A lot has already been written about Nintendo’s Tomodachi Life controversy, and honestly I kind of wondered if there was any need for me to say anything when there are already so many well-written responses (like Samantha Allen’s, which pulls no punches and is recommended reading). But there is another angle to this story that isn’t being talked about enough that I want to get into.
For those who aren’t aware, Tomodachi Life is a Nintendo game for the 3DS where players create or import “Miis” or avatars of their friends and family (or any celebrity or fictional character they want to recreate). The Miis go on wacky adventures and will even randomly hook up and get married. Basically it is a whimsical, silly life sim about watching your friends and family do ridiculous things. Your friends might marry each other! Your mom might marry Shaquille O’Neil! There are also no gay people in this game.
The rough timeline of events goes like this:
- Nintendo releases Tomodachi Life in Japan
- Japanese players find or create a few exploits that will allow gay marriage and relationships in the game
- This is reported in the West as an amusing story. People get excited about the possibility that Nintendo might make it an official part of the game.
- Nintendo patches out the exploits, citing that at least one of them leads to corrupted save data.
- Nintendo announces the game for the West. Fans ask that Nintendo either add in gay marriage for the western release, or patch it in later.
- Nintendo markets the game as “your friends, your drama, your life” but refuses to comment on including any lgbt options
- Fans organize a hashtag protest (#miiquality) which gains traction, forcing a response from Nintendo
- Nintendo’s response is extremely tone deaf, arguing that they didn’t include lgbt options because they “didn’t want to make a political statement” and that the game is just a “whimsical fantasy world” and not “real life.” The implication is that the existence of lgbt people is a political statement itself, and that there is no room for them in this “whimsical” world.
- Fans are understandably pissed and continue the protest. It gets picked up by the non-games media.
- Nintendo releases an corporate-speak apology. They will still not release any patch for Tomodachi Life, and they stop short of promising they will include lgbt in the future, but they do claim they will strive to be more inclusive in the future. Many people are satisfied with this.
- A bunch of terrible people in the game media and industry make asses of themselves to complain about gay people, “fake lgbt gamers” and about how people are not allowed to criticize a business because they need to make money at any cost.
That’s the story so far. Now, I’m going to assume that no one reading this blog needs me to explain why Nintendo was wrong. I’m going to assume that you have the basic empathy required to know that an lgbt person playing a game that asks them to create “real” version of themselves, and then forces that avatar to be straight is weird and cruel. I’m going to assume you get why non-lgbt people would also be against a game that erases their lgbt friends and family. I’m going to assume you also get why Nintendo’s statement was so hurtful even to people who didn’t care about the game, and why they would react to it. I’m going to assume you can understand the disconnect between Nintendo marketing an image of “our games are for everyone!” and their actions, and why that is fair to criticize. I’m going to assume you understand that criticism is not censorship. I’m going to assume you understand that a queer employee might not feel comfortable working for Nintendo, or that a queer writer might not feel welcome at a publication whose news director is attacking those protesting Nintendo because “its just a game” and “not everything needs to be POLITICAL!” I honestly feel it is a pretty cut-and-dry issue, and so basically I am going to assume you are not a terrible idiot. You are welcome. If you are, in fact, a terrible idiot, there are WAY better writers than I that have written articles and posts patiently explaining why erasure is bad.
Like I said, I want to talk about something that isn’t being discussed as much in the mainstream reporting on this story. A lot of people defending Nintendo are claiming that Nintendo had no choice because Japan is a “conservative” and “homogenously anti-gay” culture. I’ve seen some people (including people who claim to be professional developers and journalists) make the argument that somehow any media which features lgbt characters is ILLEGAL. This is not only inaccurate, but also not even a good excuse even if it was. For one thing, Nintendo already spent a lot of time localizing this game. Graphics, text and gameplay were altered to make some of the more specifically Japanese cultural touchstones more familiar to Americans. If they can change sumo wrestlers to football players, they can just as easily allow Miis to marry either gender. The Sims did this years ago, and it certainly never hurt their sales. Japanese gamers created those original exploits in Tomodachi Life for a reason (the reason being that there are both lgbt people in Japan and people who want to play or include lgbt characters).
I’ve also seen people angry at Nintendo or reporting this story for a other publications frame this as a “backward foreigners need to catch up with us enlightened, progressive Americans” story, using much the same language. This is JUST as problematic and racist. No, gay marriage is not legal in Japan, but it is also not legal in all of the US and you can still be fired for being lgbt almost everywhere in the country. Protesting homophobia is no excuse for racism, and racism is not a good way of deflecting attention away from your own culture’s homophobia. America is NOT a paragon on enlightenment and equality, and there is also a long history of the west using other cultures as a means of deflecting criticism of its own actions and programs. “How can you complain about sexism here when THOSE MUSLIMS are so bad? How can you complain about the treatment of lgbt here when RUSSIA? How can you complain about environmental problems here when CHINA is polluting so much? How can you complain about drones, spying and indiscriminate bombing when TERRORISM?” This isn’t new, its worked VERY well for the status quo for centuries. This has also led to some really horrible oppression and colonialism. When we frame this as “US vs Japan” we feed into that same colonial narrative and help no one.
Gay people exist in Japan. This isn’t news, gay people have existed in Japan since there were people IN Japan. I personally know gay people who live in Japan, some of whom participate in activism. Now, I think it is safe to say that no one in the US can speak with authority on the experience of being lgbt in Japan or on the state of activism and identity in Japan today. I’m certainly not going to. But to make the claim that Japan is simply “not gay” or that gay activism is a “western custom” in order to either defend or attack Nintendo is not ok. It is ignorant, pure and simple. I expect it from the kind of people who would defend Nintendo’s bigotry (and no matter what their intent, the outcome is still bigotry), but I expect better from allies here in the west. Nintendo’s game erases queer people worldwide, don’t erase queer people in Japan as a response.