Yesterday a very close friend of mine, Austin Walker, wrote a rather personal (and utterly outstanding) post on his blog discussing his problems with the lack of skin tone options available in Animal Crossing: New Leaf. In truth, it's an issue that he and I have been discussing since long before the game's launch. In the past week while I've been fishing, catching bugs, building my town up and writing sassy letters to my animal neighbours, he's had to set aside hours and hours of each day to maintain an ongoing tanning regimen, all to get to a skin tone at least vaguely approaching his own because the game doesn't support skin tone choice during character creation.
Beyond tanning, the only other option to change your skin tone (a Mii mask) isn't even available to you until a certain building opens up on your town's Main Street, which usually won't happen until well after a week of frequent play, and even that is a pretty problematic 'solution' at best.
But before we get into that, let's rewind and start at the beginning...
Animal Crossing's character generation system has always been a little unorthodox. At the beginning of the game, you answer a series of seemingly unrelated questions, and based on the tone of your answers they assign your a face and a hairstyle. They've always had an awkwardly coy way of confirming your gender, but at the same time I can understand why the same thing wouldn't necessarily work for race. Something about a cartoon cat on a train asking, "Oh, so you're black?" doesn't feel great.
This character creation process is often cited as the reason there's never been race options in Animal Crossing. It would be difficult to implement, probably awkward, and some argue that providing the kind of appearance confirmation options as Magician's Quest (a game by Konami that's best described as Animal Crossing meets Harry Potter) would spoil the fun or even the tradition of those first few minutes in an Animal Crossing title. It's easy enough to see why maybe Nintendo just didn't want to deal with it at all, if they could avoid it.
In later games, Animal Crossing added tanning. If you stay out in the sun too long without a parasol, your character will develop an increasingly deeper tan, though it seems like they've made it harder to tan in New Leaf than it was in the past, based on Austin's experiences. Considering how animals will begin to nag you for playing the game too long right around the same hour mark as an in-game tan becomes noticeable, this always struck me as a sort of disincentive. And it would be, for me. I'm an incredibly fair person in reality, and having a part of my identity removed from my character would upset me. However, as is mentioned in his piece, the game also makes it much easier for me to maintain my avatar's racial identity than it is for him to maintain his.
Then of course there's Shampoodle, the salon where you can go to adjust your avatar's appearance. For a small fee, you can replace your avatar's face with that of your Mii, including your Mii's skin tone. To some this might seem like a solution, but I personally don't think it is. In Animal Crossing: City Folk, players had access to Shampoodle from the beginning, however in New Leaf Shampoodle has to be earned. Depending on how you play it could take quite awhile to gain access to it, and even then your reward would be replacing your avatar that fits the Animal Crossing aesthetic and that you've become familiar with, with a Mii.
Congrats. You are now probably the only person among your friends playing as their Mii. Why? Because Miis just don't fit in with the Animal Crossing look. Miis are always Miis, and you can spot them from a mile away. No one wants to be the dude with the Mii character. You may also read Austin's thoughts on the Mii masks here.
The most troubling part of this is that the Mii Mask process changes your character's skin tone to match that of your Mii. Just like tanning, this proves that the game already has the assets to provide more diverse racial options without breaking the game's aesthetic, but just doesn't.
As Austin and I are both critics and writers, we spent a long time wrestling with what we each wanted to say on the issue. Ultimately I decided that I wanted to think about solutions (something that's much easier to do when someone else has already laid the groundwork for why it's a problem in the first place.) Frankly there are some incredibly easy solutions that could be patched in or even provided as free DLC items, which the game already has a system to deliver. It would be utterly trivial to add a bottle of self-tanner to the game, for example -- maybe you get a bottle for free when the island area becomes accessible, maybe it's an item available in the shop (on the island or otherwise). A tanning booth would also be an excellent addition to Shampoodle, althout the length of time it can take to earn access to it would still be an issue. An interactive tanning bed item you could keep in your house would be even better. While it's true that none of these address the problematic issue of the player character's default state being lily white (and racial identity something that still has to be earned) they would at least remove or reduce many of the obstacles currently in place. It would absolutely be a step in the right direction.
While we're dwelling on tans, why not just have one of the questions at the beginning of the game be about tans? "Do you like going out in the sun?" "Do you like to stay indoors?" It doesn't actually have to come down to a wide-eyed cat asking me how black I may or may not be. It's still not a perfect solution on its own, but it would provide a much better jumping-off point compared to... you know, nothing.
(Edit: On discussing it further, Austin proposed an even more elegant solution. Perhaps the cat is a budding artist, and he asks your permission to draw or paint your portrait to pass the time on the train ride. "Well, I'm new to this," he says, "What color paint do you think I should I use? Ivory, Beige, Peach, Caramel, or Chocolate?" This setup would also allow him to show you a preview of your character, including your hair and facial features, before committing to it. "How's this look? Think I captured your essence?")
Customization is the absolute core of the Animal Crossing experience, in New Leaf more than ever, so it's absolutely ridiculous that they continue to dance around such a fundamental aspect of identity. The fact is that the assets are there, it's just a matter of granting players access to them.
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Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.