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Masks as a reflection of a pandemic in avatar customisation options

Published onJan 10, 2021
Masks as a reflection of a pandemic in avatar customisation options

On leaving my house, I pat my pockets and check for my keys, phone, wallet, and a recent addition, my mask. With the UK being in and out of total lockdown since March 2020 (at time of writing we have now entered our third national lockdown) masks have become a ubiquitous part of daily life. In the early days they were hard to get hold of, my partner’s mum sent us some homemade ones in the post. Now there is a supply to match the need, and I own a vast array of masks, and treat choosing which to wear as an act of self-expression. I have ones decorated with teardrops, clouds, rainbows, suns, dinosaurs, dragons, as well as some in plain black in case of formality. With masks taking up so much room in my brain I unconsciously started seeking them out in games. This essay acts as a runway to display a few masks that have found their way into my digital wardrobe, one whose future depends on how masks are integrated into our lives post-Covid.   

Discussions of games and early lockdown will invariably mention Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Nintendo, 2020) which arrived at the very beginning of the first lockdown in the UK; when getting on a plane and starting a new life on an island full of cats sounded like the perfect escape. Not long after I built a clothing shop for the island a ‘Doctor’s Mask’ was put on sale. I brought it immediately and began to wear it to visit my villagers and on trips to other islands. Visually it resembles a disposable mask, which should be thrown away after use. However, in Animal Crossing removing your masks puts it in your pocket which can also contain, fruit, bugs, fish, weeds, and unidentified fossilized remains. Not strictly hygienic but this was the start of my mask collection, which I later added to as I brought a more expensive but non-disposable ‘Privacy Mask’ and a maybe-not-for-medical-use ‘Pleather Mask’. Now my villager had options just like myself when leaving the house.

Screenshot from Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The player's avatar sits at an outdoor cafe wearing a disposable 'Doctor's Mask'

Screenshot from Animal Crossing: New Horizons. My villager wears the ‘Doctor’s Mask’ out on the coffee run.

I was struck by my own interest in collecting and wearing masks and looked into past Animal Crossing games to see if masks were a new phenomenon or if I had been ignoring their presence. I found on that the ‘Doctor’s Mask’ has been a part of the games since 2008 with Animal Crossing: City Folk (Nintendo). This is not a surprise the Animal Crossing series is developed in Japan, a country which has an already established culture of using masks when sick as a courtesy to others. A similar reflection of this element of Japanese culture appears in, Persona 5: Royal (Atlus, 2019), as although not a customisation option, during flu season some of the inhabitants of Tokyo wear masks in the train station and the cinema.  

During the latter portion of 2020 I began to notice the inclusion of masks in Western developed AAA titles. Watchdogs: Legion (Ubisoft, 2020) and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 & 2 (Vicarious Visions, 2020) both include masks as customisation options for dressing the player’s avatar. Unlike Animal Crossing these are games which are set within our own world either in the current time-period or close in the future. Both avoid commentary on Covid itself, but both include this new customisation option not available in their predecessors. These games act as early reflectors of a change in habit, achieved by allowing the player to choose to wear a mask when customising their character. Masks are available to the player characters only, NPCs in both Watchdogs: Legion and Pro Skater 1 & 2 are maskless. This decisions centres masks as an individual’s choice to interact with rather than a fact of the game world’s culture. As games are often escapism from the external world there is an argument for not applying masks to NPCs, however, walking or skating through a space as the only individual wearing a medical mask often felt disjointed in games which are supposed to be reflections of our current or near current reality.

Screenshot from Watchdogs: Legion. Shows the player character wearing a mask inside a pub while two non-player characters without masks in the background talk. One of the non-player characters is casually laying a hand on the shoulder of the other.

Screenshot from Watchdogs: Legion (2020). I choose to dress my character in a mask while the NPCs are always mask free.

Screenshot from the character creation screen in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1 & 2. The character is wearing a purple disposable-style mask. A option box is open showing the range of colour options for the mask.

Screenshot from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 & 2 (2020). During character customisation the player can choose to add a mask in the beard selection screen.

It is plausible that Western developed games in the future will have NPCs wearing masks as casually as Persona 5: Royal, especially as the Covid-19 pandemic is gradually behind us as a global community. However, in the meantime, games are reflecting the change to our lives with a simple new addition to our attire. Whether mask customization is here to stay or will become a relic of the times depends on whether masks become an integral part of how we interact with the world when sick. Regardless, I am appreciative of the option not only for self-expression but to reflect a part of my own experience of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown in my digital self.  

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