's face, leaving the rest of your body pale. New Leaf was eventually patched to match skin tone, but the whole idea of the masks was at odds with the rest of New Leaf. Masks stuck out like a sore thumb among the Animal Crossing world’s cute aesthetic. They felt like a band-aid for a situation Nintendo didn’t properly deal with, a weak attempt to pacify an entire crowd that was fed up with fighting to be seen in a medium that doesn't respect them.

I don't know who needs to hear this, but black people play video games. Period. Black people are killing it in the gaming cosplay scene, non-binary black legends like SonicFox continue to rinse people in the competitive fighting world, and groups like Black Girl Gamers have formed to help showcase black women in gaming. Racial representation in games isn’t a topic that gets studied frequently, but there is a 2015 study from Pew Research Center that takes a look at the people behind the controller. One key thing the study found is that 83% of black teens play games, while 71% of white teens play games. It’s evident that we are out here, yet somehow, none of this is truly reflective in games' racial representation.

New character creation options in Animal Crossing: New Horizons mean it's possible to create villagers that are much more representative of the players who make them.
New character creation options in Animal Crossing: New Horizons mean it's possible to create villagers that are much more representative of the players who make them.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons finally gives the players their blackness for the first time in a main Animal Crossing game. There is a wide range of skin tones and hair types selectable from the start. It's really rare for me to see my hairstyle in games, but when I created my villager, he had the same cut and the little dude almost pulled it off as well as me. My villager can be me now, and I love that, but it took so damn long. It's hard for me to even praise Nintendo for including it now when I, and so many others, needed it years ago. The bar for representation feels so dishearteningly low that companies are praised for including content that should have been there from there start; that we celebrate having our hair in a game as a "win," or having a black character that isn't a stereotype as something innovative. The industry should’ve been listening years ago.

Some black characters from older titles are iconic, but that doesn’t mean we should lower our standards

Representation has been a problem since the beginning of games. Black people have been continuously excluded or only included as a second thought (that doesn't even feel that thought-out) or as a punchline, as with Barret from Final Fantasy VII’s awkward attempt at an '80s Mr. T impression. The early inclusion of black people in games was incredibly cringey, and it's only in recent years that the industry has started to move away from the all-too-common stories about middle-aged white men (who are usually dads) and that things have started to improve. A 2018 Eurogamer article by Malindy Hetfield breaks down the embarrassing ways early black characters were handled and puts them into two camps of tropes: the scary thug and the funky guy.

It's remarkable how many black video game characters fall into those categories--even some of my favourites, like Carl Johnson from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and the carefree cab driver B.D. Joe from Crazy Taxi, are there. It’s a messy situation because those characters were spawned out of stereotypes, but I’ve also held onto them since childhood because they were fun and looked like me. In Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks, a book unpacking the history of black people in American film, author Donald Bogle introduces an idea that all black actors have been forced into stereotyped roles. But those performances are still black heritage, and something to hold onto. Even though a lot of the roles were wack, we can’t completely dismiss them. “The essence of black film history is not found in the stereotyped role but in what talented actors have done with the stereotype,” he wrote.

I think that rings true for games too--some black characters from older titles are iconic, but that doesn’t mean we should lower our standards.

Even characters that become iconic, like Barret from Final Fantasy 7 (seen here in the remake), often are very stereotypical.
Even characters that become iconic, like Barret from Final Fantasy 7 (seen here in the remake), often are very stereotypical.

The first step for a better industry is listening to black people; the second step is supporting black people. More focus needs to be put on creators like TJ Hughes, a young black man creating a super-neat food simulator, and supporting events and organizations like Game Devs of Color Expo, spaces that are meant to uplift black and other marginalized designers, developers, and writers.

Supporting black people in games will make sure the standards for blackness in games is higher. It’s as simple as that. Instead of a bunch of non-black people in a game’s writers' room theorizing the proper way a character would use African American Vernacular English, or non-black artists wondering if black people also have entirely black palms and feet, there should just be black people working in that room. Tossing in a poorly crafted black character to fill an invisible diversity meter isn’t going to cut it anymore--nobody wants any of that. Black people exist, black people play, and that should be represented in the media they enjoy and help create. The field of games has to improve as a whole so we can get more meaningful advances than simply being seen, and paying attention to black creatives (all year round) is the only way we can jumpstart that process.

The only reason those durags, hairstyles, and skin tones are there is because black people spoke up.

The world right now is messy and uncertain, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a pretty good distraction. It lets me feel at ease as me. I’ve been picking weeds so my place doesn’t look like a mess when my friends fly in, and I can’t stop taking pictures of my character doing literally any silly thing. As I see my villager run around the island with his slick fade and his twists bobbing away, I’m left with hope. The only reason those durags, hairstyles, and skin tones are there is because black people spoke up. This addition took far too long, but it’s proof that change is happening, albeit slowly, across the industry.

I’m still tired, though. Talking about representation in games is draining, and it often feels futile. The people that don’t want to listen will simply not listen, and a bunch of people with unflattering, vaguely racist profile pictures will continue to yell at me on the internet. I dream of a time where games get to a place where I don’t have to write something like this, where developers respect and listen to their black audiences when issues arise, where black people aren’t an afterthought. Hopefully we get there soon.

Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email news@gamespot.com

funke

Funké Joseph

follow me on twitter @ funkemcfly

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

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GameSpot has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to toxic conduct in comments. Any abusive, racist, sexist, threatening, bullying, vulgar, and otherwise objectionable behavior will result in moderation and/or account termination. Please keep your discussion civil.

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WeRVenom

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So you finally got the representation you wanted and your still bitching?

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inasamedia

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@wervenom: if u order something on Amazon and got it 10 years later, u leaving a good review?

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RogerioFM

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All said and done though, I'm glad Nintendo finally caved and gave more options.

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TrooperTrooper

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This thread is soul destroying.

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RaveNRolla

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i really don't understand what people see in this game. it looks so silly.

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RogerioFM

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Edited By RogerioFM

@RaveNRolla: It's just a nice time sink.

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RogerioFM

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The problem is that I agree with the author, I just think they should be less whiny.

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Matr0ska

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@RogerioFM: Hey I hear your concern. I just wish you could have expressed it without sounding so whiny.

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RogerioFM

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@matr0ska: Eh, kinda lazy comeback, but I will give you an E for Effort. Congrats!

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inasamedia

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Also its a shame Gamespot has to cut the comments off on its BLM specific post because they know negative responses are going to be posted. Every negative or unsympathetic comment just further proved the point of a racial problem in this country.

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RogerioFM

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@inasamedia: censoring never achieves much anyway.

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DEVILTAZ35

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Edited By DEVILTAZ35

@inasamedia: All it proves is the existance of BS hashtags on twitter. What proof is there the cop held down anyone other than a criminal anyway? . Where was the evidence it was racially motivated?. If people bothered to do any research this police department 4 years ago killed an unarmed Australian woman who happened to be white. It proves nothing other than that particular department uses too much excessive force which comes down to lack of proper supervision/training and background checks on the officer/s before they get the job.

The fact is the officer that did it has been arrested and faces third degree murder charges and the station is under investigation as to whether there is any racial motivation behind this or any other past case over 10 years.

Nothing is proven one way or the other yet.

It's easier to believe this madness happening elsewhere is virus related and it's just stage 2 of the Zombie virus acting up.

In any case too many including media outlets jumping on the bandwagon have taken leave of their collective senses.

This madness has to stop soon whether it be through common sense or the army which won't stay on standby forever if this rubbish continues for much longer that is for sure.

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inasamedia

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@deviltaz35: again, shut up, ur talking from the safety of ur computer...u woulda had ur ass beaten half to death before u finished that first sentence

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RogerioFM

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@inasamedia: I seriously doubt that. But then again, we are just two internet tough guys talking right?

Because, sure, resorting to implied physical harm anywhere is how you get your point across. Let's see how your struggle will go on, with that kinda of reasoning or lack off. And that's why the movement gets bogged down, because of people like you, who doesn't have the brain power to have an actual discussion, as always great ideals being brought down by those who are unable to back them up. You shame the movement.

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inasamedia

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@RogerioFM: Your words are empty as hell, and again, you wouldnt say none of that to one of us, u hide on the internet

You dnt get to say what bogs something down....being tired of BS isnt a strategy or a game...its real emotion...

Ur not even part of the movement to speak on what shames it, we all would toss ur lil ass out in the street for what ur saying

I bet if u got ur ass beat ud learn ur lesson....when ppl get tired we get tired...ur only talking from the safety of ur computer, its no talking to u

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RogerioFM

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@inasamedia: Yes, you ALL would toss me on the street, good job friend, very coherent. I know you have emotions, but it's no excuse for threats of violence, specially if you need a mob on your side.

If you can't argue, if you can't properly convey your points through words, what you have to say is irrelevant. And yes, I have been on the streets to defend my points in the past, back then we used a thing called voice, we spoke, loudly and got what we needed, no need to incite violence from idiots who can't control their emotions.

If you're emotive and can't control yourself, seek a doctor, don't mistake your mental issues with a noble cause.

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inasamedia

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Edited By inasamedia

The amount of racism in these comments is appalling. A bunch of privilege brats who don't understand what we go through. I seen Gamestop represent gay pride for years, but soon as they say Black Lives Matter and Black Editors give their personal point of view, all the sudden the comments are hitting in the 100s with negativity. BLACK LIVES MATTER, no matter what your ignorant rebuttal is.

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DEVILTAZ35

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@inasamedia: White lives matter, Indian lives matter , What does it prove? . Do you even bother to see what is happening outside your own bubble in other parts of the world right now? . No! too busy thinking the world revolves totally around you it seems.

All that is proven is a police officer used excessive force. As a knock on effect to insanity as a result we now have several deaths in Chicago an ex African American Police officer murdered in St Luis by looters and chaos everywhere because people don't have the patience to wait for a legal due course process.

The cop had already been stood down and charged for third degree murder, the other three officers are already being investigated along with that particular precinct.

Nothing that has happened since that one occurance is justified and you damn well know it.

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inasamedia

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@deviltaz35: shut up, bet u wont go to a protest n say that....

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RogerioFM

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@inasamedia: If you need a mob to get violent and stand by your side to get your point across, your voice shouldn't be heard, regardless of your race.

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inasamedia

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@RogerioFM: If u need the internet to hide ur racist n intolerant views cuz ur a real life coward, u deserve to be stumped out. Our voices being heard, you cant click anywhere on the internet without reading about....and no this isnt REGARDLESS of race, this is about Black Lives....racist like u dnt listen until ur scared or inconvenienced

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RogerioFM

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Edited By RogerioFM

@inasamedia: I disagreed, I'm all for black lives and against profile judgement and violence against black lives or anyone really.

You don't, you just think about you and want to stomp anyone else, and no, I'm not a real life coward, unlike you though, I know how futile it is to want to sound badas through text.

And no, I'm not racist even, I'm mixed race always treat everyone with respect. My problem is with YOU, you are an intolerant person, unable to reason and resorting to inciting violence, you're whats wrong with the movement.

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RogerioFM

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If you're so tired, how about you enjoy life now.

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inasamedia

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@RogerioFM: racist....u changed ur opinion about 7 times

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JSprunk

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I’m Native American and Inuit. I guess I need to settle for a durag to represent my people.

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DEVILTAZ35

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@jsprunk: Don't you find it ironic that a person working for a media company , getting paid a decent wage pretends to be struggling and missing out on so much in life because of certain factors?

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Fandango_Letho

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Edited By Fandango_Letho

Native Americans barely exist in video games and no one talks about it. At least, you aren't turned into a huge hulking minotaur (tauren) or a red rat-dog in the form of RedXIII. NA are part of Canada and USA's history, they have a rich culture and the representation they get is laughable and often ridiculed as being represented by fantasy beasts.

Food for thought.

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DEVILTAZ35

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@Fandango_Letho: People make games they want to make. If these people want to they can learn the tools to make the game they want to make. It's not up to the games creators to be forced to conform to some non existant standard of what colour a person should be respresented at in a game. That then is not art it is forced conformity and it is not a world any of us truly would want to be living in.

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Eire91

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Must be a slow day at the office, the idea that GS thinks we want to hear about this as opposed to actual gaming news is laughable.

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JohnnyKChop

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@Eire91: One, no forced you to click on it. Two, it IS about a videogame. And finally, lots of people want to hear about it. Thanks for playing.

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Edited By Eire91

@johnnykchop:

1. The title is vague, therefore people click on it not knowing what the article is about.

2. One sentence along the lines of "Nintendo added this to animal crossing, its about time they did and its pretty cool" would have been enough without resorting to the whole muh ethnic representation struggle to garner more views

3. Most sensible people are fed up with these fluff reporting pieces, I'm sorry that you are not

"Thanks for playing" or some other passive aggressive nonsense closing comment

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naryanrobinson

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@Eire91: 1. If you can't tell what that title is about then you haven't been paying attention. No wonder which side you fell on.

2. It's still about a specific feature in a specific video game. You re-writing the sentence again to remove any mention of black people just makes it all the more ironic that you can't see what you're doing.

3. Most sensible people huh? Yeah that boycott of Star Wars by all those “sensible” fans who hated the idea of black people. That went really well. So well the movie even beat projections. You “sensible” guys are a minority with a big mouth, that's all. A bunch of angry teenage boys brainwashed by a party that lines its pockets by selling you hatred and division. We like these articles, and you coming here to spew your intolerance all over them just makes them ever more lucrative.

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Eire91

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@naryanrobinson: Dude I don't care what colour you are, why do you not get that?

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