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.Tweet
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.