In the 1940s, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted the Doll Test to observe the racial biases in children aged three to seven years old and, ultimately, demystify the notion of “separate but equal.” The series of experiments composing the test showed various results that all pointed to one dominant truth: society teaches children to conceptualize the idea that darkness is inferior and whiteness is superior. Not only did most children identify the black dolls as “mean, ugly, dumb, and bad” and white dolls as “nice, pretty, smart, and good”, but they also showed a willingness to identify with the white dolls more. In a video of the experiment, a Latino boy identifies with the white doll for reasons he’s not certain of besides that he thinks their ears seem similar. He reminds me of myself as a child, so used to often seeing only white people in the media I consumed and Barbie dolls I played with that I thought I was white, too.
At a very early age, I turned to video games to cope with social anxiety, financial instability, and family issues – and perhaps two of the games that provided the most comfort were Animal Crossing for the GameCube and Animal Crossing: Wild World. I found navigating a world with low-fidelity animal villagers, no pressure to meet deadlines for bills, and an immediate sense of community and belonging far easier. But it took me many years later to realize why I could never fully connect with my character in these games, which was that I was never able to be anything but white. With New Horizons coming out in less than a month, I’ve found myself excited about Animal Crossing for the first time in a long while because it’s what I’ve wanted since the series’ beginning. Rather than entirely new features like crafting and town construction, it feels almost more surreal to me that I, and other people of color, will finally be able to create characters that look like ourselves.
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One has to wonder why, since the series’ inception in 2001, this is the first mainline entry in which you can customize your skin tone. Animal Crossing’s history with race has been troubled, to say the least. The only way you could have darker skin is if you stayed out in the sun for hours during the summer. Since Animal Crossing’s clock operates in real-time, this means that they were hours in the real world, too. Eventually, your character’s skin tone would turn brown — but only for a short while before reverting back to its… natural state. There was no other way to be brown or black in a mainline Animal Crossing game. It took until Happy Home Designer in 2015 for the feature to be in an installment in the series at all. That it took over a decade for an extremely large and diverse portion of the world to be able to create characters that even closely resemble us is still astounding to think about.
I think Nintendo knows it, too, and is making an effort to show it’s grown in this department.
I remember my disbelief when the first New Horizons trailer premiered in June 2019, showing several brown and black player characters running along the shores of the island. I remember getting emotional as I watched them look at a sunset; for the first time, I felt like I could take part in that shared experience and look forward to a new era of this series.
This week’s Nintendo Direct exclusively focused on New Horizons, showing off never-before-seen features like being able to pick which hemisphere and island layout you want to live on, the vastly improved interior decorating system, and the ability to modify rivers and cliffs. While it was all incredibly exciting, I was just as happy to see several black hairstyles between the trailer and abundance of new pictures — many of which characters of color are very much present in — on the game’s official site.
It’s clear that Nintendo has taken steps to be significantly more inclusive, realizing that there isn’t much escapism in a game that has let you befriend animals, become mayor of an entire town, and even create a snowman that comes to life and talks to you, yet fails to allow millions of people to recreate themselves. It hasn’t re-examined its failings in just race, either. Facial parts clothing and hairstyles in New Horizons will be gender-neutral, as well as changeable anytime. If you’re in the process of figuring out your gender identity or wake up one day and realize your gender is different from what is when you started your file, you don’t have to worry about having to create a whole new character or town.
ANIMAL CROSSING NEW HORIZONS VIENE EN ESPAÑOL LATINO Y CON ELEMENTOS DE MEXICO pic.twitter.com/PYNuESYk34
— Mapache Rants (@MapacheRants) December 3, 2019
Animal Crossing is becoming more inclusive outside of the game itself, as well. At the end of 2019, a Nintendo event in Latin America revealed that New Horizons will be the first title in the franchise that will be localized into Latin American Spanish. It’ll also introduce elements of Mexican culture, like a cultural dress and an indigenous butterfly. Several people in the replies note that there are many more Latinx and Hispanic cultures and people than just Mexican, for the world often sees all Latinx people as Mexican (a gripe I will always have as someone who isn’t of Mexican descent). But it’s a reassuring start. It feels especially heartening to see the series include clear Latinx representation during what has been a time of ever-increasing hostility towards Latinx people since the 2016 U.S presidential election.
My feelings are much more complicated than a single article can allow. While I’m very much proud of who I am now, it took me a long time to feel this way. Animal Crossing was just one of many things I loved as a child that, whether intentionally or not, communicated to me that my brown skin was undesired and not normal; that it was something that could and should be fixed. It led to years of me having to do the emotional and psychological work of overcoming an inferiority complex over not being white; of not only no longer seeing the white doll I played as in these games as superior to who I was, but also not identifying with what was never me, and will never be me, to begin with.
I’m just happy that, now, little brown girls who play New Horizons will be able to create themselves. As human beings, we thrive on love and the feeling of being part of a community. In a world set on being especially difficult for people of color, especially women and girls of color, they will have this game and a community that will make them feel loved and appreciated, to find solace in. While the series has had a more than disappointing past, perhaps we can look ahead to… ahem, new horizons (sorry, I can never resist the urge).
The message is clear: although inclusivity is always a work in progress, more kinds of people than ever can sit at the table in Animal Crossing — and now, nobody has to sit at that table for hours until they’re acknowledged for a fleeting moment. The seats are ours to customize, move around and sit on for as long as we want — as they should have long been.