‘Not Sending a Message’ Is Not an Acceptable Defense for Games
Update, 2:20 p.m. PDT, May 9, 2014 Nintendo has issued an apology for not including same-sex relationships in Tomodachi Life. The statement also says the company can’t change the code of the game to include them, but that it will work “from the ground up” to be more inclusive in any future Tomodachi Life games. Read the full story here.
Nintendo has announced it won’t be including the ability for players to engage in same-sex romances in its upcoming 3DS life simulator, Tomodachi Life.
The statement Nintendo released today, as reported by The Associated Press, came in response to a social media campaign by players, asking Nintendo to expand Tomodachi Live’s romance options to be more inclusive. Nintendo refused, and in explaining why it would not be adding the ability for players to woo characters in the game with the same sex as their avatars, Nintendo said it wasn’t making “any form of social commentary” with Tomodachi Life.
“Nintendo never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of ‘Tomodachi Life,’” Nintendo of America Inc. said in a statement to the AP. “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.”
That’s not an unheard-of defense for video game makers and publishers on a range of topics. When Nathan Grayson at Rock Paper Shotgun questioned Blizzard about Heroes of the Storm character models last year — specifically about all the really scantily clad women in MOBAs at large — he got a similar response; “we’re not sending a message.” It’s a cop-out that knows and needs no limitations. “Not sending a message” or “not making any form of social commentary” live on the assumption that such social commentary is only about things that affect people who are (generally) not straight white men. It’s only a social statement if it’s something positive about traditionally underrepresented groups, like minorities or women; if it’s not something you can put on a press release to crow over how inclusive you’re being, you’re suddenly “not making a statement.”
Sorry, but the defense that your game is not making social commentary no longer stands, if it ever did.
There’s no separating “social commentary” or “sending a message” or political statements from what the creators of entertainment (or art) create. Everything is a message; everything is a statement. Nintendo’s choice not to depict non-heterosexual relationships in Tomodachi Life is absolutely a statement, one that values one kind of relationship over another. When Nintendo talks about a quirky fantasy game, one that includes romantic relationships, it’s categorically separating non-heterosexual relationships out of the realm of its “playful alternate world.” It says that in Nintendo’s conception of this place, there’s no room for people who aren’t heterosexual.
That is, of course, extremely dumb.
Representation of people who aren’t a majority doesn’t automatically become equivalent to marching through the streets with signs, nor does it automatically engender a level of tension or difficulty or drama onto a game that might inherently be at odds with the game’s tone. BioWare’s Mass Effect and Dragon Age series do just fine allowing various kinds of relationships, with no harm coming to the quirky fantasy worlds created therein.
That’s also to say nothing of Tomodachi Life’s tagline description and other marketing info for the game, as noted in the Associated Press report:
“The English-language packaging for ‘Tomodachi Life’ — ‘tomodachi’ means ‘friend’ in Japanese — proclaims: ‘Your friends. Your drama. Your life.’ A trailer for the game boasts that players can ‘give Mii characters items, voices and personalities, then watch as they rap, rock, eat doughnuts and fall in love.’ However, only characters of the opposite sex are actually able to flirt, date and marry in the game, which is set for release June 6 in North America and Europe.”
So already, Nintendo is leaning on elements of real life that make for a fun game. Friends, life, drama, personalities, falling in love — which are not concepts that are inherently without conflict. What makes same-sex relationships somehow more problematic than any of these things would be for heterosexual people?
Here’s the thing, though — I’m already giving Nintendo way more credit than it deserves. I’m assuming it has some kind of legitimate concern about how the representation of same-sex relationships would impact the game it’s trying to make, even if that concern doesn’t make sense. The much more likely explanation for Nintendo’s trepidation goes like this:
- Same-sex marriages are not legal in Japan and there is a cultural bias against them in that country (as well as this one, in many places);
- People at Nintendo making the game respond to this cultural bias by either making the game for the perceived market (i.e. people in Japan who wouldn’t be cool with same-sex relationships), or the game’s creators themselves aren’t accepting of same-sex relationships, and;
- Nintendo is using the Japanese source code for its U.S. and European versions of the game and is too lazy (or cheap) to change that code to allow same-sex relationships, if it would even consider doing so.
In saying that it isn’t making social commentary with Tomodachi Life and the kinds of relationships it allows to be depicted therein, Nintendo is really just hoping people won’t analyze the choices it has made with the game. But pretending it’s not social commentary to treat same-sex relationships as if they don’t exist doesn’t make it so — it just makes fully visible Nintendo’s willingness to marginalize non-heterosexual people. In a game about making avatars and importing “your friends, your life and your drama” into it, those people who don’t fit Nintendo’s mold are rendered invisible at best, nonexistent at worst. There’s no bigger political or social statement than to pretend a whole group of people doesn’t exist.
There is no neutral. Every portrayal (or failure to portray) carries a subconscious message with it, and reveals the thinking and attitudes of its creators.
Video games can’t be a multi-billion-dollar industry with millions of players and customers, as well as works of artistic expression and cultural relevance, and somehow be free of the larger political and social world of which they’re a part. It’s a fantasy for Nintendo and companies like it to think they can remain neutral when it comes to how their games represent people, and what they reflect back to the playing them. There is no neutral. Every portrayal (or failure to portray) carries a subconscious message with it, and reveals the thinking and attitudes its creators.
Nintendo’s social commentary isn’t nonexistent, as it hopes, but overwhelmingly negative. Its refusal to include is a statement; its willing erasure of certain people is a statement. It’s time video game companies realize the responsibility they have goes beyond just taking money for their products. Trying to stay on the sidelines is only cowardice at best, and at worst, it’s complicity in continuing to marginalize people who have been traditionally marginalized in games, and beyond.
Publishers and developers need to have the courage to own their statements — and the consequences that come with them.
Correction: The original version of this article erroneously stated that same-sex relationships are illegal in Japan, but in fact, it’s same-sex marriages that are not legal. The error has been corrected in the text.