A few days ago, Border House writer Gunthera1 posted a review of the new Nintendo 3DS Tomodachi Life that highlights one rather glaring absence, the ability of players to choose to “marry” someone of the same gender in the game. The premise behind Tomodachi Life is life simulation; the Miis in the game interact with the other players’ Miis as friends, enemies, and even romantic partners, as long as both Miis are straight, of course. Same-sex couples – or even bicurious Miis – need not apply.
In response to a fan outcry and hashtag #Miiquality campaign (started by Tye Marini), Nintendo released the following statement:
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.
Aside from the at-best-privileged-ignorance-and-at-worst-bigoted assumption that the vast majority of their players would have no interest in pursuing virtual same-sex relationships (which is a strange assumption), Nintendo’s insistence that “we were absolutely not trying to provide social commentary” does a couple of highly problematic things. First, it assumes that games do not inherently contain “social commentary” simply by virtue of being cultural artifacts. They do. (So do tv shows, movies, books, and every other form of popular culture in existence.)
Second, it assumes that their audience isn’t smart enough to realize that someone had to code in heterosexuality as not only the default, but as required. Including a “romance” mechanic between Miis without gender distinction seems to me (and I’m admittedly not a programmer) to be a simpler thing to code than a “romance” mechanic with prohibitors based on the gender identity of a Mii. In other words, somebody made the choice to make all the Miis straight. Somebody (maybe the same somebody, maybe a different somebody) approved that choice, or even demanded it. Which means that even if the company at large didn’t mean “to provide social commentary,” somebody did.
Gunthera1 rightly suggests that this is an obvious, glaring, and even deliberate oversight on the part of Nintendo’s design team: “They decided who is included and who is excluded.” Games writer Samantha Allen made a similar post on Polygon, saying that “The more words a company needs to use to justify its exclusionary choices, the more simple its motivations. Call it a queer version of Occam’s razor. Behind all the corporate jargon and flowery public-relations language lies hatred, pure and simple.”‘
Whether or not Nintendo’s exclusion of non-heteronormative couples is “hatred” or privileged ignorance or a horrific miscalculation of audience demographic may be debatable, but – no matter how you read Nintendo’s intentions – it nevertheless sends a harmful, hurtful, and even (yes) hateful message to players. Those whose preference for same-sex Mii romance is precluded are rejected from fully participating in the game. Those whose personal preference might include same-sex partnerships feel insulted and marginalized (even more so than they already are). And, perhaps worst of all, those whose paradigmatic view of the world suggests that anything outside of heteronormativity is condemnable have their warped ideological position ratified.
To be fair to Nintendo, following the posts from Gunthera1 and Allen, the #Miiquality campaign, their PR department issued a second statement on May 9, 2014:
We apologize for disappointing many people by failing to include same-sex relationships in Tomodachi Life. Unfortunately, it is not possible for us to change this game’s design, and such a significant development change can’t be accomplished with a post-ship patch. At Nintendo, dedication has always meant going beyond the games to promote a sense of community, and to share a spirit of fun and joy. We are committed to advancing our longtime company values of fun and entertainment for everyone. We pledge that if we create a next installment in the Tomodachi series, we will strive to design a game-play experience from the ground up that is more inclusive, and better represents all players.
Gunthera1 also posted a follow-up on Border House, stating that although
I am disappointed that this was not included in the original game. I am angry and hurt by the words of that first press release…I am hopeful for the future. This new statement shows that Nintendo realizes that lesbian, gay, and bisexual players ARE their fans and that their representation in games (or lack thereof) does matter. My hope is that this realization spreads within Nintendo and into the mindset of other companies. This is a matter that goes beyond Tomodachi Life and into all games.
I’m not sure that I feel the same sense of “hope” that Gunthera1 does, although perhaps that is simply a matter of my generally jaded response to PR statements that seek to shove dirt and grime under the rug by wailing “we didn’t mean it!” as loud as they possibly can. But I do see the point here; at least Nintendo did make a second statement that recognizes the diversity in their player-base. I’m skeptical of the claim that Tomodachi Life can’t be patched to permit non-heterosexual relationships, although I do understand that it may more be a matter of “we’ve already moved on to our next project” than it is “we can’t do it.” This is even more likely to be true of the company doesn’t expect Tomodachi Life to be particularly lucrative.
The May 9 follow-up is, as Gunthera1 suggests, better. It is more hopeful than a dismissal of diversity or a claim that – as we so often see in response to demands to include more women in games – “that’s not what fans want.” While I’m hesitant to call it a step forward, it at the very least is not a step back, and I suppose that’s something worth validating, even if not celebrating.
For now, I’ll wait to pass judgment until the next game is released, and will continue to look forward to games – like BioWare’s Dragon Age: Inquisition due out in October – that deliberately embrace diversity instead of (deliberately or not) excluding it.