‘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.

Original story:

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:

  1. 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);
  2. 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;
  3. 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.


Phil Hornshaw is senior editor at GameFront. Read more of his work here, and follow him and GameFront on Twitter: @philhornshaw and @gamefrontcom.

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22 Comments on ‘Not Sending a Message’ Is Not an Acceptable Defense for Games

Mike

On May 7, 2014 at 9:05 pm

So if they came out and said that they won’t have same sex relationships in their because they go against the beliefs and ethics of the company, that would be better because at least they are taking a stand?

Mike

On May 7, 2014 at 9:18 pm

As an aside Phil, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the girly girl channel Nintendo started on youtube. Do you take offense to the market they’re shooting for? Because that girl does exist.

Tigerza

On May 7, 2014 at 10:45 pm

Or may be they just never thought of it till articles like this brought it up, if a game is made by an all straight team this isn’t something that would be on the creative board simply because no one would of thought of it, this whole “you’re either with me or against me” thing is what damages your argument, this isn’t an issue I put much thought into so does that now throw me into the “making a statement by not making a statement” camp.

AxΣtwin

On May 7, 2014 at 11:22 pm

“Publishers and developers need to have the courage to own their statements — and the consequences that come with them.”

As long as those “statements” coincide with the “public norm”? The LGBT movement gains more and more traction and they’re not stopping to think about the message its putting out there. You know what that message is? “If you’re not with us, you’re against us and if you’re against us that makes you giant bigot”. Who know who deals in absolutes? Narrowminded people that have the inability to think for themselves (also the Sith).

This whole “the lack of a message IS your message, and it’s very negative” that I first saw on Kotaku last night is BS then and it’s BS now. This is the equivalent of minority groups analyzing everything that comes out of the white man’s mouth hoping to find racist undertones. When they don’t, they claim the lack of said undertones is racist in and of itself because obviously the white man is being so overly sensitive he’s not freely expressing himself.

Look, I am very much pro-LGBT. No, I’m not one of those idiots that says “I’m ok with it because I think what you do in the bedroom is your choice”. I know a same sex relationship goes way behind just “what you do in the bedroom”. With that said, I’m also very much a believer in the idea that if you want to spread the message of tolerance, you need to show tolerance. Repeatedly. It’s one thing to be up in arms over someone of the lifestyle being beaten down or worse simply because of who they are. It’s something else entirely to write a smear article because you don’t accept their answer towards the question of why their game didn’t have same sex relationships. That’s not tolerance.

Machinimal

On May 8, 2014 at 1:02 am

It’s funny that the image used here is of Shepard and Kaiden, since there was literally no romance between the two of them and the ability to suddenly turn male-Shep homosexual in the third part of a trilogy had no storyline or character credibility. It was done to appease PC hacks. At that moment, you lost an already very tenuous and half-baked argument by proving that you’re not interested in letting developers create, or reflect the reality of society since in reality nobody just sporadically decides to get with a member of the opposite sex like that. You’re only interested in tokenist pandering to make yourself feel better about being born white and male. When even Saints Row and Payday, games about gratuitous crime and violence, are being forced into gender quotas despite the fact they’re clearly not supposed to be creating role models (actually, you could argue that they were previously sexist towards men for making them the only people capable of committing evil acts) then you’re starting to cross a line. I’m not saying you personally have done this, but it has happened and of course Ross Lincoln wrote one of his trademark sneering snorefests about sexism towards GTA V while ignoring the inconvenient fact that every single character in the game was either clichéd or unsympathetic. If I was a woman, I think I’d be pretty relieved to not be a focal point in that story, but when you demand parity in everything – regardless of whether it’s contextually relevant or not – it blinds your judgement.

I’m egalitarian and meritocratic, so I want equal rights and opportunities for everyone. I don’t pick sides to look progressive and use confirmation bias and straw man examples (and false choice fallacies as evidenced by the concept of this particular article) to convince myself that I should feel bad about being who I am, which is more than I can say about some of the sanctimonious rubbish I’ve seen posted about games not doing enough to conform to the personally-held views of shallow neo-liberals. I’d much rather see videogames be an organic process, not an exercise in box-ticking. That would be the real evolution for the industry, instead of facile attempts to make it look like it’s progressing by filling meaningless quantities. Views such as the one expressed in this article are going to do far more to keep the industry static and juvenile than they realise.

David

On May 8, 2014 at 3:56 am

If you want to set a good example for the rest of the industry, start here:

http://www.gamefront.com/32-year-arcade-game-ban-overturned-in-massachusetts-town/

User SupremeAllah made a crass child rape “joke” that had nothing to do with the story. He was, inevitably, challenged about this by three other people who were very civil and cogent in their replies, far more so than he deserved. Allah’s reaction to this was to claim they were all the same person, aim personal abuse at them, then post several times himself in a small space of time under different aliases while accusing others of doing the same thing. In these posts, he made further attacks on not only the woman quoted in the article, but towards women generally. Obviously he was challenged again, and just continued to say those who didn’t like his violent and misogynistic remarks were “pathetic” and again claimed they were the same person. These comments are still online and he has not faced any action from the moderators despite these disgusting remarks, not to mention hypocrisy in posting under different names then saying it was the rest of the internet doing it instead of him, AND taking multiple ad hominem shots at other users despite their best efforts to explain respectfully in detail why his original remark was misjudged.

If you want to set a good example, you can start by deleting his comments and banning or suspending him from the site, or at least giving him a warning. There’s nothing wrong with dark humor and there’s no subject matter that should be seen as off-limits when making a joke, but he didn’t make a joke. He made chauvinist remarks, then when rebutted for doing so he did it again, in the process marginalizing several respected users as well as also making it far easier to marginalize gamers in general as being a bunch of petulant children. You should make it clear that bullying, bigoted comments such as his have no place in an informed debating environment, if for no other reason than to distance us from the threat of intellectually lazy, agenda-driven simpering twits using it as further ‘evidence’ that the industry is a male-dominated sexist environment and that this therefore justifies their prejudices that are often equally sickening and devoid of reasoning or merit. After all, by leaving these threatening comments on the site, by your own logic you’re condoning them since you’re saying the lack of a message is in itself a clear message. If you don’t condemn them, that means you condone them. That’s the logic behind this column and therefore, no matter how ridiculously asinine that line of thinking actually is, you should start applying it yourself. God knows it’s far more important to sway sexist violent s from posting horrific garbage on a forum than it is to let avatars have same-sex partnerships in a Nintendo game.

Practice what you preach, or stop preaching it, because many of us are getting sick and tired of the condescending tone of articles such as this without seeing any end product from those who write them.

Bob

On May 8, 2014 at 6:12 am

Phil I think your reading to much into your own arse with this seriously grow up.

You as a reporter should be ashamed of yourself for fabricating a news article in this manner with pointless aggression because you can not DATE ANOTHER GUY IN A KIDS GAME!!!!!!!!! oh no get over it seriously this game has like all Nintendo made games have NO POLITICS ON THIS MATTER.

And as most people know and feel the only reason same sex is in ea is because it looks good on when you need to spin and ea need to spin alot!
last example was when sim city came out it was a lie pure and simple what is their response to this is we support s in some outing blah blah generic ea speech when something goes wrong!

Myballs

On May 8, 2014 at 6:32 am

I’ve said it before and unfortunately I’ll probably end up having to say it again – until GameFront starts actually diversifying its own staff, instead of representing an echo-chamber of exclusively male, exclusively liberal and almost entirely heterosexual and Caucasian sounding boards, it will never have the credibility to demand change or social representation from games developers. Social commentary should be present on this site only as a means to an end by which to discuss videogames, the ostensible reason for this site’s entire existence. Games should not be a means to an end for smug MSNBC mouthpieces to repeatedly tell us how offended they claim to be by everything while in most cases showing a complete lack of tolerance themselves for opposing viewpoints. This is exactly why so many readers are critical of these articles, and when your reactions to this reasonable response is to just throw mud at them it just makes them all the more determined not to submit to it.

SweetPea

On May 8, 2014 at 6:41 am

I’m sorry but this article is pure BS. Also, ME3 isn’t a very good exapmle either, all it did was force everyone to be bisexual without any reason or explanation.

Janelle Bonanno

On May 8, 2014 at 8:32 am

@Myballs Hi! I’m Janelle Bonanno, Editor in Chief of Gamefront, and non-male for over 30 years. Pleasure to make your acquaintance ;)

gasmaskangel

On May 8, 2014 at 9:46 am

Wow. Lot of apologism for Nintendo going on.

I find it hard to care about some crappy sims knock off, but I do share the author’s contempt for Nintendo’s position, and you know what? Phil’s right. All art is a message, even if that message is silly or pointless and now Nintendo has added the message that they don’t care about LGBT gamers.

Even if they are so lazy that they wouldn’t change the code to allow for same sex relationships they could have at least saved face by saying “Oh crap, we forgot that since that isn’t as a big a deal here in Japan. Oh well, sorry about that but its really too late for us to go back and change things.” There would still be a backlash and they’d still have the contempt of people who don’t assume that inclusion is an agenda meant to shove ness down everyone’s throat, but it would be more “look at these backwards idiots” and less “look at these cowards.”

SweetPea

On May 8, 2014 at 10:32 am

@gasmaskangel
It’s not apologism, I simply disagree with Phil. I don’t think that every single game or movie or whatever, needs to feature at least on LGBT character, because if they don’t, the creators are surely filthy, disgusting, close-minded s.

Also, since the article mentions realism. LGBT people are a minority, it’s unrealistic if a game is full of them. Good example is ME3. While I didn’t have much of a problem with it, it DID annoy me that every second character was bisexual. It’s simply unrealistic.

That being said, I would agree that if the customers want the game to have same-sex relationships, and the devs refuse because it’s against their views, that does send a message. However, it’s that refusal that sends the message, not the game itself.

Ross Lincoln

On May 8, 2014 at 10:41 am

Funny, I don’t remember anyone being forced to hook up with Kaiden.

SweetPea

On May 8, 2014 at 11:13 am

@Ross
That’s besides the point. There wasn’t a single hint in ME1 about Kaiden being bisexual, Bioware just turned everyone into a bi without any explanation, so that they will look like cool guys. And Steve is the opposite, his whole character was built on him being . All he did was either whine about his dead husband, or trying to get close to me.

Michigan fan

On May 8, 2014 at 12:56 pm

I agree with the author of this article whole heartedly. The exclusion of non-heterosexual romances in this game absolutely is a statement. It’s a statement that non-heterosexual people don’t matter. For this game, the statement is even stronger because it is supposed to be a game about “your” life, with romances designed as a critical feature. If, for this core feature, it actively excludes a portion of the population, it is clearly stating that that portion of the population doesn’t matter to them. Their assertions otherwise are pure malarkey.

Can you imagine if a game about “your” life denied you the option to play as a racial minority, or as a woman? Imagine if they only let you play as a white male. Could you honestly argue that such a design decision in a game about “your” life wouldn’t be making a statement?

T. Jetfuel

On May 8, 2014 at 1:23 pm

Strange, reading the comments it almost seems as if the word “” is being censored. “…his whole character was built on him being .” What’s the deal with that?

Anyways, I don’t quite know what to make of the argument here. Video games are artistic expression, so therefore they have an obligation to express correct values? Isn’t that quite a reductive view of art? If the meaning of a work of art can be succintly stated in a political prescription, isn’t it more of a work of, dunno, propaganda?

Not that I necessarily think “art” is the most fitting category for dealing with this product. But it strikes me as peculiar that games are often called upon to be pretty contradictory things in the very same breath. Games need to aspire to the status of Art and provoke enlightened contemplation… and they also need to be didactic instruments for instilling the correct values in the masses, who passively absorb whatever social program is encoded in them.

Phil Hornshaw

On May 8, 2014 at 1:25 pm

@T. Jetfuel

It may well be getting censored. Our comments are dumb and outdated and we’re trying to get them fixed up and altered.

T. Jetfuel

On May 8, 2014 at 1:26 pm

Wow, it’s true. The “G” in LGBT is a word you can’t say here. Irony much?

Franklin

On May 8, 2014 at 9:12 pm

It is a kids game and you dumb s are treating it like its an adult title grow up you lords

MarkEMark

On May 9, 2014 at 4:31 am

Phil is exactly right here.

“Not sending a message” would be allowing homosexual relationships in the game and letting the player decide not the opposite.

While some might argue that it is not possible to include every single permutation of real life in a life simulator, to leave out such an important choice that relates to an individual’s identity shows that Nintendo are once again out of touch.

It’s a shame that Nintendo (and Japanese games in general) are becoming less and less relevant.

Santiago Matamoros

On May 17, 2014 at 12:36 pm

Are you owned by Disney also? Do you think for yourself at all? Of do you care to promote only your own personal predilection?

Why are you agitating in defense of sodomy?

Why aren’t you railing against Nintendo’s craven refusal to depict polygynous, incestous, necrophilic, zoophilic, adulterous, and other deviant lifestyles?

You’re either a sell-out, brainwashed, or selfish.

At least you can be consistent.

Santiago Matamoros

On May 17, 2014 at 12:49 pm

@MarkEMark

Destructive and immoral deviance is not “such an important choice.”

It’s … destructive and immoral.