Animal Crossing's Trans Players: Identity, Expression, and What's Next

30 Jun 2020

Nintendo has had a bit of a rocky history with LGBTQ+ representation in their games, as well as the people that play them. With Animal Crossing: New Horizons, things seem different.

Animal Crossing has been a historically queer franchise, giving players the autonomy to express themselves through their clothing and town that they might not be able to do in real life or other games. Who cares if you identify as male and wear a dress, or identify as female and wear a suit? It’s your island, who’s going to tell you to present yourself differently?

The series’ latest installment—bolstered by years of hype, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and ensuing lockdowns—blurs the line between binary genders even more, with players given the option to select one of two interchangeable character “styles” marked by a face with either a caesar cut or a ponytail with bangs. This lack of rigidity in adhering to a specific gender not only affects how a player presents themself, but in their interactions with other characters as a whole, as villagers will refer to other players with the gender-neutral pronoun “they.” Most notably, the beaver fisherman CJ refers to his bug-catching roommate Flick as his “partner,” who crafts models for you if you bring the former three of the same fish. Gone are the days of being restricted to clothing of a certain gender or needing to get your hair cut 15 times in order to unlock the styles of the opposite gender, now you can change your hair however and whenever you want and can buy any and all clothing items at Able Sisters. It more or less seems like Animal Crossing has caught up to the times.

While this fluidity is only apparent in the English version of the game, as the Japanese version still refers to the two styles as “boy” and “girl” along with CJ referring to Flick as his “friend,” the commitment to being able to express yourself however you want still remains. In an interview with the Washington Post, director Aya Kyogoku states that the removal of these restrictions isn’t “just about gender,” but that as a whole, “society is shifting to valuing a lot of people’s different identities.” Following this, she also says that the team “…basically wanted to create a game where users didn’t really have to think about gender,” giving total control over their appearance to the player.

To fully understand what these changes meant to players, I talked to a few trans and gender non-conforming individuals who have used Animal Crossing to explore their identity and express themselves in ways they would otherwise not be able to. The series has done a great job of ensuring that players can be who they want to be but, according to them, there’s still work that can be done.

Gabriel Burrows is a non-binary trans man who picked up New Horizons after being furloughed from work and seeing his friends playing it. He came out when he was sixteen, looking up to trans YouTube personalities such as Kovu Kingsrod and Jamie Raines (both of whom are trans men) as well as various Young Adult novels to explore their identity. They also mentioned that they had a lot of support from their friends, and have been more experimental in experimenting with their non-binary side recently.

As someone that isn’t into fashion, Burrows likes the amount of customization when it comes to clothing. “I stay pretty basic with my clothing choices partially to avoid harassment and misgendering, and partially because of dysphoria,” they say. “It’s quite nice to be able to express myself in any way that I want, without worrying about being gendered incorrectly – partially because you can’t typically tell what gender a player is just by looking at their AC villager, and partially because the people that come onto my island (and vice versa) are accepting people anyway.”

Something that stood out to him with regards to gender identity would be the custom clothes that other players create. Where New Leaf pushed the series forward in terms of connectivity with QR codes for patterns and clothing that could be shared, which proved extremely popular on sites like Tumblr and Pinterest, New Horizons lets you do all of the sharing within the game by assigning Creator IDs and Design IDs for others to download aforementioned designs while also providing a profile to showcase a creator’s works. For Burrows, he feels like the community could do more work to promote gender-neutrality in their creations.

“It’s not a huge glaring problem, but it is kind of uncomfortable when creators include ‘gendered’ (for lack of a better word) details on their clothing, like cleavage or targeting their custom designs at women,” they state. “I understand totally it’s their design, it’s just a little thing I’m not a fan of, personally.”

‘IllMakeYouLaugh‘ is a gay, non-binary artist who has used their art as well as clothing and makeup to express themself. They say that they’ve always felt uncomfortable being referred to as a woman or by feminine-leaning names, but despite that they’ve learned to not let others invalidate them just because they wear makeup or clothing that could be considered “feminine.” They credit their friend group made of LGBTQIA+-identifying people, who say that they “saved [their] life.”

Aside from music and movies playing a big role (“you get to see and hear people really express themselves in ways you wouldn’t think would be relevant to gender but it really does”), they say that being able to play as whoever they wanted in video games helped them be more confident in themselves growing up.

“Growing up I’d play as the girl characters because I wanted to feel the way they did: confident and feminine in a cool way. I remember playing Sims and making my character gay and feeling so validated by that.”

A new Animal Crossing player, ‘IllMakeYouLaugh’ says that being able to wear any clothing you want as any character you play as helps express themselves in ways they wouldn’t be able to.

“I love being able to buy whatever clothes I want! I’m not comfortable wearing dresses or skirts in real life and something about knowing that I made my character male and can wear dresses is validating? I wear things I wouldn’t in real life but can explore style and gender in that way in the game.”

Wil Williams is a bisexual, agender writer who gave a great response to the question of how they discovered their own identity.

“It kind of felt like just as I got to the top of a staircase, someone pushed me off, and I kept hitting different stairs of queerness, wondering if this stair would finally be the ground. And this still might not be. Who knows!”

She also says that the thing that resonated with her the most was a post she saw, in which the poster said that cisgender people don’t think about their gender every day, and clicked with the term “agender” to divorce from the concept entirely.

Williams actually credits fashion history to helping normalize a lack of binary in clothing, and brought up an example with Justin McElroy and his depiction of the character Taako in the play podcast The Adventure Zone.

“Taako is cis, but there’s a moment where he wears a skirt. The other players are like, ‘A man-skirt?’ and Justin is just like, ‘No. Just a skirt. It’s just a skirt.’ That sort of flippant take on typically gendered clothing was huge to me. It wasn’t a big Gender Statement, like a lot of fashion lines messing with androgyny at the time were doing. It was just casual, just normal, a take on ‘why would this even need to be gendered?’ without being sensationalized.”

With New Horizons, they shared similar sentiments to the others I talked to, in that even though the game has made an effort to create an atmosphere of neutrality, there’s still a bit of gender structure adhered to the clothing options available to the player. While it’s convenient to be able to switch to presenting as either masculine or feminine at any time, especially with the new Wand tool, there’s still a bit of a gray area in the middle.

“I’m pretty tremendously femme, but there are days I just want to present as more or less neutral, and it feels like with the tops and bottoms, trying to mix traditionally gendered items can be a pain. But when it comes to going for specifically masc or femme outfits, it’s great. I love that there’s such a huge diversity in not just shape, but style.”

They also shared their experiences with the villager Chief, and how making villager more homogenous (one of the biggest criticisms about New Horizons is that villagers aren’t as unique as they were in previous entries) actually leads to less of a binary system that affects gameplay as a whole.

“Before, I had this structure in my brain that I should gift them clothes that fell on their binary lines, like they’d be confused if I gave them clothes that fell on the other side. But Chief made it clear that wouldn’t happen. The characters wouldn’t make a joke out of me giving Roscoe or Zucker a dress or giving Puddles or Mint tuxedo jackets. I started doing it, and they all just loved it.”

“It felt not just like I was an agender nb weirdo on my own island, but instead, traditional gender norms around fashion were the weird and silly thing. That was huge for me. I know it’s a bunch of code and pixels, but getting to escape into a world where I have some control over my world AND I don’t have to ever really think about gender existing.”

While each person I talked to had their own way of expressing themselves on their islands, they all shared a similar sentiment for what the series could do in the future: more customization options, ditching the gender system entirely, and being able to use your own pronouns.

“I would definitely say more clothing items that blend the binary in presentation, for sure. I’d also love explicitly nb villagers!” Williams adds.

Williams and Burrows also shared a similar view on a lack of hair options in the game, stating some cultural differences that I mentioned above, with Burrows adding “I will note that there is a considerable lack of curly hair. That’s a complaint I’ve heard from other people, too.”

‘IllMakeYouLaugh’ also mentioned that ditching the gender option entirely will result in less uncomfortableness for players who identify as non-binary, but despite this they feel like there’s already an ample amount of clothing items available

“I think the game already has such a wide variety of clothing options that asking for anything else would become nit picky.”

Animal Crossing as a franchise has made great strides to be inclusive of all players, and while it might be seen by some as enough already, there could certainly be more improvements made to being able to fully be who you want to be. The series’ ability to let players explore different ways of self-expression and identity is insurmountable, and there’s always more work that can be done with making sure that not just Animal Crossing is accessible to all players, but video games as a whole. Normalizing more non-binary styles in video games can carry over to real-life, and it’s important to teach acceptance and exploration so that those that fall outside of the status quo are appreciated.

Even then, why would you want to blend in?

Featured image courtesy of Attack of the Fanboy, all other images courtesy of Gabriel Burrows, ‘IllMakeYouLaugh’, and Wil Williams respectively.