I’m sitting on my bed for the third day in a row.
I’m waiting for 5PM to hit so that I can finally close my 3DS. I’ve been ‘tanning’ my avatar in the latest entry of Nintendo’s long running Animal Crossing series, New Leaf. I put ‘tanning’ in scare quotes because the method doesn’t match my intention. Yes, I’m doing the the thing the game calls tanning, but my objective isn’t just darkening my avatar’s skin tone, it’s being able to see in the screen what I see in the mirror
Why avatar and not character? Because the hallmark of Animal Crossing is expressivity. You play a recent immigrant to a small town, and over the course of many short play sessions you carve out a place for yourself. You go fishing, catch bugs, and harvest fruit to raise the funds to pay off your home loan, and then do it all over again to pay for expansions and for new floors. You go shopping for new furniture and clothing from a rotating stock of available options. Want to look like a sea captain? Grab that ridiculous but charming beard and design yourself a sharp looking pea coat. Want to turn that new add-on into an ad hoc trophy room? Get some shelves and tables, and put those trophies out. You’ve earned it. You get to decide the direction of the little community you live in too: Plop down (and finance) new bridges; Put into place ordinances that require residents to take better care of the plants in town. Animal Crossing is a game you push and pull and stretch and step on until you like what you see, and then you do that some more because aesthetic contentment is a moving target, and AC is all about letting you hit that target again and again.
Well, almost. Because no matter how much direct control I have over my house, my wardrobe, or the town I lives in, I don’t ever get to specifically pick one very important thing: my skin color.
Technically, you don’t customize your character at all before the game properly starts. You’re asked a few innocuous questions in the opening moments of the game, and based on how you answer, you get an arbitrarily assigned avatar. I got a doofy dude with what looked like an off-brand Fantastic Four t-shirt. I’ve seen people on forums defend the absence of a skin selection option by referencing this opening. They argued that the game would be less charming if it had a checklist-style character creator. It almost goes without saying: this is an argument that comes from a privileged position. It’s easy to make charm your primary concern when discomfort and exclusion aren’t ever possibilities.
Still, I’m okay with having some degree of vagueness here. It works. As above, AC is about making small, discrete choices over the course of weeks and months that slowly brings your vision into being. I don’t mind the t-shirt: I know that I can buy something cooler as soon as it’s in stock (and if it isn’t, I can always design something on my own.) I don’t mind the hairstyle: I know it won’t be for at least a week or two, but eventually a hairdresser will move to town and I’ll be able to get a new ‘do. When I’m sick of these choices I can change them again. That’s where the joy in AC comes from for me: bringing the avatar and the world into line with my whims. And it does it so damned well, except for this one thing.
It is 1992.
I am 7 years old and standing in Tilt, the local mall arcade. I flip from character to character on the Street Fighter II: Champion Edition screen. Who do I pick? Maybe Ryu? Karate and headbands care cool. Maybe Blanka? Monsters and electricity, right? Woah, definitely not Balrog. He looks, well… He looks dumb. That’s what dumb people look like. He looks like the bad guy. And he is, he’s one of the bad guys. He’s not even the cool bad guy. He doesn’t get a cape, or a catchphrase, or a mask. I don’t know the word brute yet. I don’t know that he’s a crude parody of Mike Tyson, I just see a resemblance. I don’t know know why, I just know that I do not want to associate myself with the only African-American in this game.
There are other characters of color, of course. Sagat seems okay, I guess… Dhalsim can spit hot fire, so, okay maybe. Chun-Li maybe… sure she was a girl, but she was fast. And back then, and for years after, I wanted to play as everything I wasn’t. I wanted to be thin, quick, attractive. That word called a great variety of images into my head, but they were rarely (if ever) black men. Especially when we understand ‘attractive’ to incorporate more than physical attributes.
So I tried to find affinity in other places. That same year, the X-Men cartoon started airing on Fox, and I’d pretend I was Cyclops because, like me, he had to wear glasses all the time. I got good grades, so I’d choose Donatello on the TMNT machine—he was the smart one. But I never saw myself in any of the few black characters that were available. I chose to run with Vincent or Cid in my third party slot in Final Fantasy VII, never with Barrett—another brute, another parody. Other people saw me as black, but I knew that I was mixed, and I might have clung to that. That’s how I rationalized that I get to play as the white hero instead of the black sidekick. That’s how these things work.
I hover over Balrog for a second, one more time. I like Mike Tyson, but I hear he’s a criminal. That meant a lot. I was a good kid.
I like Randall Cunningham, the quick-scrambling, play-making quarterback for the Eagles. No, I love him. My dad makes sure I get his autograph once, outside of an open practice in Westchester, PA. On the way home I hear from him about how “black quarterbacks” are a fairly new thing. That for years, white coaches and sports writers thought that blacks were too dumb to play QB—that they were good running backs, good wide receivers, great linebackers, but they just didn’t think quickly enough to be leaders. Even Randall… he says, trailing a bit, knowing the stats, knowing that he makes mistakes, that he throws interceptions. I wonder now if there was ever a point in my father’s life that he wondered, like me then, if what those people said about us might be true.
Back at the cabinet. Back in Tilt. I pick Guile, of course. Straight blonde hair, blue eyes, american F-16s and combat fatigues. And I’m a Guile player for years.
It’s this past Thursday.
I’m at a friend’s house, looking at what might become a spare room in the next month or two. Back in my current apartment, my 3DS sits open on the makeshift end table next to my bed. I forget to turn the volume off when I leave, so when I come home, I can hear the ‘exotic’ island tune chirping out of the tiny speakers. I frantically check to see if Argyle—my twee-as-fuck avatar—has gotten any color yet. It’s been five hours, and nothing. See, it’s not that I have no control over my character’s skin color. Based on past games in the series, I knew that I could tan. Just head to the tropical island that opens up a few days into play and hang out in the sun. Just five hours and you’ll hit the darkest shade. At least, that’s how it used to work. Now, nothing.
I’m upset. I’d already been frustrated, but now I’m really upset. If I could go to the island, tan to the level I wanted, and go on about my business for the rest of the game, I wouldn’t be writing this. I’d still be upset that skin color wasn’t a customization option in the game, but the practical effect on my play would’ve been so minimal that it wouldn’t have simmered for so long, it wouldn’t have made me feel so disconnected from the me on the screen.
Because the me up here wants to go do other things: he wants to head back to the mainland, shake some trees, talk to the other villagers in town, write some letters, redecorate the house, maybe check out a few of the museum exhibits that I’ve donated to. I can’t do any of that. I adore how a friend of mine has carefully displayed custom ground tile patterns around her village in order to build walkways and boardwalks and plazas, and even though I know it would take a lot of work, I’d love to do something just like that. But I’m stuck on the island hoping for a tan.
I don’t even know what is preventing it from happening. After the first day without results I decide I should remove my avatar’s glasses, my hat, my shoes and socks. I wonder if fishing could somehow interfere with the tanning process. What if my inventory is open? Or if I’m designing a new pattern? Does the tan happen live, as I play? Or do I have to wait a day to see the result? It’s all unclear. Not only is this a time sink that keeps me on the island, it’s opaque too.
Like I said before, I don’t mind having to work at getting the things I want in this game: that’s the whole point of playing. But this isn’t work. Those other goals require skill or planning—oftentimes both. They result in discrete rewards: selling the bugs you collected for cash you can put towards new clothes; turning in the giant carp you caught at the very last second to net you first place in the fishing tournament (and a sweet trophy). They’re aspirational: a second floor to your house; a community campsite that will attract a new range of characters through your town; a new wing on the museum, maybe even one you can curate yourself. Those things are interactive. This is, well, this is me out at lunch while my 3DS sits and waits. This is patiently waiting for 5 PM when (supposedly) the tanning process ends for the day, and I can get back to work. Get back to play.
That’s the crux of it. If ‘tanning’ is a thing you want to do actively, it means stopping ‘normal’ play. There’s only so much you can do on the island. You have a limited access to storage, so you can only save up so many fish and bugs. There’s a character who will buy things from you on the island, but she only offers you 5% of what you can get on the mainland. (I’ll leave someone else to spend a few thousand words on cutting into that.) You can’t even choose to save your game from the island.
In short, the island is ludically segregated from the rest of the game. On one hand, that makes it different, it makes it special. Trips to and from the island come with a sea shanty sung by an offensive-but-maybe-in-a-charming-way sea captain. You can play mini-games with your friends there. It’s a great place to visit, but…
For years I played as white characters.
They were inevitably the ones I wanted to be like. Still, there were moments when I’d get to step into someone’s shoes I felt comfortable in. GTA: San Andreas’ Carl Johnson is problematic in his own right, but when I read people on Gamefaqs complaining that Rockstar had “gone ghetto,” I bristled. For the first time ever, I took pride at seeing someone like me in a starring role of a game. He was only like me in this one way, but it was the one way that had never been represented, so it mattered that much more. It got tricky when games started to let me customize my characters. I made huge stables of wrestlers in Fire Pro Wrestling G, and yeah, some of them were black, so I didn’t even notice that I never actually played as anyone but the quick, non-black luchadores. I never even noticed that the black characters I’d made were all from the Balrog or Barrett school. Bruisers. Tough guys. Brutes.
I remember my Knights of the Old Republic character so well: he was the asian guy with reddish hair, a smug look on his face, just asking to fall to the dark side. But something in me was upset that he got paler when he went evil. I wanted him to remain a man of color, even if it wasn’t my color. Years later, I split the difference and made my two main characters on the MMO The Old Republic green skinned, alien brothers with Greek features and strange tattoos.
In sports games I made myself. No. I made Randall Cunningham, again, but with my name, and with less interceptions. The game knew Austin Walker was black and was a quarterback, but it didn’t know he was a “black quarterback.” It would never run those smarmy editorials, carefully phrasing my trade in such a way as to signal to the “right” readers that I should leave because of how my race affected my performance.
The first time I ever played in a long term D&D campaign I made a half-elf—bi-racial, like me. I’m putting this out there because it’s hilarious and says basically everything you need to know about 18 year old Austin Walker: his name was Xanatos Woodshymn, he was a bard who was raised by orcs and who saw himself as the ‘by any means necessary’ advocate for the kobolds who were being used as slave labor in the nearby mines. He was the reincarnation of the Elven god Corellon—it was one of those D&D games—and at the final moment of the first “season” of our campaign, he sided with the orcs, resurrecting their ancient ‘evil’ god and becoming public enemy number one for all of elf-kind. It was a weird year. I had dreadlocks.
I had dreadlocks because I’d spent years trying to work out a hairstyle. In high school, I wanted hair like all my white friends. In the end, I chose simply not to have the same hairstyles all my black friends. In the process tried a number of regrettable hair styles, many of which—like the dreads—stuck around for way too long.
By the time Mass Effect came out, I’d cut off the dreads. I was sitting with my roommates and making my character, and there was an unspoken pressure there. For weeks, I’d planned to remake my space-asshole Asian character from KoTOR. But what would my roommates say if I did that instead of making someone who looked like me? Would they be surprised? Concerned? Suddenly, for the first time ever, I felt a responsibility to really be me, on the screen. I remembered early interviews with Casey Hudson, how he described Shepard’s indistinct, multi-ethnic background. He was already halfway there, I thought. Let’s just give him a less chiseled chin, tight, curly hair, my lips, my nose. I made Austin Shepard. Since then, I’ve never made an “Austin” again. Since then, I never had to. But all of my characters have had something of me in them.
My 3DS is in my bag, at my feet.
The volume is down this time, but I keep peeking to make sure that Animal Crossing: New Leaf is still running, that my battery hasn’t run out—I can’t save here on the island, remember. Plus, every half hour or so I pick up the system and flick through a few menus, coming to rest on a new one. I’m terrified of screen burn-in. I’ve read that it’s rare on the 3DS, but I have a history with electronics breakings in remarkable and unlikely ways. Still, it’s worth the risk.
Soon—if the past games are to be any indication, it’ll be in mid July—I’ll be able to tan on the mainland too. That is only a relative improvement though. I’ll still have to be careful about becoming too tan—I’m not a “level six” tan, after all. This will never be stable: it is an ongoing, careful project, and it’s one with questionable implications.
One is the way in which your desired skin color affects the degree to which you have to monitor your avatar’s time in the summer sun. Because New Leaf’s tanning doesn’t seem to happen in real time, and because it seems to take days instead of hours now, trying to get a particular mid-level skin tone is more precarious than maintaining a pale complexion. Not only is the outcome hard to predict, but someone who wants the default skin to stay only has to bring a parasol around with them in the summer sun. They literally have access to tools and methods I don’t. It is very hard not to just write “DO YOU GET IT?” over and over again. I don’t have a tanning booth, or tanning lotion. I certainly don’t have a way to lock in my current tan level.
The other implication is that it might be the case that tanning is a disincentive to overplaying. I hadn’t realized it until my friend with the cobblestone roads pointed it out. Let’s say, hypothetically, that you’ve kept your game running for five straight hours for some odd reason. You might notice that your town’s other villagers will greet you with an admonishment. You look tired they say, you should take a rest. You should stop playing. There is a strange, formal parallel between this directive and tanning. Both come only after hours of uninterrupted play. The same activity results in both outcomes. Coupled with the fact that players are outfitted with ways to prevent, but not cause tanning, it’s hard not to draw some connections.
My argument isn’t that Nintendo has gone out of its way to be racist, it’s that the question of race seems to have never been brought up to begin with, and that has its own problems. Privilege works by naturalizing one position, or one set or style of positions. It isn’t as simple as valuing that position over others: even that would acknowledge a field of differences. To work in a system of privilege is to start all projects from a set of premises that are believed to be inviolable. You don’t get more pale, in New Leaf, you only get darker. The natural position is whiteness—or, at least, one without melanin like mine.
I’m sitting at Starbucks. I’m writing this from an armchair I’ve sat in before, hundreds of times. Once, as I did so, two older women, white, glared up at me from across the communal table when I started to read, and relocated across the room. They shot me dirty looks for hours.
Games rarely got race right, but sometimes they’d cede control to me, and let me figure out what I thought “right” meant. I craved those experiences, and I still do. Not all of my characters are black, or men, or straight like me. I get to craft something along with the game, something that ‘fits.’ That can be an awkward experience: fiddling with skin color sliders, augmenting breast size, giving a character a deeper or higher voice. Figuring out what ‘fits’ for the character I have in mind feels somehow almost fascist. There is something actually sadistic in all authorship, after all.
But there are moments when I want to see more of myself on the screen. Times like this. I rarely use terms like ‘privilege’ in my writing, whether here or academically. It isn’t my field. Or, I guess, part of the way this particular power relation is structured, it is my field even if I didn’t want it to be.
I remember that I’ve been called nigger more times in the last two years of walking this small stretch of Canadian road than I did in 25 years of living on US soil. Someone threw an egg at me once.
I haven’t felt like sharing many of my New Leaf screenshots. Sometimes, something is too clever not to share, but I position my character so that he’s obscured. On seeing the head-on shot of Argyle wearing my cobblestone road friend’s  absurd t-shirt design (above), another friend said “That’s my mental picture of Austin almost exactly.” He meant that in the nicest way possible, but it stung. I knew part of why it was only ”almost” exactly.
A girl I dated here suggested that my skin tone prevented me from getting important vitamin D from the sunlight. Vitamin D, she said, necessary to make deep, interpersonal relationships. I see some irony now, desperate that my little avatar soak in as much sun as possible I want to be on this screen. I want to be black on this screen.
Across from me—and I can hardly believe this is happening right now—a group of twenty something student teachers are whispering about how black students don’t understand apostrophes or commas. I hear the phrase “drug issues” and “them” a few times in a row.
But still. My 3DS is in my bag, open, my avatar staring back up at me in the island sun. I wanted to end this piece by saying that I’d closed it. I haven’t. The sun is still out on the island. I can’t be sure tanning actually stops at 5, so I wait. I’m hoping he’ll look more like me, soon.