Nintendo have released a statement addressing an issue concerning one of their games – Tomodachi Life – in that players are unable to form same-sex relationships with other players. Rather than making plans to change the game, due for release on June 6th, the company have decided not to make alterations, and have asserted that they “never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of Tomodachi Life.”
Unfortunately, they must realise that they already have.
The #Miiquality campaign, taken from the naming of the characters in the game, was started by an American named Tye Marini. His discontent at being forced to either make a character which did not represent him to marry his fiancé’s Mii, or miss out on the additional content altogether led him to start an online movement in the hopes of initiating change. Marini told the Associated Press: “You import your personalized characters into the game. You name them. You give them a personality. You give them a voice. They just can’t fall in love if they’re gay.”
So far, the movement has been unsuccessful other than causing Nintendo to release the following statement – notably:
“Nintendo never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of Tomodachi Life. The relationship options in the game represent a playful alternate world rather than a real-life simulation. We hope that all of our fans will see that ‘Tomodachi Life’ was intended to be a whimsical and quirky game, and that we were absolutely not trying to provide social commentary.”
It may well be true that the company never sought to use their game to establish social commentary, but the unfortunate thing is that, inadvertently, they have. By consciously not including the ability to have same-sex relationships within the game – coding being an inherently neutral entity in this – Nintendo have not passively but rather actively made their stance on the issue quite clear.
What Nintendo also misunderstands is that their reach worldwide is massive, and they are continuing to work to reach a wider audience, with a large scope of their playerbase being children.
This means that when they play a game such as Tomodachi Life – a game likely to be perceived as more acceptable by parents for their kids to play due to its innocent and child-friendly design – they will be confronted with these issues too. For all the attention video games get for their portrayal of violence and the resulting impact on children, it would seem more relevant to address the confusion that a child might experience should they discover that their own in-game portrayal of themselves cannot express their feelings appropriately.
Marrying a character of the same sex is not even cited as something you can’t do – it goes completely unacknowledged.
I spoke to Jonny Campbell, a member of the LGBT community, a gamer and a friend about what he thought about the situation. He discussed that it would be like making a game about food, but brashly deciding that pizza would not be included. “But since it’s not just a preference like favourite foods, it’s an integral part of who I am, it makes me feel like they’re just going ‘Oh, well you’re not important.’
“And for people like me who took a long time to come to terms with and accept that part of who I am, I don’t think Nintendo – who have a lot of influence over younger people, whether they like it or acknowledge it or not – should be saying ‘We don’t care, you shouldn’t be included.’ Not being able to be yourself – even in a ‘playful alternate world’ will make you feel even worse about being different.
“As someone who still can be uncomfortable in my own skin,” Jonny says, “I use gaming as an escape. A chance to be someone else – a hero, the best in the world at whatever, or at the very least just important. In those worlds I have a point, I have a purpose. To then be told ‘Oh actually, an integral part of the real you wasn’t good enough to make the grade, an integral part of your existence wasn’t really important to us so we didn’t put it in’ – it can really hurt.”
Nintendo are no strangers to controversy, with their stance on Let’s Play videos leading many popular YouTube channels to boycott coverage of their games. This issue is different, however, and shows that the Japanese consumer giant still has a long way to come in terms of identifying what effect their actions could have on those that enjoy their games.
I spoke to another friend and gamer, Rebekah, who echoed Jonny’s feelings. She asserted that: “Same-sex relationships should be just as standard as hetero ones in all games that give you ability to form romantic relationships.
“With increased equality in ‘real life’ it’s logical that the equality will spread to media.”
Despite this, it seems that the final statement is not true – concepts such as gay marriage are not a universal ideal yet, certainly not in Japan where Nintendo bases itself, and games are still portraying anything other than heterosexuality as something which is not normal. The hugely successful series Metal Gear Solid has three notably bisexual characters – Vamp, Volgin and Major Raikov – all of which are villains in the series. Vamp even has vampiric abilities and a hunger for human blood, portraying him as a monster in no uncertain terms.
An even more contemporary example is Trevor from Grand Theft Auto V – my favourite character from the game. He displays openly homosexual tendencies, but also displays violent and bipolar tendencies in abundance. Many other examples exist, especially from older games, but these more recent ones show that the gaming industry still has a way to go.
So where does that leave Nintendo?
Rebekah went on to say that: “Japan isn’t the most LGBT friendly country, so it was probably purely a business decision.” The reasoning behind her allegation is that Japan, a still largely conservative country, terms gay and straight as ‘gay’ and ‘normal’ respectively, which speaks volumes about where they stand culturally on equality. On the other hand, these games are sold around the world, and if they are content to change certain aspects of their content such as voices and narrative for western audiences, why not social issues?
“If the issue is cultural then Nintendo should have the guts to take a stand and help further equality”, says Jonny, “and if it’s within the company then the same should still happen, if only for the sake of sales and their reputation.”
It’s clear that Nintendo have missed a beat. The statement came out from Nintendo US, not the Japanese branch, so arguing that cultural stereotyping is the antagonist here seems facile. Equally, Nintendo clearly state that this is not a mishap – the ability for same-sex relationships was not originally put in the game’s coding, which was then used to localise the game for other regions. In essence, it is simply using the code from the game which originated in Japan, seemingly where these kinds of discussions are not as prevalent.
The company insists that it is still listening and paying attention to the feedback, according to their statement, so it is possible that they may make alterations. That would require delays to the June 6th release date, however, and with Nintendo showing sizable profit losses, it seems as though the dye is cast.
Nintendo may not think they are making social commentary, but they are. Their audience may have a large presence in Japan, where culture and politics differ from those prominent in western societies, but their failure to identify counter-cultures in their own market goes beyond the realm of poor marketing on their part, and into one where they start to alienate people. Tye Marini insists that the #Miiquality campaign is not preaching that people should boycott Tomogachi Life, but rather show their support for representation. The issue is in the spotlight now, however, and unless Nintendo deliver on their promise to broaden their approach to development wherever possible, they may start to rue their lack of basic social inclusivity.
A form – as it happens – of social commentary.
Update: 10/05/14 – Nintendo have issued a statement to Eurogamer apologising for not including same-sex relationships in Tomodachi Life. They insist that making alterations would not be possible with a patch, and as such will not be making these edits. They do claim that they will “strive to design a game-play experience from the ground up that is more inclusive, and better represents all players” with their future efforts. Lesson learned?