Nintendo plan to release their new 3DS simulation game Tomodachi Life early next month. In it, players will have the ability to create “virtually anyone they can think of”. However, the problem with creating an alternate world is that the real world can never be fully represented in a simulation. Nintendo have worked around around this problem fairly easily: avatars will live on an island where their characters live an exaggerated life, and where simple actions can have unexpected results.
The players will be in Mii form, allowing them to retain their Nintendo persona, and the dialogue will be intentionally unrealistic, over-the-top and in line with Nintendo’s usual humour. Despite this, the characters lives will still be restricted in at least one way – there will be no same-sex relationships.
For the Japanese release, this was not much of a problem and the game was well received, but when news of this spread West, it was not as simple. The social media campaign #MiiQuality has gained traction over the last month in demand for the inclusion of same-sex relationships in Tomodachi life. Nintendo responded, categorically stating that this will not happen. Nintendo said that it “never intended to make any form of social commentary” with this stance, and that they intended to create “a playful alternate world rather than a real-life simulation”. They mentioned that they will continue to listen to feedback, but whether or not this refers to the ongoing #MiiQuality campaign is unclear.
Nintendo’s focus has always been on reaching a wide audience, especially with casual gamers. Over the last decade in particular, they have shifted focus to more age-friendly releases. As a multinational company, it is within their best interest to focus on the largest group possible, and today it would seem that this it true even to the detriment of more vulnerable groups (such as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender individuals).
Although Nintendo do not wish to make any social commentary, previous releases have contained LGBT friendly content, including Fire Emblem (Radiant Dawn and Awakening both had potentially gay characters). Though with the statement in mind, it is worth questioning whether this minor representation was the work of Nintendo or the Fire Emblem series co-developer, Intelligent Systems. It is possible that Nintendo, as a company, have never chosen to include a character directly stated as anything other than heterosexual, though trans character Birdo has previously appeared in Mario Tennis, Golf and Kart.
Inclusion of LGBT characters in narrative-driven games is an active decision, making it a common move not to put in extra work for a small demographic. These characters must be written, designed and coded for to fit within the confines of the story. However, when both a choice of gender and romantic interests are offered to a player, the chance of homosexual relationships is innate and must be specifically removed. Therefore, in Tomodachi Life, Nintendo specifically coded for heterosexual-only relationships, and then denied the request for this decision to be overturned.
Outside of Nintendo, games are beginning to include more gender and LGBT friendly options: Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, even Call of Duty – these games often involve a central character who can be manipulated in appearance and behaviour by the player – they do not aim to emulate real life, but they still attempt to give the player a feeling of involvement in the game. By not restricting their actions where it is not necessary, these games allow the player to be represented without excluding less visible groups. In a story where a character is locked into one gender, one race, or one sexuality, the player cannot expect the character to change.
In The Witcher, for example, the protagonist Geralt can seek heterosexual relationships but not homosexual. He is a canonically heterosexual character and therefore there can be no complaint in the player not being able to alter his persona to fit their own. Though when a game allows some players to create a representation of themselves, and refuses this to others, developers must consider if they are neglecting groups by removing their ability to represent themselves.
Including sexuality of any kind can be a tenuous road to walk on when developing games for both young and old players. However, if a player of one gender or sexuality is able to enter a relationship that is not considered obscene, this act should not be considered more graphic or unacceptable if it is mirrored in other players, regardless of gender.
Representing homosexuality couldn’t be distasteful if the actions of the user will remain unchanged; by retaining a same-sex romance option, without feeling the need to change a character in any other way, there could be no offence. Players who would not seek homosexual content would continue not to seek it and otherwise excluded groups would have a chance to play the game how they wish to.
The simulation genre aims specifically to represent a small section of the world, be it a farm, a train track, or a neighbourhood. When a player enters a game designed to emulate their own life and cannot portray who they are on-screen, it detracts from their experience; a married couple playing an online game together might not be able to marry each other in-game. Same-sex relationships in simulation games are not unheard of – the hugely popular Sims franchise has included marriages for couples of any sexuality, and The Sims remains popular, with a fourth instalment due for release this year.
It is not Nintendo’s job to make social commentary, nor must they be expected to. They are instead tasked with ingenuity, with finding ways to push their media forward. It is their job to look at what has come before them and how to improve upon it, yet their statement means that Tomodachi Life will not be as progressive as a game released five years ago. It may not Nintendo’s job to make social commentary, but it was their choice to turn down this request from their fanbase. Through this refusal, Nintendo are actively telling consumers who play their games that they do not need to be represented.
In March, Nintendo released a statement saying they wanted to modernise their business and attempt to improve the quality of life of their customers. This was in reference to a possible branching out in directions other than video games, but surely this logic would also be applied to their future releases. It remains possible that future updates could realign Nintendo with modern day beliefs, and their fans’ requests. Until then, Tomodachi Life will remain a fun and quirky, but heteronormative world where I can’t be myself.