When Animal Crossing New Horizons released amid global lockdown this Match, it was embraced by gamers isolating around the world. And while it was celebrated for the sheer breadth of customizations on offer, there is little diversity when it comes to hair. Now, a petition has been launch to ask that Animal Crossing offer more inclusive hairstyles.
The petition explains, "every person should feel represented when playing a game they love and making their avatar. Ethnic hairstyles are often forgotten. In light of what is happening in America concerning black rights, it would be amazing to have gamers of all races represented on all gaming platforms. Let's start with Animal Crossing!"
The lack of hair diversity in Animal Crossing reflects the deeply embedded issue of racial bias in video gaming. While gaming companies like Electronic Arts, Epic Games, and Sony Interactive Entertainment/PlayStation have published statements of support for the Black Lives Matter Movement their games have often unintentionally perpetuated racial stereotypes and limited players' choices to preconceived notions of racial bias.
Where does the problem start?
Although video games aren't designed to perpetuate racial biases, the problem arises when they are predominantly created by one racial group. Creators will, for example, unintentionally limit players' choices based on their own racial identity and biases.
Tanya DePass, the founder of the nonprofit I Need Diverse Games, says that game developers “are often not thinking about the fact that there are other people who also want to see themselves [in creating their avatar].” And when they do, the homogeneity of their team can lead to foreseeable mistakes.
This problem is well known throughout the tech industry. AI-powered algorithms have been found to display bias against people of color and against women. MIT researchers reported in January 2019 that facial recognition software is less accurate in identifying humans with darker pigmentation, which has lead to the false arrests of Black and brown people.
What is the impact?
Quartz found that “57% of video game players in the U.S. between the ages of 6 and 29 will be people of color in less than 10 years” however there are very few games whose stories center on characters of color. As the Animal Crossing petition notes, "every person should feel represented when playing a game they love."
Underrepresentation is a problem, but so is misrepresentation. Kishonna Gray, a professor at the University of Illinois—Chicago, argues that tracking the number of Black characters present in games misses the point of how they are represented. “In film, there have historically been three roles you see Black characters in: Black as violent, Black as the sidekick, Black as the help. This has also been true in video games.”
Casting Black characters within these three roles has real-world consequences. An academic study found that white participants were more likely to associate Black faces with negative words after playing a violent video game as a Black character than after playing a violent video game as a white character.
What's being done?
The good news is, while gaming has racial bias baked into it, it also has the potential to challenge implicit biases, and the key is in the customizations. TechCrunch found that "giving users lots of options to customize their avatar’s appearance goes a long way in helping different demographics of gamers feel welcomed and emotionally attached to a game."
You can head over to Change.org to sign the petition demanding a change.