It's Hard Being Tomodachi With Corporations

When the decisions that shape games are founded on and informed by profitability, it's no surprise that corporations will frequently ignore audiences they see as unprofitable.

Originally posted 28 May 2014 @ GayGamer.net.

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Recently, an uproar tore out across the internets when Nintendo decided not to include same-sex relationships in their life-sim game Tomodachi Life; people were incensed, Nintendo issued a fairly standard apology, people were mildly more optimistic but also still kind of sore. In response, there have been questions, confusions and concerns from folk criticising the backlash against Nintendo, for various reasons.

Many have echoed Nintendo’s sentiment of “social commentary” by claiming that games are “just games”, they’re escapist fantasies, they’re entertainment, and as such, they shouldn’t serve any “political agenda”. But games are not just “escapism”, they’re not just frivolous forays into time-wasting in between reading “Ulysses” or “Animal Farm”, they’re not “just” anything – there’s an entire side to the games industry called serious games! Games, like any medium, like any artform, like any kind of entertainment – both reflect the culture that created it and influences that society’s perspective. As Anna at BorderHouseBlog notes, choosing to abstain from “social commentary” on an issue IS social commentary — any action in a politically-muddied situation is political action. Similarly, Nintendo’s initial decision not to include same-sex relationships – and their subsequent decision not to – did not happen in a vacuum. They happened in an industry already hesitant about, if not inimical to, LGBTQ representation, in a culture where LGBTQ people are already marginalised, poorly represented and discriminated against.

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One of the concerns over the backlash is that the negative reaction charicaturises or makes a scapegoat of Nintendo, turning them into a strawman for problems that plague the games industry as a whole. But Nintendo is not a “moustache-twirling villain” - and they don’t have to be in order for this incident to be rooted in homophobia. No-one was ever trying to claim that they were . No-one is trying to put forward the argument that Nintendo are the sole cause of homophobia in the games industry or society-at-large, nor is anyone claiming that Nintendo are even the biggest culprits, nor the worse offenders – because they’re not. There are other companies out there poorly portraying queer characters, or not portraying them at all, and there are companies whose labor malpractices go far above and beyond misrepresentation. But what’s got so many people’s gall rising is that:

  • it’s the umpteenth time that same-sex relationships have been ignored or poorly represented, and it’s exhausting for people invested in this kind of representation
  • it’s come from a company who are usually on the more positive side of moderate, and it stings when a company you thought were decent decide you and others like you aren’t worth their budget, and
  • it was framed as though including same-sex relationships (in a game where analogues of real-life relationships are a large component) was “social commentary”, instead of a fact of many people’s real lives.

The fact that “there are worse things happening elsewhere” is not and can not be an argument for not addressing a problem, because literally any problem – any problem at all – could easily be trumped by another, larger problem, which itself is outmatched by a problem of even greater magnitude, and so on ad infinitum, with nothing ever solved.

Some have pointed out East-West culture differences, that Japan does not pay the same dubious respect that Western countries do to same-sex relationships, and that it is unfair to expect a Japanese company to bow to pressure from Western countries to include representation of same-sex relationships – which utterly ignores the fact that, represented or not, there are already people in Japan who are LGBTQ+, who experience same-sex attraction, who are involved in same-sex relationships; same-sex relationships are not a Western invention.

Some have denied that this can be seen as homophobic, often citing examples such as “you’re basically saying that bars that don’t say ‘gay friendly’ are homophobic!” and asking, as many conservative pundits do, why LGBTQ people are always “looking to be offended”, and “where all this politically-correctness is going to end”.

Well, it’ll end when we have to go looking for it, because as it stands, heteronormativity is so ubiquitous, so commonplace, that the only relationships a major games company includes in a game where relationships are a key factor are male-female relationships. Heteronormativity permeates every level of society to the extent that there are even gay people commenting on this incident who believe there’s nothing homophobic about LGB people being willfully and purposely excluded from a mass-market game. Nobody is suggesting that literally everything ever has to have “a same-sex option” – which is why we don’t hear about, say, Tetris not being queer-friendly – but they are suggesting that, in games where relationships are a major component, it is wrong to assume that male-female options are the only ones anyone will be interested in and which should be supported.

Some have brought up the fact that simulation games, by their very nature, cannot simulate everything, and there has to be decisions made about who or what to include, and who or what to leave out – but all too often, the people that are left out tend to be exactly those same people that are purposely excluded in real-life – disabled people, people of color, and, in this case, people for whom same-sex attraction is an integral part of their identity. As Samantha Allen notes over at Polygon,

“To claim only in the face of anti-homophobic outcry that Tomodachi Life is not intended to be “a real-life simulation” shows us Nintendo at its most cowardly, denying the very premise of the game in order to justify a regressive refusal to reflect both the realities and fantasies of queer existence.”

Others have suggested that there is an unreasonable amount of difficulty – not to mention increase in scope and budget – that would come from adding in same-sex relationships to Tomodachi Life so late in the development process; as a game designer, I’m almost certain this isn’t as arduous as people have been making it out to be, especially considering this was made possible with a bug in the game earlier that was then patched, despite the amount of support for the feature. However, there may well be interactions and systems that have, for whatever reason, been made gender-specific, which could have made it a difficult task to unpick all of these interactions and systems and make them more neutral.

But even if the game was constructed so that male-female relationships were integral to so many other classes and systems within the game, the problem then becomes: why did Nintendo choose to start from the heteronormative principle that male-female relationships should be the only ones possible? After all, it’s hard to believe that the design team would have neglected to look at That Other Quite Popular Life Sim, The Sims, and realised that same-sex relationships were not only allowed and supported by game mechanics, but were frequently used by players. The fact that the design team did not think this significant enough to include is, at best, a massive oversight, and, at worst, a purposeful act of homophobic exclusion.

Similarly, we have to ask why Nintendo aren’t willing to address the issue and change the game in the first place,; the most obvious answer, as mentioned above, is one of money and scope, being that it would likely be unprofitable to put in the resources to change something when it could be left in with no significant losses.

In terms of the technical feasibility of making additional changes post-release, and whether or not Nintendo would have access to their resources for Tomodachi Life, it’s highly likely that Nintendo have retained the game’s engine, architecture, and assets, or would be able to derive them from other software even if they hadn’t (since Tomodachi Life shares a lot in common with other Nintendo software like the Mii Maker, Mii Plaza, and so on). It also seems deeply unlikely that a software giant like Nintendo wouldn’t use version control software to make sure their games’ assets and architecture could be modified, updated, rolled back or retrieved between different software iterations. So the idea that Nintendo physically would not be able to make changes to the game this late in development is a spurious one, based on a foggy idea of how game development actually takes place.

And there’s an unspoken, tacit assumption made when people claim that Nintendo were somehow unable to implement same-sex relationships– are folk really trying to say that Nintendo, of all companies, would be unable to design and implement same-sex relationships in a game? It’s hard to accept the argument that he games company that brought us Mario, Animal Crossing, Metroid, would be so inept at game development that they would be unable to take a game they’d already made, and make the change without causing the entire engine to break down, froths of homosexual conduct seeping and seething from within, and it seems unthinkable that no-one at the company ever thought of same-sex relationships while the game was being designed.

Even if it was the case that same-sex relationships was logistically difficult to implement – is this really such a good reason not to pursue it? Sometimes enacting change to correct inequality or disparity IS difficult; historically, LGBTQ people know this to be the case, and our liberation and pride movements have a long history of doing difficult things that are nonetheless vital.

All the reasoning and attempts at justification above, though, flit like flies around the real elephant in the room. If we accept that Nintendo couldn’t have changed this because of financial or budgetary/scope concerns, if we accept that we should forgive because they’re far from the worst offenders, if we accept that Nintendo are to be absolved of their decision because they’re “just a games company”, then we have to take this to its logical conclusion – that ultimately, like any business, Nintendo’s decisions are based on financial profit. We want to believe Nintendo is the the warm, friendly games company of our youth, being populated by and run on the whim and whimsy of the pleasant, mannered businessmen with cheery grins we see in Nintendo Direct, but behind the facade, Nintendo is still an electronics company, still plagued by the same problems endemic to business in capitalist societies – decisions motivated by profitability.

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So what does this mean for us? It means that, while it’s important to ask for better, to critique those with influence, power and resources in whatever systems we examine (in our case, the games industry), we also have to come to expect as given – but never accept as justified – the fact that companies will not be at the forefront of inclusivity and diversity; it means that we cannot look to corporations as being intellectual or moral giants – regardless of how intellectual or moral some of the individuals who make them up might be; it means that we have to create and support systems that help those who are unjustifiably excluded, so that we can reach a point where companies actions are not excused simply because they have historically donated money to good causes, or haven’t behaved as badly as others might have.

After all Nintendo may have done some cool things in the past, like “letting male characters wear dresses in that one game,” but that is a tremendously low bar to set for diversity, and we shouldn’t applaud them – or any other games companies – for managing to clumsily step over it. (once).

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