Nishtha Gosewade, Shubhashree Jha, Chitrali, Prakriti Chopra
Gabriel Burrows’ gender non-conforming avatar on ACNH (top) and an advertisement from Gillette’s ‘Skinclusive’ Campaign launched on ACNH (bottom)
The outbreak of COVID-19 compelled governments across the globe to restrict the movement of goods, services, and individuals by tightening the permeability of geographical borders. In contrast to the reduction in the profitability of most sectors, the video game industry flourished during such periods of restricted movement due to an exponential increase in its stay-at-home consumer base. In particular, a Nintendo video game by the name of Animal Crossing: New Horizons (ACNH) took the entire digital world by storm following its release in March, 2020. Unencumbered by the spatial demands of geographical borders, ACNH soon began to re-define the conventional understanding of borders as tangible entities. It did so by navigating the intangibility of temporal and social borders through its use of gender-neutral gameplay to establish a virtual, global community. However, the real-world consequences associated with the increasing popularity of ACNH rendered it incapable of re-defining borders in absolute terms. As a consequence, ACNH has become an in-between, liminal space in which cultural transformation is prepared and implemented – but not mastered.
A liminal space is occupied by objects that are immersed in those moments of transit on which transformational changes in societal structure and organization are premised. It encourages the said object to “step outside of him/herself to actually see what he/she is doing” in order be able assess potential for change. In offering character-based, gender neutral gameplay, ACNH lays the foundation for the provision of such an out-of-body liminal space. In ACNH, players are required to utilize natural resources on a deserted island inhabited by animals in order to create an “island utopia” that can be shared with other players. According to the creators of the video game, these requirements have been explicitly organized to ensure gender neutral gameplay. In inhabiting the body of a pre-pubescent child, or a body without secondary sexual characteristics, players are not restricted by the intangible border that ascriptive gender identity erects. Thus, ACNH furnishes a liminal space in which moments of transit are produced through the privileging of character function rather than gender identity. In other words, the borders that classify individuals on the basis of gender are rendered fluid. However, the fluidity of these borders are premised in the first instance on freedom from the control of geographical borders.
The moments of transit that define liminal spaces are intimately associated with the notion of borders as it is during these very moments that the “control function of borders is partially or completely suspended.” In ACNH, social exile as a response to gender non-conformity has ceased to exist as playable and non-playable characters in the game are referred to in gender neutral terms and must engage in conventionally masculine as well as feminine activities in order to thrive. It is this lack of these essentialized character traits and gender roles that has allow interaction between players to proceed in a non-hierarchical manner. The potentiality of such a state of suspension afforded by fluid borders within ACNH can be further characterized as conveying a transnational sense of liminality. In ACNH, players can anchor their island in the cultural environment of their geographical location without having to compete with other, differently located players. It is thus that a creator of the game, Aya Kyogoku has remarked that she would like players from across the globe to “come together and enjoy the game in their own ways.”
The liminality of the fluid borders established by the gender neutral gameplay of ANCH, whilst constituting a virtual site of collaboration, births tangible consequences in the real world. On the 4th of August in 2020, Gillette Venus launched a “Skinclusive Summer Line” on ANCH, creating 264 characters representing nineteen skin types in eight in-game skin tones. These characters were created in order to appeal to individuals with freckles, acne, body hair, stretch marks, cellulite, psoriasis, vitiligo as well as the differently abled. In thus portraying itself as an inclusive brand, Gillette Venus sought to favourably alter its image in the consumer market and subsequently, its profitability. However, its purportedly altruistic and inclusive campaign solely targeted women – “Every woman deserves to feel represented to feel represented and beautiful in her own skin. Everywhere.” In advocating a lucrative “strategy of selfhood” anchored in the active female consumer, the campaign has highlighted the inability of ANCH to establish itself as a liminal space in absolute terms that allows a “smooth passage of transition and transcendence.”
The tightening of the permeability of geographical borders during COVID-19 allowed ACNH to rise in popularity amongst stay-at-home consumers across the globe. However, it was the freedom from restrictions on mobility imposed by geographical borders that allowed ANCH to offer a liminal space defined by fluid, intangible borders premised on gender neutral gameplay. The non-identification of the gender of Gabriel Burrows’ character reflects such fluidity, which can be contrasted with Gillette Venus’ appeal to the active, aware, female consumer. In other words, both the potential and problems of the gender neutral gameplay of ANCH as a liminal space lie in its constituting “the ‘middle passage’ of contemporary culture.”
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