Gender Euphoria & Animal Crossing: New Horizons
How the most popular game of the year helped with my dysphoria.
I remember the first time someone called me pretty: I was at a church in Saint Louis visiting family and a woman leaned down and told me “us pretty people don’t have to worry about as much”. I wasn’t sure that I agreed. I was too young to have yet qualified myself in the category of people that others looked at as “pretty”. It seemed my mirror reflection changed every day; most of the time I couldn’t even imagine that the clothes that hung in my closet would fit on my body. So, I learned to trust others’ perceptions of me. I accepted that I was things like “beautiful” and “pretty” only because people told me.
I don't think this is an abnormal pattern to fall into as a child. Trusting what adults tell you is just part of growing up. But as I got older, it took on new meaning. I didn’t recognize my own image in photos. So much of my energy was going towards performing my appearance in the ways that I thought I was “supposed to”.
It wasn’t until I realized I was non-binary that I started to understand that this thing, this discomfort with my own perception of how I looked, was a sign of something called gender dysphoria. Exploring this concept, and understanding the different ways that trans people interact with gender performance, has been a huge part of my coming to terms with my nonbinary-ness.
Enter: the pandemic crisis of this year. I won’t spend much time on this. You know it. You’ve lived it too. Something that this pandemic has taken away from me though, is this: the ability to perform gender and be observed while doing so. Without realizing it, I had slipped into the pattern of proving my gender to myself by being seen as androgynous to others.
In normal life, in before-times, coping with gender dysphoria would feel like changing five times a day or putting on my binder, or wearing an extremely baggy t-shirt to keep my body from having any curves or edges. But, in isolation, the only thing that became important was comfort. The only person I had to prove my gender to was myself.
On one hand, this is extremely freeing. All of a sudden, it’s just me. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone else. But on the other hand, I spent a lot of time curating my gender presentation to assuage the dysphoria. Being seen as nonbinary by other people had become a sort of measuring stick to check myself against. It had nearly gotten to the point that if I didn’t look androgynous or “nonbinary enough”, I felt my gender wasn’t valid. Then, out of nowhere, I am no longer able to depend on this. I’m sure you can imagine how disorienting this would be. As a trans person with anxiety, especially, it’s easy to hyperfocus.
But, here’s the flaw in the thought pattern I’d fallen into: I cannot prove or disprove my gender to anyone. This way that I identify is not up for debate. After all, I can’t keep anyone from perceiving me as either male or female. Society has conditioned us to categorize everyone else in this way. I do it too! Person with tits and makeup? Female. And, honestly? I like my tits. I like wearing makeup. I’m not going to stop.
Of course, this realization doesn’t make the desire to perform my gender perfectly go away. But, there are things that help. There’s people who feel the same things as me, built as friends or as internet strangers. And, there’s Animal Crossing.
I didn’t start playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons until about a month after it had been released, even though my partner and I bought it right away. I was going through a reading phase in early quarantine, and it didn’t feel right to make the time just yet. The first thing I noticed when I eventually opened the game was the default that the villagers use gender neutral pronouns for everyone. The villagers...used my pronouns.
Maybe that doesn’t seem like a big deal? But, it felt like a huge fucking deal in a real-life world where I’m constantly forced to circle “Female” on doctor’s forms and shop for women’s clothes in stores. It may have been a simple choice for the game designers, but part of what kept me playing the game was the notable gender euphoria I experienced every time I logged on.
It’s not only that, though; my avatar looks completely genderless. There is no differentiation in ACNH between “male” and “female” avatars. I can buy whatever I want from the Able Sisters clothing store. I can use any hairstyle or facial features.
In the heat of my personal quarantine, when I was off work for months at a time and in a haze of the depression, I woke up and played Animal Crossing first thing every morning. I caught myself changing my outfit every day, choosing what felt best according to gender presentation. Not only was this a clarifying way to start the day, it helped me to shift focus. In Animal Crossing, the outfits were only for me. I was able to identify what I wanted my imaginary self to look like, and translate it into my actual outfit, or gender expression, for the day.
This is not a new phenomenon. If you’re interested in reading more about this, several studies have been done on trans folks’ gender euphoria in video games. There is this feeling of relief, this sense of completion, in seeing myself represented in the way I feel inside. The removal of the fantasy helps too, the fact that the characters are more abstract and move differently in this created world, and can do things I can’t do.
This far into quarantine, I have settled into a more holistic view of gender expression. It has become much easier to listen to my body and what it is telling me before trying to prove something by what I wear. I am learning, and I have Animal Crossing to thank for that, at least a little bit.