Nintendo, maker of cute video games and slow-selling consoles, has found itself under intense scrutiny for failing to include gay relationships in Tomodachi Life. A life simulator game takes place on an island populated by player and celebrity avatars (called Miis) where players can do all kinds of things like "hit the beach with your crush" and "record a hit song with your BFF" – the glaring exception being players can' have a gay relationship.
Last month, fan group Miiquality organized a campaign asking Nintendo to issue a patch that would allow Tomodachi Life characters to get married to either sex. Nintendo claims that it wasn't trying to make any "social commentary" with its exclusion, but clearly it already has.
The controversy began when players got wind of what was translated in English as a "strange relationships" patch, which was to prevent two male characters from marrying and having children. Product Marketing Manager Bill Trinen has since told IGN that the patch fixed game-breaking data leak issues related to importing characters from the 2009 Japan-only DS versions to the 3DS.
Trinen acknowledged to IGN that players were manipulating the game in order to have gay relationships. "Essentially they would create a male version of a Mii character and assign their gender as female, and that was how the two males were able to have a baby."
Given the company's history with censoring LGBT material, the resulting uproar isn't surprising. Plenty of gay characters and relationships have been removed from games in order to be released on the platform, conveniently falling under the banner of "sexually suggestive or explicit content."
In 1988, the mini-boss Birdo was described as identifying as a girl and wanting to be called Birdetta, but Nintendo of America removed this from later game manuals. In 1992, Enix had to remove a gay bar from Dragon Warrior III. The option to have a male or female "bedmate" was removed from Ultima VIII. Though Nintendo's censorship seems to have lessened in recent years – allowing the gay frog bartender Jolly Roger character in Banjo-tooie and allowing the re-release of Dragon Warrior III to keep all its original content – same-sex censorship seems to be raising its head again in Tomodachi Life.
It is one thing to strive for family-friendly content, and quite another to allow certain kinds of romance but not others. Nintendo's defense has been that the game isn't meant to be a true-to-life simulator. Trinen said to IGN: "We look at it really as this sort of living breathing world, and it's a bit of an alternate reality, where the Mii characters of people you know in everyday life come together to interact and mingle."
Tomodachi Life is a fantasy game – that much is clear. But it also promises that its players can: "Have fun recreating your best friend, your favorite actor, mom and dad, coworkers...whoever! Then watch as they rap, rock, eat donuts, fall in love, break up, go shopping, play games, and live their crazy Mii lives."
Unless of course, the people in your life are gay or bisexual. Players don't get any love in Tomodochi Life unless they pair up a man and a woman.
Highlighting the fact that Tomodachi Life is a game that does game things certainly does not justify exclusion. As The Globe and Mail story noted, cultural differences are at work here, but Nintendo did make social commentary with Tomodachi Life: that non-heterosexual people don't exist in this world or a "playful alternate" one.
And in contrast to the rest of the games industry, Nintendo looks increasingly out of touch. While plenty of English-language games don't feature gay characters or romances, the landscape has changed drastically over the past few years. Fable, Grand Theft Auto IV, Jade Empire, Sims, Mass Effect, Gone Home, The Last of Us and The Elder Scrolls are all games that feature either gay/bisexual characters and/or romances.
BioWare, long known for writing more progressive storylines, made a very different kind of statement at Pax East about the upcoming Mass Effect 4. When asked if the game will include more gay romance, writer Cathleen Rootsaert said: "We can't divulge that. But, I'll just say that inclusivity is part of the BioWare mandate. So, we do our best."
Inclusivity should be a part of every game publisher's mandate – at least if it wants to succeed. Many gamers now expect non-heterosexual relationships and characters to be available, and in a game like Tomodachi Life, it would take remarkably little work to open up already-existing romance and marriage options to include all characters.
This was an opportunity for Nintendo to broaden its audience and truly allow Tomodachi Life players to replicate the people in their lives and see where situations take them. Instead, it made a clumsy attempt to sidestep the controversy with claims of wanting to create a "whimsical" and "quirky" alternate world. This narrowness is disappointing from game-makers with such wonderful imaginations, and the sad reality is they deserve all the criticism they're getting.