Thursday, March 20, 2014

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Iris Rants: Animal Crossing: New Leaf Is Not a Poster Child for Diversity in Gaming

Animal Crossing New Leaf Dr Shrunk
Janine "Iris Ophelia" Hawkins' ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style

One of the showstopping talks at GDC yesterday came from two of the developers behind Animal Crossing: New Leaf. At their panel "How to Turn a New Leaf at the Animal Crossing," project leader Aya Kyogoku and producer Katsuya Eguchi spoke at length about how they tried to make their game as appealing as possible to its audience. Both agreed that a key part of New Leaf's success was diversity. Diversity of gender and life experiences of the developers played a key role, they said, because the Animal Crossing series' audience is itself very diverse.

There were a lot of particularly positive and encouraging statements made about the importance of including female developers in this, which helped make the panel a darling on Twitter and across various gaming news sites. There's just one problem: New Leaf is not a very diverse game.

I love the Animal Crossing series, and I have put an embarrassing number of hours into New Leaf in particular. I have maxed out my house, built piece after piece of golden furniture, collected complete seasonal sets, even completed my fossil collection. I also did truly appreciate the statements that Kyogoku and Eguchi made about the importance of having a diverse development team. At GDC itself male speakers and presenters still vastly outnumber the women, so Kyogoku's presence on stage was that much more significant.

But as I saw Tweet after Tweet and article after article talking about diversity in New Leaf, I couldn't help but shake my head. There's lots of room in New Leaf for players to be young or old, male or female (or neither or both), but a word like "diversity" reaches so much farther. Remember, in Animal Crossing: New Leaf there are only two ways to have a non-white avatar, and neither of them are available to you when you first start playing.

The first method is the most time consuming: After a few days of steady play you unlock the ability to visit a tropical island and, if you spend 2-5 hours a day there for several days in a row, your avatar will build up a tan. If you miss a day here and there, however, your skin will lighten and you'll soon be right back at square one. The second method is a little more complicated, and involves a lot of shopping. The more you shop, the sooner you'll unlock the salon, and the more you use the salon, the sooner you'll unlock makeovers. This will allow you to wear the face of your Mii over that of your New Leaf avatar. This has the dual effect of making you look like a dork and putting you in what almost amounts to blackface. Unlike a similar process from an earlier Animal Crossing game, the skin of your avatar's body will be left lily white no matter what color your Mii's face is.

Obviously there is still a lot to admire in Kyogoku and Eguchi's talk, but I can't help but feel that a loaded word like "Diversity" might be a bit too much for New Leaf to live up to.

Mixed reality iris 2013Iris 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.


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Pussycat Catnap

Really not surprised...

Japan is very mono-cultural. Oddly has a preference not for Japanese characters in its animation / gaming, but euro-centric ones. But the preference is so strong its just jarring some times...

The rest of the world is moving past them.

Iris Ophelia

@Pussycat Actually those characters are usually supposed to be Japanese, not European. You can sometimes see this in anime that have American/European characters mixed in to an otherwise Japanese cast for comparison, but I think this article explains the issue pretty well:

Pussycat Catnap

Yes I've seen that defense of it before. I remain unconvinced. I've seen many characters that are intentionally "Japanesed up" who then have features that are Asian - skin tone, eyes, nose.

And if one looks at media from Asia outside of that island, people draw in reflection of their own ethnic features.

Prior to WWII Japanese art also had characters that look clearly Asian. Somewhere postwar, it changes. Not sure when exactly.

Kotaku is a source that is heavily 'fandom' focused on Japanese memes, so of course they are going to see this all in the light that paints what they are fans of in the most 'progressive angle possible'.

One could claim I do the opposite. But even if so, then the middle-ground still doesn't look so diverse. I'm not willing to say I do though. There are topics I have a very strong bias against. This is not one of them - rather one I am highly critical over.

Adeon Writer

I was surprised to hear half of the New Leaf development team was female.

...It doesn't show.

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