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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 Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons (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” item 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 mask 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 bought a more expensive but non-disposable “Privacy Mask” and a maybe-not-for-medical-use “Pleather Mask.” Now my villager had options, just like me, 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.

Struck by my own interest in collecting and wearing masks, I looked into past Animal Crossing games to see if masks were a new phenomenon, or if I had been ignoring their presence. I found that the “Doctor’s Mask” has been a part of the games since 2008 with Animal Crossing: City Folk. This is not a surprise, as the Animal Crossing series is developed in Japan, 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 (2019); although masks are not offered as a character-customisation option, during flu season some of the inhabitants of Tokyo wear masks in train stations and at the cinema.  

During the latter portion of 2020, I began to notice the inclusion of masks in AAA titles developed in the West. Watch Dogs: Legion (2020) and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 (2020) both include masks as customisation options for dressing the player’s avatar. Unlike Animal Crossing, these are games set within our own world, either in the present or the near future. Both avoid commentary on COVID itself, but both include this new customisation option not available in their predecessors. These games act as early reflections of a change in habit, achieved by allowing the player to choose to wear a mask when customising their character. Masks are available to player characters only; NPCs in both Watch Dogs: 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 often offer 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 reflect our current or near-future 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 Watch Dogs: 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 in 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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