Nintendo has endured a lot of criticism over the last few years, but they’ve never been accused of homophobia until just recently. Earlier this month, Nintendo came under fire for a seemingly innocent Japan-only game named Tomodachi Life. Tomodachi Life is a life-simulation game where players create or import player avatars named Miis that can live out their whimsical lives in the game’s world. Your Mii can even fall in love and marry another Mii – as long as they’re of the opposite sex. Players discovered an exploit that would allow same-sex Miis to marry, which drew attention to the absence of homosexual relationships in the original game. Nintendo was mistakenly accused of patching the exploit out, which is when the controversy started.
This attracted the attention of gay advocacy group GLAAD. Their spokesperson, Wilson Cruz, criticized Nintendo for “not only sending a hurtful message to many of its fans and consumers by excluding them, but also setting itself way behind the times.” The story quickly caught fire, and Nintendo’s lack of inclusion of gays became the target of much vitriolic commentary from fans and gaming publications. Nintendo initially tried to explain the lack of same-sex relationships but relented several days later, apologized, and promised to be more inclusive in the future.
You could argue that Nintendo handled it as well as they could. Nintendo has never been one for sparking controversy or taking stands on social issues, and they probably never anticipated that fans would care about the lack of same-sex marriages. Furthermore, bowing to the whims of the fans if they whine loudly enough can be a very slippery slope, even if they have a legitimate complaint. The assumption that media creators must listen to their fans and their myriad complaints and desires and do as they say is a worrying trend. In the words of George R.R. Martin, ‘art is not a democracy.’
On the other hand, exclusion is still exclusion even if they didn’t mean to offend anyone. Nintendo said that they “never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of Tomodachi Life.” What they failed to realize is that the absence of same-sex relationships is a form of social commentary in itself. Even if it was unintentional, they’re reinforcing the idea that heterosexual relationships are the only acceptable kind of relationships. It becomes even more disappointing when you realize that it wouldn’t have taken Nintendo very much work to integrate same-sex relationships if they’d initially developed the game with that in mind.
The crux of this controversy is the question of whether or not media creators have an obligation to include and respectfully portray minorities. Although it’s easy to say that it’s all just fun and games, entertainment media can influence how its consumers view others, for better or for worse. However, this must be balanced against freedom of expression and the economic realities of the entertainment industry. The reason why so many games feature tough, 30-something, brown-haired, heterosexual men is because they’re a safe bet for development studios.
Partially due to economic concerns and partially thanks to the youth of the medium, gaming has featured little in the way of homosexual representations. There’s enough of a struggle just to get women depicted respectfully in gaming that gay representation often falls by the wayside. There are a handful of gay characters like Bill in the Last of Us, but these characters are almost always side characters. In this respect, gaming isn’t much different from the film and television industries. To be honest, we’re probably years away from seeing gay protagonists in AAA games.
This is where games like Tomodachi Life come in. Games like Tomodachi Life or Mass Effect that allow players to create and customize their characters are the perfect way to include minorities in gaming while we wait for companies (and society in general) to become a bit more accepting. Giving players options for race, gender, and yes, sexuality, allows them to play the way they want without impacting a game’s marketability or making anyone else uncomfortable. It’s a shame that Nintendo didn’t realize this when they made Tomodachi Life. Hopefully they’ll do better next time around.