A few weeks ago, I thought about buying The Last of Us on launch day. Usually, when I think about buying a game, there’s not a lot of decision process. If it’s something that interests me, I dive right in if I have the money. If I’m not interested, then there’s no sale. But for some reason, even though I knew that The Last of Us is a game I’d probably enjoy, and was a game I was following for a while, I was so throughouly disinterested in buying it.
Probably because I’d been playing so much Animal Crossing: New Leaf.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf is the fourth game in Nintendo’s life simulator series. You play a customizable villager who has moved to a town populated entirely by talking animals and just sort of live your life. You make money by fishing, or catching bugs, or cultivating and selling rare fruit and you use the money to build public works projects for your town or furniture for you home. Of course, first you have to pay off the obscene mortgages places upon you by local extortionist and racoon, Tom Nook.
"Why is (Animal Crossing) making me want to stay away from big budget, AAA gaming, at least for the rest of the summer?"
It’s not like this game fills any of the same niches that AAA games do for me. It’s a strange beast, a social game divorced of social game mechanics and simple connectivity. But it has the same constant goals and generally passive atmosphere of the traditional social game. One wouldn’t be entirely remiss to call it an expanded Farmville, but with rocks that spit out money to check every day instead of crops. So why is it driving me away from gaming’s latest darling, why is it making me want to stay away from big budget, AAA gaming, at least for the rest of the summer?
There are a few reasons. First, and this point can’t be understated, Animal Crossing might be one of the most progressive games on the market. Now, saying that makes me very sad, because it’s a game from Nintendo, a company who recently patched out same sex marriage in one of their other life simulator games, Tomodachi Collection. Japan is not known for gender equality or race equality, or progressive views in general, but somehow, Animal Crossing manages to be more progressive than any FPS I’ve played in years.
Men can wear dresses and skirts, girls can wear pants, gender isn’t a binary in Animal Crossing; it’s unbelievable, unprecedentedly fluid. I can only really think of games like Saint’s Row and Second Life that allow you to present your character in a similar way. Haircuts of either gender are available to any character, and multiple characters comment on how boys can wear makeup and how you look damn fine in whatever you choose to wear.
People smarter than me have already discussed at length Animal Crossing’s core customization flaw, the fact that there’s no race option. The fact that you character defaults to white is made even more ridiculous by the fact that the system-level Mii creator allows various skin tones. The only way to change skin colour in Animal Crossing is to leave the game for a few hours in the summer and “tan”. The terminology is frustrating. Where gender isn’t binary, race is default. You are white, unless you want to go out of your way to be not white. Two steps forward and one step back is the name of the game here, but that one step still puts Animal Crossing five steps ahead of the AAA competition, where deviations from the norm are cast aside and either made fun of or exploited.
For example, Mass Effect treats same-sex romance options as dalliances for the most part, with only the relationship between a female Shepard and Liara considered to be as valid as the “straight” options, and mostly because they’re two women and thus hot. Male Shepard and his single same-sex romance option, Steve Cortez, don’t even get to have on screen intercourse, likely because Electronic Arts felt that their audience wouldn’t want to be party to something like that. And Mass Effect is considered to be an otherwise fairly progressive game, with women and men treated equally in-universe, and homosexuality is considered to be completely normal.
Do you see where I’m coming from? It’s so refreshing to me to see a game that treats gender with such equality and rationality. Sure, Animal Crossing doesn’t have any same-sex options, but it’s not that kind of game. Animal Crossing is devoid of sexuality, likely because it’s an “all ages” title. But it isn’t devoid of emotion, with characters of either gender expressing their love for you, regardless of your gender. It’s not a huge step forward. But compared to where the rest of the industry is, this unassuming children’s game about living with talking animals is the single most progressive (non-indie) game on the market. And it’s hard to dive right back in to the exclusionary, occasionally bigoted culture of AAA gaming after experiencing that.
Not to mention the fact that your character becomes the mayor of the game, the most powerful figure in the town, regardless of gender. Animal Crossing is a power fantasy, but it’s decidedly not a traditional white male one. As a straight, white male, I’m sick of being told that violence (often against people who are not straight white males) is power, and I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like for people who aren’t like me, the people who have even more of a reason to be offended by this, the people who feel excluded when games tell them that in order to have power, they must be like the people who came up with this power fantasy. I miss pleasant games. Games that want to be taken at their own pace, games that don’t want me to run and shoot every brown person I see while my player character refers to them as “faggots”. Games that don’t exclude you simply because you don’t “fit”.
AAA gaming is in a rut. Naughty Dog had to fight to get protagonist Ellie on the cover of The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite’s Elizabeth isn’t even ON the front cover. The Last of Us might not even be the best example of a game that falls into the standard pitfalls of AAA gaming, but it's just the catalyst of all this for me. The culture around these games is pushing away anyone who isn’t a straight, white male, and excluding anyone who doesn’t want to take part in these power fantasies of violence and, well, exclusion. And not every AAA game is like that. Tomb Raider is, from all accounts, fairly respectable towards protagonist Lara Croft. Saint’s Row let’s you play as a woman and play with gender distinctions. But these are exceptions, exceptions that often have to make sacrifices to sell well. And I’m just so tired of it.
Let me tell you this fun fact about Animal Crossing before you stop reading this and comment about how gay I am for hating on Call of Duty and Battlefield and Guns of Shooting 69. Animal Crossing lets you run by holding the B button. That’s not a big deal. It’s been a feature in games since Super Mario Bros. in 1985. But running is almost always a bad idea. It destroys flowers that beautify your town and chases away the fish and bugs that make you your profits. Not only that, but it tramples your town’s grass, which only grows back at a very slow rate, and not at all during the winter and fall.
"Why would the game even let you choose something so negative?"
So why would you ever run? It’s a universally bad choice. Why would the game even let you choose something so negative? Because that’s what Animal Crossing is about. Choosing to take the game slowly, to stop and smell the roses, to experience this tiny little world at its own pace. Animal Crossing knows that eventually you’ll get bored with it. Six months in you’ll stop visiting the town, it'll be infested by weeds and all flower life will wither away. It knows that one day it as a world will die. And so it wants you to appreciate it for every thing it is. It wants you to slow down and take a look deep inside of it. It wants you to see that there are flaws with race customization; it wants you to see how it’s barely removed from Farmville and many other time sink social games. It wants you to see it for all of its flaws, because it knows that above all else you’ll see the most important thing.
You’ll see that Animal Crossing might not be perfect. It might not get all of its progressiveness right, but it wants to. You'll see that Animal Crossing is one of the most well intentioned games you’ll ever play, and that’s something not even the biggest budget can buy.