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The Casual Gaymer: Animal Crossing and gender expression

Of porcupines and purses.

Welcome to the first edition of “The Casual Gaymer!” a new weekly column from AiPT! Gaming in which I’ll share my thoughts, questions, and concerns about video games and the gaming industry as a queer person with limited free time. What I mean by that is this column will focus on “casual” gaming–low skill and/or stress games, playing on easy mode, finding help online, etc.–as well as examining gaming through a queer lens when possible. Because let’s face it: a lot of people have bills to pay, don’t have time to master mechanics, or simply aren’t good at a lot of the games they love. I, for one, can speak for all three. This is a column for gamers who love walkthroughs. The gamers who play on easy so they can experience the story without being stuck on a boss for three weeks. The gamers who love Overwatch because they can’t aim for crap, so they play Mercy or D.Va.

Why mix in the queer studies approach? Because if anyone is too stressed from daily microaggressions and years of institutional persecution and just want to come home after a long day at work to play some Stardew Valley where no one is threatening to take away your rights or call you another slur, it’s queer people. And sometimes games are queer as hell and I don’t see enough people celebrating how queer they are. Be the change you want to see and all that. So, first topic!

In anticipation for this year’s alleged Animal Crossing release for the Switch, I’ve been dipping my toes back into the relaxing, if fantastical world of Animal Crossing: New Leaf where my debts don’t collect interest, my friends and I don’t have to work through holidays and can spend time together, and I have a healthy savings account. Like with a warm glove, I slipped into my usual routines of watering flowers, talking to my animal villagers about how they just ran out of banana flan, and working shifts at a café where the customers never scream at you about the amount of foam on their drink.

Screenshots courtesy of the New 2DS XL’s limited share function.

However, this is the first time in my years of playing the game since its release in 2013 that I’ve worn clothes the game designates as being for the “opposite gender.”

I always play as a male character in Animal Crossing (the game only allows for male or female characters with regards to pronouns and identification during character creation) and though I’ve lived fully in my queerness since long before the game’s release, I never took advantage of the feature which allows the player to wear any clothing in the game, even if the clothing is gendered “opposite” that of the player. Who is gendering this clothing, you ask? Why, your favorite porcupine seamstresses, the sisters, Able (as written and programmed by the game developers).

When shopping for clothes at the Able Sisters’ store, if you select an item the game deems, we’ll say, unconventional for your character to wear, Mabel will ask if you’re shopping for a gift (implying you couldn’t possibly want to wear a skirt if you have a penis) while Labelle, being the chic, modern city girl she is, will still mention who the item is being marketed towards, but remark that anyone can work it.

There are also items that are considered “unisex,” which the characters will assure you that yeah, even though the cut of the sunglasses inspires a limp wrist, they’re a very neutral shade of lavender, so you know, no homo brah.

Even without the thinly veiled sarcasm, this approach to clothing in New Leaf already comes off as a touch dated, yet even in 2012 this game was depressingly progressive, especially coming out of a mainline Nintendo title. Nevertheless, even though my gay ass was celebrating the developers’ “progressive” approach to clothing in the game, I never once had my male character wear a dress. It was fine for other people and I’m glad the option was there, but for Trevor in his very early twenties, it wasn’t just a feature I wasn’t interested in, there was something on an instinctual level that felt like it would be wrong to dress my character–the representation of myself in the Animal Crossing world–in women’s clothing.

Reader, the internalized transphobia, misogyny, and gender roles had me in a tight grip. As a cisgender man, I never had to and never did blink once at the way the game insisted that the way pieces of fabric were cut or colored determined who should be wearing them, even if anyone could and I fully subscribed to those ideas. Over the years, as I’ve learned to dismantle what I thought was “true” about gender and explore outside of the binary, I now approach style in Animal Crossing with a less strict attitude and let the bells flow into those gender-bound porcupines paws whenever I see a dress that looks cute or a pair of pumps to strut into the mayor’s office in.

Not only does this make the game more fun to play with regards to messing with gender and exploring the spectrum of expression within a virtual space, I’ve also–seven-ish years after the game’s release–allowed myself to explore a ton of content I had been turning my nose to in save files past. The developers worked hard on all these looks and we should be exploring the countless options they’ve provided for looking fierce while we pay off that house loan with our tax-free bells!

When the next game in the Animal Crossing franchise arrives on the Switch and I bid farewell to my friends and loved ones as I become unreachable unless visited in-game, I hope I’m satisfied with the 2019 version of Animal Crossing‘s progressiveness. I hope we can eschew the idea that if a person with a penis wants to buy a skirt, they have to be reminded that it’s “for women.” Because at the end of the day, I’m a cisgender man who only has to ponder this quandary in a virtual space. Trans and nonbinary players the world over deserve a relaxing gaming experience wherein they can dress their character as they dress whatever body they have in real life without some porcupine slinging a microaggression their way. Also, let’s get even more skin tones in there. Happy Home Designer and Pocket Camp‘s selection were a step in the right direction, but there’s room for improvement. God knows queer people of color have arguably the most stress and hate to decompress from. Let’s make sure they can actually represent themselves in this utopia of bug catching and cats upon whose faces you may draw as they have no mouth and they must…

So that’ll do it for the first edition of The Casual Gaymer! What with the intro and all, this is an extra-special, extra-long edition, though depending on the topic, you might see another edition around this word count, maybe more, maybe less. I’m excited to see how the column grows as we will hopefully all grow as #gamers whether we’re scoring endless killing sprees in League or just petting our Bulbasaurs a bit in Pokémon Y before bed.

Until next time, I wish you a weed-free town and luck in the stalk market. Yes, yes.

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