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Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Is Using Game Elements Provided to Every Player Problematic “Cultural Appropriation”?

By LUDWIG VON KOOPA - That article title asks two questions, really. Is it cultural appropriation, and is it problematic?

There is a recent and raging culture war among the Animal Crossing fanbase on Twitter and beyond. (This, by the way, absolutely reverses all my notions that the Animal Crossing fanbase is worth being friends with.) Nintendo just updated Animal Crossing: New Horizons last week to include six new hairstyle options, among other updates, and those new styles (including an Afro and bald) have been heavily requested by players. One player, Fifi (a self-professed Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley fan), caused significant controversy with this Twitter post:

You see, some of those hair styles are associated with black people, and if you try to zoom in really close, you can sort of see “nappy” textures that other races of people don't naturally/stereotypically have (including other cultures that also figured out how to make their hair in that shape). The argument is that Fifi, a white person with a white character, is culturally appropriating African-derived culture by using the hair style, as well as by referring to “afro puffs” as “space buns.” (Opinions seem to vary based on whether it's also bad if a white person has a darker-skinned character—the team behind The Wagadu Chronicles that we profiled last month would say that is not a problem; some upset Twitter posters would say it is a problem for “grown white women” to “appropriate hairstyles”; as well as stating that “most of the in game hair styles are for white people” and they're apologising for the suffering that non-white people have to go through that white people are using the new game feature.)

Fifi is retweeting some particular displays of upset behaviour directed at her, which include attempts to shut down and/or hack her Twitter account. It's unclear how shutting Fifi down is supposed to solve the purported problem, and it's reminiscent of the counterproductive riots/pandemic-superspreaders that have been occurring in American cities over perceived systemic racism. Still, other than providing a clear contrast to when people claim they're being harassed on Twitter by certain gaming fanbases but provided no evidence of such harassment (but there was evidence of the media picking up on that to push their narratives), I'm not really interested in writing about whether or not Fifi being harassed is right or not. (Obviously not.) I'm more interested in the central questions about cultural appropriation. I thought I had a clear position, but then I looked in the mirror and remembered something that complicates my thinking...

...I really didn't like when Mario culturally appropriated/stole a Koopa's blue shell for his Shell Mario power-up. Not only is it grotesque and he used that power-up to act as a superpredator and kill other Koopas with it, but there's something inherently wrong with looking at a human go around in a Koopa shell. Koopa shells don't belong on humans. They belong on Koopas. Along with the biological necessity of having a shell, they are also the distinct aesthetic for our species. It's why KoopaTV uses Koopa shells in our logo and favicon.

New Super Mario Bros. DS Blue Shell power up
Mario obtains a Koopa's blue shell, and then slides across it, mauling other Koopas in his path.
(He wins a shell-on-shell fight, for some reason. It's not fair.)

What if the way that I feel about Koopa shells is the way that many of these black people (and their white allies) feel about the hairstyles? Here's a Twitter screenshot from a white ally trying to explain the connection between black history and their hair, basically saying there is historical (and present-day) anti-black racism due to their hair styles that white people don't have to face:

White liberal lesbian ally on Twitter speaking for black people hair
There's a lot of nice details above (including the white person backing off because the person she's talking to happens to be black, and disagrees), but fact check...
DeAndre Arnold was allowed to graduate while wearing dreadlocks, just not appear at graduation due to a dress code that prohibits any male from having long hair.
That's a good deal, since graduation is a long and boring ceremony that you should always try to skip.
Faith Fennidy was sent home by her parents, not the school, because her Catholic school is strict and mean, banning all hair extensions, make-up, wigs, and facial hair.
She was not suspended or expelled.

I should note that all of the people who've been cited so far in this article are speaking purely for themselves, and are in no authority to speak on behalf of a collective group of people. (By contrast, I have authority to speak on behalf of all Koopas when I'm writing about Shell Mario.) To do research for this article, I asked three—and that's three more non-me people than whom I usually ask before writing an article—friends of mine (all of whom happen to be black, but they're only speaking for themselves), what they think of Fifi's hair usage in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Here are their responses:
“i mean im not upset lol [...] thats cringe and not the right direction for the civil rights movement when we have bigger issues to deal with than this shit lmao”
“It's just hair :3”
“I mean seeing as it's a video game and can be interpreted as literally any hairstyle and it can be intended for anyone and if they don't know what she looks like I dont see a problem and she clearly thinks they're space buns [...] like I said its a game and everyone has their own opinions and mine is that it's fine”
All of the quotes above have two underlying themes: One, people customising their looks with hair styles available to everyone isn't problematic, and two, I need more friends who use punctuation.

Still, no one's being killed because non-black people are using Afrocentric hair styles, unlike when Mario appropriates Koopa shells. You could say it's still cultural appropriation, although no one is presenting any arguments for why cultural appropriation—in this example—is actually a bad thing, since it's non-problematic. Unlike, say, Kwanzaa's cultural appropriation, no one's cultural identity is being erased or threatened. Consider the following three options Nintendo could've done with these hair styles:
  1. Not add the Afrocentric hair in the game, which means less options for players and not providing any representation—this was the status quo two weeks ago
  2. Add the Afrocentric hair, but lock it so only players whose Islanders are of a certain skin pigment range are allowed to use them
  3. Add the Afrocentric hair, and provide no restrictions on whom may use it—this is what Nintendo's new update did
Option 2 makes me feel uncomfortable just reading it, especially for a game of Animal Crossing: New Horizons's nature and design philosophy. That means a Nintendo designer has to draw a line between one hex value versus another, and what if that decision is wrong? Someone will be outraged by that. The easiest thing to do would've been to keep Option 1 and not deal with it, but that won't make anyone more happy.

Instead, we're in a scenario where the hair is available for everyone, but if you use the hair, you're apparently hounded by aggrieved people who are just searching for reasons to be upset. Those people will never be worth the effort of pleasing, and they're pretty toxic to the community. They may defund the police, but they're replacing them with roaming angry social justice mobs, I guess.

I write that, but if there was an option to wear Koopa shells made from real Koopas, I wouldn't want humans to be able to wear them. Just other Koopas. That's the difference between organ harvesting and organ donating. (Assuming Koopas wouldn't kill one another. Which they don't. Unless it's killing traitors like Koops.) If Option 2 wouldn't be possible (allow only Koopas to wear Koopa shells instead of everyone wearing Koopa shells, or Option 3), then I'd rather there be no Koopa shells at all (Option 1). I'm not sure if the Twitter mob would prefer Option 1 vs. Option 3!

The other difference between hair and shell is that you can, as a real person with enough investment, actually style/texture your hair however you want, using only your resources, which you could say is paying respect/tribute to another culture, or you just like that hair and want to break superficial barriers. You can't get a shell without organ harvesting or buying some kind of synthetic rip-off, and assuming you're doing the former, that actively does hurt someone else. No one is saying black people don't have certain hair styles because a white person is sporting a similar hair style. The cultural identity isn't touched. It's not stealing, and I'm one of those people who use a slightly expanded definition of stealing, since I say the likes of software piracy is stealing. There certainly is not anything to apologise for.

Ludwig wanted to use the Shell Mario point to try to be empathic towards the Twitter mob and find points of agreement, but he ended up deconstructing their argument as without logical basis and as poor game design. Let him know in the comments section if you agree or disagree with that, and also let him know if he shouldn't give up on the Animal Crossing fanbase just because a minority of people are toxic.


  1. Reminds me of a topic in Squidboards where someone asked if a lighter skinned person using a darker skinned Inkling (was during the time of the first game) is considered a form of blackface. The topic was locked but the consensus seems to be it is not.

    1. The consensus may be that, but as long as it's not a unanimous consensus, there'll always be a minority of disagreeable folks you may hear from.

  2. This is why Nintendo is the best company. Despite the social tension, they never bow to the masses and never have before. I think that's the reason people don't threaten to cancel them. They aren't like Sony and Microsoft who always have to get in on the latest trend, so if they don't make a statement about something like they did before, they are liable for cancel culture.

    1. Could you consider adding the hair styles to begin with to be bowing to the masses?

    2. Also Nintendo did listen when many considered Game and Watch's depiction of a Native American as one of his attacks in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate as offensive and changed the attack's looks.

    3. Note that Nintendo Life had to repeatedly inform us it's supposed to be offensive, since I guess that's not inherently obvious.


  3. I know this song is a little past the season, but it perfectly sums up how I feel about this topic.

    1. A bit past the season, but still manages to be spot-on in relevancy.

      “Their skin ain't brown enough so your pants turn that shade tonight!”


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