Queer crossing

On Animal Crossing, Players are Queering Their Digital Islands for Pride

"While even Pride parades aren’t always inclusive for all queer people, video games are poised to break through some of the rules of queerness."

I’ve been playing Animal Crossing since I stumbled upon it at a Blockbuster when I was in middle school, and have adored it since.

Released this spring, the new Animal Crossing series, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, has become a safe space for players to publicly display queerness. Now, my girlfriend and I share an island, and our houses are side by side with a shared backyard: My vibrant home is surrounded by plants, flowers, and garden rocks, while hers is nice and neat, complete with a barbecue and a basketball hoop.

In the Animal Crossing universe, both my sister and I have pride flags flying on our islands (we’re both queer). But in the real world, I haven’t had a pride flag displayed in my own living space since I moved from Southern California to North Carolina in 2016; it just doesn’t safe to hang it from my balcony or even leave in my bedroom. But my island, Honey, is openly and vividly queer: I regularly gift Marshal, my favorite villager (who for sure has strong femme energy) lacy tank tops; I’ve decided that Isabelle is gay and that her television-watching is limited to The L Word reruns; I buy into the idea that Tom Nook and Redd are going through a gay divorce; I mentally assign all of my soft, “sister” villagers lesbian cottage-core vibes by planting little gardens outside of their homes and gifting them dried flowers to hang by their windows. And I’m far from the only one turning their island into a queer haven.

“I have a pride flag as my town flag, and all of my flowers on paths and in gardens are organized into rainbows,” shares Morgan, 23, a social worker based in Michigan. “[My queerness] is a part of my identity. It’s much safer to cover my fictional video game island in rainbows and gayness than to do it in my real life. Rainbows are a symbol of pride I get to show off.”

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is inherently blurring boundaries

The Nintendo Switch can be handheld and played away from prying eyes, and the fact that Animal Crossing: New Horizons (ACNH for short) is playable both hand-held and on television screens. Because of this, users can grab it and bring it into their personal spaces, rather than in main living spaces, so that they don’t have to worry about people they live with who may be homophobic watching as they decorate their tag with rainbows.

Too, ACNH is notably not a game based in real life, or really even in human life. Instead, it blurs the lines between fiction and reality, bringing anthropomorphized beings into their own tiny digital universes where gender doesn’t play the role it does in our offline contexts. In a piece for i-D, “gay for play: how video games became a space to virtually explore queerness,” Jake Hall explains this phenomenon, writing: “Animals and fantasy characters have long been embraced by queer gamers, most notably Pokémon. It’s not hard to see why: Ditto is an amorphous blob that literally shape-shifts its identity at will, Jynx is arguably the fiercest animated drag queen of all time and Gyarados and Machoke are the muscle daddies that baby gays worldwide never knew they needed.”

“To queer is to disrupt, to shift, to change the orientation (so to speak) of a video game or other product of culture so that it turns toward non-heteronormative identity in desire.”

In ACNH, the stereotypical, traditionally harsh lines of gender are blurred. Sam,* 26, and Alex*, 26, a couple based in New Jersey, sense queerness in their town, which they share. “Our villagers also have queer energy,” Sam told Supermaker, “like Pietro, the sweet gay rainbow clown, and Gayle and Merengue, who we spotted together on a date to the museum once.”

For Polygon, Patricia Hernandez dives into the relationship between characters C.J. and Flick, who oversee the fishing tournament and bug-off, respectively. “Even if the official word is that the two are just bros, now that Nintendo has put New Horizons into the world, it doesn’t really belong to them anymore. I mean, sure, they own it,” Hernandez writes. “It would be nice for Nintendo to confirm what everyone wants to hear, but no matter what the Japanese company says, fans have already decided what the pair means to them.”

Video games as a safe space

Mainstream video game culture has long been notoriously homophobic, with white men imagining themselves the rulers of what is and isn’t true fan culture, but, once out in the world, video games can be “queered.”

“In talking about queering straight games, I use ‘queer’ as a verb,” explains 2019’s Video Games Have Always Been Queer by Bonnie Ruberg. “To queer is to disrupt, to shift, to change the orientation (so to speak) of a video game or other product of culture so that it turns toward non-heteronormative identity in desire.” Ruberg explores the way that, despite video game culture itself being one of heteronormativity, violence, and shame directed at both queer gamers and the queer people behind the games themselves, queer people are able to apply their own experiences and identities to their gaming experiences. Do I think, outright, that ACNH is a gay video game that prioritizes queer users and LGBTQIA+ representation? Not at all. But do I think that it’s uniquely poised to provide representation if only via the imaginations and power of their user-base? Absolutely.

In a Gayming magazine piece titled “How Video Games Provide Safe Spaces for Queer Exploration,” Caitlin Galiz-Rowe explains that “video games are not magical pieces of media that trounce all others in terms of their merit or universality.” Galiz-Rowe continues, describing that, despite this, “their ability to provide safe spaces for people to explore who they are, or who they might want to be, is undeniable in a world where doing so in one’s real-life can be challenging at best, and downright dangerous at worst.”

Because of the way that customization is so central to ACNHallowing players to do everything—from building their own furniture to changing their outfits to reshaping the literal towns they inhabit—it offers a chance for queer users to decide what a queer space can look and feel like. “The custom designs and overall freedom you have to design your island in AC are so great for being able to express yourself and put pride everywhere,” Sam explains. “I’m very femme so our island entrance is extremely extra with cherry blossoms, moon and star items, and pastel touches. And my girlfriend has a trans pride phone case in-game.”

Online play enables community-building

The internet and social media, given how far both have come since the first AC game, allow queer users even more power to shape their own experiences. On ACNH, players who have a Nintendo Online subscription can visit islands made by users all around the world. This serves as a source of inspiration for players who are trying to figure out how to spawn unique flowers, or where to place their neighbors’ homes, but also can provide inspiration for how to give their islands the same queer energy they find elsewhere.

“It's important to me that my island have that sort of queer community feel, and I always want to cultivate that,” explains Katie, 30, based in Pittsburgh, PA, whose island has rainbow pathways and flowers, something that many users teach each other to do on social media. On Reddit, some users share tips for how to grow hybrids in rainbow colors, while YouTubers compile the best design codes for pride celebrations.

Whether between friends or strangers, queering AC is a group effort. “It's why I will never have a five-star island because I will always have my beaches full of free stuff for my friends,” Katie shares. ”I love having people over for cataloging parties and crafting parties and just generally being able to share what I have with my online community and help facilitate these connections when I can.”

"While even Pride parades aren’t always inclusive for all queer people, video games are poised to break through some of the rules of queerness, especially given that they offer users the chance to build their own mini-worlds with their own personal rules."

Of their island shared with girlfriend Alex, Sam explains, “We’re not fully out IRL yet because my girlfriend is transitioning. She started coming out this year and then quarantine happened and continuing that process kind of halted, so while some of our communities know who we are, a good amount of people in our lives still see us as a straight couple.”

While even Pride parades aren’t always inclusive for all queer people, video games are poised to break through some of the rules of queerness, especially given that they offer users the chance to build their own mini-worlds with their own personal rules. “Video games, especially ones like ACNH that are so much about self-expression and friendship/community,” Sam shares, “give us a space to present more truly as we are with friends, where in real life that hasn’t been fully possible yet.”

In a testament to the power of AC as an outlet for queer people, Global Pride, a collaborative effort from queer organizations around the world, elected to host a virtual Pride in ACNH. In a YouTube video, they show Isabelle explaining that “Pride celebrations are canceled, but we can’t let that stop us.”

Animal Crossing can’t end homophobia in gaming or prevent trans players from being misgendered in their everyday lives, or lesbian users from being hypersexualized. But it can offer a short break from the real world and its baked-in homophobia. When my girlfriend and I go on dates offline, we have to deal with stares, questions, and the constant fear of retaliation because someone, somewhere, doesn’t like who we are. But online, on our AC islands or those of our friends, we can be just as vibrant as we want to be—or just as boring as the cis, straight people we know. We can spend an entire afternoon outside without being afraid. And there’s something deeply freeing about that.

Rachel Charlene Lewis is a writer, editor, and social media strategist based in North Carolina. She has written about culture, identity, and the internet for publications including i-D, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Glamour, Autostraddle, SELF, and Bitch.

Bárbara Fonseca

Akademie Berlin, Herchive

Bárbara is a Berlin based illustrator and graphic designer. Working with bright colors and dynamic shapes, she creates illustrations and visuals for diverse projects. She is also a teacher and a curator at Herchive, an archive of female and non-binary artists throughout History.

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