Does Nintendo hate gays?

Credit: Source: Tomodachi Life

Ah, what a week Nintendo is having. We already mentioned the financial struggles they've just reported. Now they're in the midst of a cultural train wreck to boot.

Let me catch you up. There's a game called Tomodachi Life being localized for North American audiences. It's already out in Japan. I haven't played it, but it's been described as a cross between The Sims and Animal Crossing. In it you play a virtual person who lives a virtual life which includes marrying and raising children.

The problem is that Nintendo did not allow for same-sex marriages, and people are mad as heck about it. There's a "MiiQuality" campaign going on (the characters in the game are Nintendo Mii avatars) on Twitter, FaceBookTumblr, all trying to convince Nintendo to change this aspect of the game.

When Nintendo responded...well I think they did more harm than good:

"Nintendo never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of 'Tomodachi Life,'" Nintendo of America Inc. said in a statement. "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."

Thanks to ABC News for the quote, and check out their post for more on the background to the situation. The Verge also has a lot to stay including quotes from people who're upset about the decision.

As for me, I'm going to defend Nintendo. Sort of. Before you get out the pitchforks and torches please understand that I think leaving out same sex relationships was a mistake on their part. But I'm going to defend their decision (for now) not to change things.

I don't think that Nintendo hates gays, despite my headline. I think they hate dumping more resources into a game that was supposed to just be a localization project to generate more revenue. Now you could argue that they're going to lose sales because of the lack of same-sex marriages and I'm sure you'd be right. (You could also argue that a game with same-sex marriages would lose sales in some ultra-conservative demographics.)

My 'day job' is web development and the coding I do is incredibly simple compared to what goes into a video game. And even for me I grind my teeth when someone wants a change and starts their argument with "All you have to do is...." because in programming, rarely is anything as simple as it first appears. But that's what I keep reading in comments attacking Nintendo: "All they have to do is change a flag." or some variation on that.

I've haven't played the game and certainly haven't seen the code, so I don't know what would be entailed in allowing same sex marriages. Are there scripted encounters that would have to be re-written? Are there some sub-systems pertaining to having children that wouldn't work with same-sex marriages? Who knows?

But what I do know is that Nintendo is having a rough financial year and I'm pretty sure their reason for not adding same-sex marriage to the game is not pigheadedness. There's a reason and it is tied to potential income in some way.

Here's another quote from the ABC article:

The ability for same-sex relationships to occur in the game was not part of the original game that launched in Japan, and that game is made up of the same code that was used to localize it for other regions outside of Japan," Nintendo noted in an emailed statement.

Remember that the game launches in less than a month, on June 6th. Making any kind of change now means sending the game back through quality control which in turn would probably result in having to delay the launch date. That in turn means re-doing marketing campaigns. It also means the team has to stay on this title for longer when it's possible they've already moved on to another project. (In fact the team that coded the program is probably long since moved on and the only ones working on it now are a localization team.)

It's sad that Nintendo did not plan for same sex marriages from the start; in my opinion the more inclusive gaming is, the better. (It's a little sad this wasn't an issue when the game launched in Japan, too.) Let's hope if they ever make a sequel they will take the current controversy as a lesson and do the right thing from the start. (And if the game sells well perhaps we'll see a patch that adds in same-sex marriages.)

If you're upset that Tomodachi Life doesn't include same-sex marriage do contact Nintendo and let them know your feelings, politely. But before we burn down their headquarters or organize an all-out ban of their products, let's give them a chance to do better next time. I can't help but think they're learning a lesson about their Western audience right now. In fact they've said as much. Here's one last quote:

"We have heard and thoughtfully considered all the responses," Nintendo said of the #Miiquality campaign. "We will continue to listen and think about the feedback. We're using this as an opportunity to better understand our consumers and their expectations of us at all levels of the organization."

In the meantime Nintendo needs to get ahead of this controversy sooner rather than later. Its first statement did more harm than good. This was a case where some transparency would have gone a long way. If they told us "We can't change the game because..." and listed good reasons I think their audience would be a lot more understanding. Anyway, I'll be interested to see what else they have to say about Tomodachi Life in the days to come.

UPDATE: Nintendo has addressed the issue again, on their website, saying:

We apologize for disappointing many people by failing to include same-sex relationships in Tomodachi Life. Unfortunately, it is not possible for us to change this game’s design, and such a significant development change can’t be accomplished with a post-ship patch. At Nintendo, dedication has always meant going beyond the games to promote a sense of community, and to share a spirit of fun and joy. We are committed to advancing our longtime company values of fun and entertainment for everyone. We pledge that if we create a next installment in the Tomodachi series, we will strive to design a game-play experience from the ground up that is more inclusive, and better represents all players.

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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