Avatar Crossing: Self Representation in Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Joe Todd is a PhD Student in Recreation and Leisure Studies at the University of Waterloo.  He is interested in studying online socialization through video games, and how that impacts and affects one’s offline life.  Joe is a Little Mac main in Smash, and has an Xbox logo tattooed on his body. You can read more about Joe in this story for the Recreation and Leisure studies website. Joe Todd can be found on Twitter @heyjoetodd, or LinkedIn

Animal Crossing: New Horizons, released on March 20, 2020, has had the most successful initial release for a Nintendo Switch game, selling over 13.41 million copies (Carpenter, 2020). Since its release, it has become one of the most talked-about games, with Twitter data suggesting that “conversation volume since launch has grown over 1,000 percent and the number of people tweeting about the game has grown over 400 percent” (Khan, 2020). The customization and easy-going nature of New Horizons are why The New York Times calls it “The Game of the Coronavirus Moment” (Khan, 2020). While it is possible that the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to both the sales and conversation metrics of Animal Crossing, I argue that the importance of this game comes from Animal Crossing’s deep customization which allows for reflection on one’s self-image. The purpose of this essay is to explore the flexible features, options, and practices of a player’s villager, or avatar, in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, to understand how one could represent themselves in a virtual world and its (possible) impact on the one’s real-world identity. 

While it’s fun for players to dress their villagers up in different outfits alone, exploring avatar customization can also lead to reflexive experimentation and opens up a deeper understanding of the player’s sense of self. The extensive customization found in New Horizons provides a place for its players to experiment with their online identities. By creating and developing their villager, it will be argued that users are also able to play with their own personal identities outside of the game, showing how one’s avatar can be used as a point of introspection. These identities, created and developed through online games like Animal Crossing, could then play a role in establishing relationships both in online and offline communities based on how we represent ourselves. Our avatars are more than just a character used to play various online games. They are part of a deeper understanding of our sense of self, and our relationships with others. 

Animal Crossing: New Horizons has the player take control of the newest villager on an island which must be built up and turned into a thriving paradise. As part of the infamous Tom Nook’s newest business adventure, the player and two other randomized animal friends are sent to an island that players develop and customize to their heart’s content. The player is in control of where houses, shops, museums, landscape features, and bridges are all placed as well as how they want to decorate their home and the rest of the island. Once they are ready to show off their island oasis, the player can then invite friends and strangers online to explore the island, sell fruit, and have friends mail the player various gifts. What piqued my interest the most in New Horizons, however, was the representation of myself through my customizable avatar.     

FPS copy editor Andrew’s avatar working hard and playing hard

When the player first creates an avatar, they can only customize their skin tone, hair-style (with an initial limit of 8 styles), hair colour, nose, mouth, cheeks, eye shape, and eye colour.  New Horizons takes a progressive leap forward in avatar design, as it drops the requirement to have the player choose a gender at the beginning of the adventure. As the player progresses in the game, their customization options expand by unlocking the Top 8 Cool and Pop hair-styles, along with the Top 8 Pop hair colours. While this significantly enhances the customization of the player’s avatar, the customization within New Horizons continues to grow through the selection of wearable items. Recent updates to New Horizons evenallows the user to customize their skin tone, in line with various Halloween costumes and outfits (i.e., green for a witch). The Animal Crossing Wiki page claims there are 4647 clothing items found in-game to date, a number that continues to grow with additional downloadable content, and which are broken down into tops, bottoms, dresses, hats, accessories, socks, shoes, bags, and umbrellas (Animal Crossing Wiki, 2020). This figure does not even include the custom designs that users can create, with the added ability to post codes online for others to download their designs. Even high-end fashion designers such as Sandy Liang, Maison Valentino, and Marc Jacobs (Notis, 2020) have clothing designs available for download. In addition, players can choose to download older designs from Animal Crossing: New Leaf (2012), through the Nintendo Switch mobile app. This extensive customization shows just how central avatar customization is to the success of the game.

Much of the existing literature on avatars categorizes gamers and their avatars into two groups: Immersionists and Augmentationists. Immersionist players “treat the avatar as a personality that is wholly distinct from the offline self of the player,” while augmentationists “treat their avatar as an augmentation of their offline self” (Edgar, 2016, p. 62). Yee (2006)      defines immersionists as those who wish to try for new identities, while augmentationists create avatars as a projection, or idealization of one’s self. I consider myself an augmentationist. My villager wears clothes that I would wear or do wear in real life, such as a black jean jacket and dark blue jeans, as well as items that my friends have gifted me, including samurai greaves and a football helmet. While I would never wear the latter two items in real-life, I incorporate them into my outfit because I am projecting my real life friendships onto my virtual avatar. However, when playing in virtual worlds like New Horizons, players could experiment with their avatar to make changes to themselves in their real worlds, depending on how they see themselves virtually. How I see myself reflected in my villager may encourage me to become a football player or don samurai gear in public. In other words, how one customizes their avatar can have implications beyond the game world.

Our interactions with our avatars often incorporate two concepts: “telepresence” and “social presence.” Telepresence “captures the interaction between the communicator and his/her avatar and this has implications for immersion in virtual spaces” (Schultze & Leahy, 2009, p. 4), whereas social presence “captures the interaction between the communicator, in avatar form, and others and thus has implications for the communicator’s (re)presentation of self” (p. 4, emphasis in original). Telepresence explores how present one is in their virtual world, so if the player feels a greater sense of integration with their avatar, they will have a greater sense of immersion in their world. Research has shown that players identify with avatars who show a higher resemblance to themselves, and this identification increases players’ game enjoyment (Trepte & Reinecke, 2010). Schultze and Leahy (2009) developed a spectrum of telepresence with one end highlighting a segmented avatar/self relationship and the other end an integrated relationship. Within this spectrum, the idea is that an avatar is an object of reflection, where one can use their avatar “to reflect on their real life selves, current and future” (p. 9). This idea is particularly explored through the appearance of one’s avatar, where users indicated that they wish they could look like their avatar in real life (Martey & Consalvo, 2011; Schultze & Leahy, 2009). 

However, the customization is not perfect, but it is improving. A recent petition by Taniesha Braken, which held over 57 thousand signatures, was successful in its efforts asking Animal Crossing toadd more ethnic hairstyles to the game. The petition stated that every person “should feel represented when playing a game they love and making their avatar… 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”. This petition highlights the importance of avatar customization, as underrepresented ethnicities wish to connect and play with their avatars in a way that further caters to their real-world appearances.

Tanieska Braken’s avatar celebrating a successful petition, Source: Change.org

Sociologist Sherry Turkle (1999) believes that online personae (or avatars) are something that could be played with. These simulations or avatars are what she calls evocative objects, which are objects people think through (Turkle, 2007). Turkle finds that we have multiple selves and play multiple roles in our virtual worlds, stating that some players who play characters of the opposite gender are swept up by experiences which “could enable them to explore previously unexamined aspects of their sexuality or that challenge their ideas about a unitary self” (Turkle, 1999, p. 646). Turkle uses the term “multiplicity” to refer to the idea of a flexible self, where one can constantly change aspects of themselves. Turkle suggests that we can use our avatars “to become more aware of what we project into everyday life. We can use the virtual to reflect constructively on the real. Cyberspace opens the possibility for identity play, but it is a very serious play” (1999, p. 647). We are already seeing this crossover occur with Animal Crossing users, as designer Sandy Liang stated that: “Yesterday, I bought a frog helmet and some paw boots, and it made me want some paw boots in real life,” while another user has suggested that he “will be adding some yellow pants resembling an Able Sisters purchase to his real-life wardrobe as soon as the quarantine ends” (Trebay, 2020). Through their avatars, users have been experimenting with their fashion sense and are looking to bring these styles into their offline lives.  

 Additionally, the player’s (re)presentation of self as an avatar is not only seen by others online but also seen by their own self(Schultze and Seahy, 2009). Schultze and Seahy (2009) identified the avatar as a “virtual me” where the participants of their research “perceived no distinction between themselves and their avatar” (p. 11). What’s more, avatars are also described as a “possible self” where users can explore “who they might become, who they would ideally like to become or who they are afraid of becoming” (Schultze & Seahy, 2009, p. 12). Following Schultze and Seahy, New Horizons becomes a game of “wish fulfillment. ” For example, one user claims that they have added a French maid’s uniform into their villager’s closet because “I can strut it and not worry how anyone perceives me. . . one way or another, the game is always affirming you” (Trebay, 2020). While it is unclear whether this user added a French maid’s costume to their real-life wardrobe, New Horizons gives players the opportunity to experience, experiment, and express themselves in ways they are unable to in real life. If I was an immersionist who identified their avatar as a “virtual me,” I could be seen sleeping in my real-world bed with a kimono, something my villager loves to do in his Japanese inspired bedroom. However, since I have no plans or money to renovate my bedroom or buy a kimono, I am left imagining a reflection of myself that could be. This idea relates to Lisa Nakamura’s (1995) discussion on identity tourism, suggesting that some may use virtual spaces to “play” with racial identities and stereotypes (i.e. Asian samurai figures). Although this may appear problematic, perhaps “it can enable a thought provoking detachment of race from the body, and an accompanying questioning of the essentialness of race as a category” (Nakamura, 1995, p. 7). I do not wish to argue how one represents themselves in virtual worlds. However, players should look in the mirror to understand why they present themselves in a certain way, and their avatars could encourage self-reflection. 

Managing Editor Patrick living the washed-up pro wrestler life on the Island of Swansea

Charles Cooley introduced the concept of the “looking glass self” in 1902, and the concept remains popular in video games research today (Martey & Consalvo, 2011). While it is primarily a concept to explore how others perceive you, it can also be argued that this concept allows us to investigate how we see ourselves through our virtual representations (Martey & Consalvo, 2011; Zhao, 2005). The looking glass self has three elements: 1) how we imagine we appear to others; 2) what we imagine their judgement of us to be; and 3) how we develop ourselves based on that judgment (Charmaz, Harris, & Irvine, 2019). In New Horizons, we are both the avatar and the distanced “other” watching our avatar change clothes, react to other villagers, and torment Blathers with bugs. Through this process of interaction with our villager, we can begin to develop ourselves based on the judgments we give our own virtual representations. While I don’t enjoy how my villager looks in paw boots and a frog hat, I have taken a real-life interest in the “double bridged glasses” my villager wears. New Horizons could provide users with an opportunity to develop themselves based on their own judgments of their digital selves.  

In a world that is continuously becoming digital, as our societies shift to working from home, leisure and social opportunities are also beginning to change. Our “new normal” keeps us physically distanced from friends and family, and more of our social lives turn to virtual spaces. It appears that Nintendo released Animal Crossing: New Horizons at just the right time, as they found their profits from April to June increasing by over 400%from last year, with more than half of the consoles sold in this time period playing New Horizons (O’Rourke, 2020).      New Horizons is popular amidst our new normal because of its casual and accessible nature for all, while providing opportunities to socialize and escape the outside world (Huddleston Jr., 2020). In order to socialize virtually, it is important we understand how we represent ourselves through our online avatars. 

A meta-analysis of 43 articles discussing user-avatar relationships suggests that: those who created an avatar that is significantly different from their actual self correspond with problematic gaming (i.e., low self-esteem, gaming addiction), while those who create avatars similar to their real-world self are correlated with higher self-esteem, good game experience, and good online sociality (Sibila & Mancini, 2018). In fact, the more one creates an idealized avatar in a video game that differs from themselves, the higher the risk of gaming addiction as one seeks to attain something one lacks in the real world (Mancini et al., 2019). It is clear why Turkle called identity play “serious” within cyberspace, as players navigate gender, sexuality, race, esteem, addiction, and more when creating an avatar. While Turkle might believe in the immersionist way of avatar creation, the research above shows the benefits of an augmentationists approach. However, if one plays with their identity to an extreme immersive sense, they could discover previously unexamined aspects of self that become part of their real-world identity. As the lines between virtual and real continue to blur, it is important to consider who one wishes to be online and offline, how and to what extent these selves overlap, and whether or not we wish them to be the same. While New Horizons provides a fun and playful outlet where gamers and non-gamers alike can play with new clothing and styles to add to their virtual and real-world closets, I believe this game’s popularity and accessibility encourage serious examinations of self that go beyond the superficial. This in turn will affect how our relationships with others develop both online and offline based on how we represent ourselves. More research is needed to expand on the avatar/self relationship to explore how this relationship is considered by other users and examine the interactions between the avatar, the self, and others. By examining these relationships, we could further our understanding of how we socialize in virtual (physically distanced) worlds and how we compartmentalized our experiences in virtual environments.

Editor-in-Chief Sabrina heading out for a productive day of pulling weeds


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