Tomodachi Life and The Absence of Homosexuality

Tomodachi Life came out of nowhere. Nintendo announced their plans to bring their popular 3DS life simulator west in a recent Nintendo Direct, and it looks sufficiently awesome. Loaded with all sorts of quirky interactions between user-generated Miis and an abundance of situations and locations to enjoy, it seems to have channeled the bizarre and eccentric side of Nintendo that fans adore. It’s taken many people by surprise, and appears to be the game to finally utilize Miis in a creative and captivating fashion. The game launched in Japan last year under the title Tomodachi Collection: New Life, and is a sequel to the original that appeared on DS. It’s sold millions of copies, and looks well equipped to repeat that feat again in the west. But the game found itself at the center of some fairly heavy controversy last year that’s rearing its head again as the western audience begins to notice a gaping absence in Tomodachi Collection: there are no gay or lesbian relationships.

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For a time after the games initial release, however, a bug in the software allowed two male Miis to marry and procreate, while female couples remained excluded. But  Nintendo quickly released a patch that removed those relationship possibilities entirely, reverting the game to its originally intended design supporting solely heterosexual couples. The company issued a statement attempting to clear up any misunderstandings about their intentions, explaining that “same-sex relationships were not possible in the original software” and that their presence actually resulted in a game breaking bug that corrupted save files and stopped players from continuing the game. The controversy was magnified when the company described the occurrence of male couples as “human relations becoming strange”. However, that remark was originally made in Japanese and is widely believed to have translated poorly to English. Regardless, Nintendo was clearly only trying to assist its consumers, but also inadvertently took an  unfortunately jarring stance on gay marriage. But before passing judgment on the Japanese gaming giant, it’s important that we understand the context of the situation in more depth. We know Tomodachi Collection was designed and released without addressing the presence and reality of gay and lesbian relationships in society, which is either a severely egregious  oversight or a calculated omission, but which is it?

Nintendo is a Japanese company, and Tomodachi Collection is a game designed with Japanese society in mind. Gay marriage is not yet legal in Japan, though there is no law against homosexual relationships, and same-sex sexual activity was legalized in 1880. However, same-sex couples are not eligible for the same legal protection offered to straight couples, and are unable to seek legal action when subjected to discrimination in any area of their life (though certain cities have installed laws preventing such acts). The Japan Self-Defense Forces have stated that sexual orientation is not a factor in their enlistment policies, and teachers in every level of education often come out with little to no trouble. So, Japanese society accepts the presence of homosexuality but has yet to grant gays and lesbians equal rights. When polled in 2013, 54% of Japanese citizens said they thought homosexuality should be accepted in their country. Interestingly, an overwhelming amount of those who opposed the idea were members of older generations. On top of all that, political parties rarely address the subject directly, so it’s clear that Japan can’t quite agree on its stance on the matter. With such varied opinions in the populace, it seems Nintendo chose not to risk rattling the cages of the Japanese radicals and instead took the “safe route” by pretending their game design had no issues and ignoring the possibility of same-sex marriage completely.

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At the end of the day Nintendo is a company, and companies are designed to make money. There were obviously concerns about the possible backlash that could have resulted from a game that made such a blatant statement about gay rights in a country that has anything but a universal opinion on the matter. Nintendo probably hoped to escape any form of controversy by side-stepping the reality of same-sex marriage and only presenting “traditional” heterosexual couples. However, in the current age of equal rights activism and other life simulators like The Sims that openly accept same-sex couples, Nintendo’s approach is absolutely archaic. Yes, it’s the company’s first foray into the realistic life simulator genre and its first game to allow players to create their own character couples. But when variety in sexual orientation is such a present entity in modern life, its exclusion in Tomodachi Collection is in severely poor taste.

For all their innovation and experimentation in hardware and game design, Nintendo has always been careful not to offend any groups through the content in their games. Omitting same-sex couples from Tomodachi Collection was most likely done in an effort to avoid alienating the percentage of the population that doesn’t approve of gay marriage. However, the forced removal of male couples from the game highlighted a gross lack of progressive thinking on behalf of the Japanese company that has instead offended the opposite party. It’s true that gay rights are a divisive topic in many countries, but when a game is designed around recreating modern life and marriage you will inevitably end up upsetting someone. Tomodachi Life is a life simulator, and as such it should reflect real life, where gay, straight, bisexual and transgender individuals are all present. I believe it would be in Nintendo’s best interest to be on the progressive side of this issue, as it would undoubtedly benefit from that position in the long run. The world is heading towards universal acceptance of sexual orientation, and when a portion of consumers will inevitably disagree with the content of the game it would be best to take a civilized stance.

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These issues seem to be just as present in the localized version of Tomodachi Life arriving on 3DS in the West on June 6, but it’s important to note that while Nintendo has yet to offer the option of same-sex relationships in their massively popular franchise, it also hasn’t made any statements that would lead consumers to believe the company is in any way opposed to the idea. Such bad press will undoubtedly force the game’s designers to rethink their approach to the issue, and unless we hear otherwise I think it’s safe to assume that we will see same-sex couples in the next version of Tomodachi Life, if not in some sort of DLC or patch for the current title. In the meantime, the game’s lack of sexual choice will obviously be a deal breaker for some, but let’s all remember that the omission of gay and lesbian couples in Tomodachi Collection was a result not of spite, but of a company afraid to change with the times.

  • Grant Abbott

    My opinion is if you don’t like it don’t buy the game. People complain that splinter cell was changed in 5th game to be designed for casuals so most of us stealth fans boycotted it. Same with 6th although they are moving towards changing it, point is vote with your money. If this game sells a lot that just means the majority of the people who buy the game are just fine or even prefer not seeing those type of relationships in their game. I’ve defended EA many times for being inclusive to many different people but still didn’t stop majority of GAMERS who care about games not political topics that have nothing to do with gameplay from attacking them. Gameplay > Politics

    • Kenny Jay Kindrick

      I mean, I probably wasn’t going to buy the game anyway, but if we just sit down and shut up about it, this will continue to happen. This isn’t just a “political topic.” The LGBT community is a serious consumer demographic that is tired of being thrown scraps in the form of less than a dozen games that include characters that we can really identify with and being told that we should just be happy that there are any gays in games at all. This tendency of developers eschew diversity entirely (women, minorities, LGBT) is both lazy and counterproductive. In fact, one (controversial) study suggests that the negative portrayal of minorities in games makes players racist. This is an industry-wide problem, and I’m tired of just being told to sit down and enjoy just being allowed in the party.

      http://thinkprogress.org/culture/2014/03/25/3418600/video-game-makes-you-racist/

      • Grant Abbott

        Maybe since this is being sold towards children, parents are more likely to buy the game for their kids if it doesn’t contain anything that offends them like homosexuality. At the end of the day, money talks. You said it yourself though “I probably wasn’t going to buy the game anyway” than why should Nintendo care about your opinion?

        • Robfire

          this is the one opinion i can agree with the most, i find. though i’m sure someone like you or i would love the bold social statement adding such a feature would bring, but, even with how far society has come with supporting the elimination of genderism, it’s just not far enough yet–and they’re not going to wait years and years for the circumstances to improve just to release a game. sure, you can go ahead and blame corporations for working the way they do, but blaming nintendo specifically is just brash. i’m not talking about anyone in particular, i’ve just seen lots of hate towards them all over the place, and i strongly disagree with people who think nintendo is afraid to innovate. nintendo is one of the only companies today that still tries hard to innovate while doing its best to maintain its spot as one of the most successful gaming companies out there. the wii u was a blatant innovation itself–and for every innovation they try to do, they need a safe-played moneymaker to account for it. of course, the 3ds clearly plays this role, being a well done handheld that has an affordable gimmick that can be disabled at any time without truly ruining much of its glory. meanwhile, the wii u utilized expensive hardware just to try and introduce an interesting and new mechanic to console gaming, and its sales are pretty abysmal. i’m not going into detail about why the wii u flunked, but it’s pretty clear that it was a brave thing to at least try to do. even if it isn’t a good console, they tried their best to innovate, and the same could be said with even something like the virtual boy. with all of this being said, nintendo IS innovative, but they can’t be innovative all the time, i feel. their biggest target audience is both american households and children, and a large portion of that demographic is determined by a suburban house mother’s skeptical opinion. and in this day and age, they would probably look up if the game has anything they don’t support in their household–and, sadly, a large portion of america does not yet openly approve of homosexuality. much like you said, they ARE still a corporation after all, one that’s suffered many lawsuits and controversies over its lifetime, and no matter what choice they made with this game, they knew that there would be a pretty large amount of complaints, so it basically just boiled down to what was the most profitable target audience, and though someone can blame the concept of a corporation all they’d like, nobody can really blame nintendo in particular for that. just my opinion.

  • stealth20k

    I think this article makes a mountain out of a mole hill

  • Duane

    japan is really weird. with such progressive attitudes and no right wing christian fundamentalist in power why the fuck do gays and lesbians STILL have unequal rights compared to their heterosexual counterparts?! messed up

    • Robfire

      this isn’t about japan, nintendo’s main target audience is quite evidently the place where gaming is the largest in both percentage and population–america. what’s weird about nintendo is that they stretch from the whole shielded culture factor of japan, spanning out rather than trying their best to appeal to their home. most japanese companies (excluding other majors like sony) americans don’t even know about, because they appeal solely to japanese culture. moving on, without a doubt, the biggest demographic in america is generic suburban house parents and their children, which is why nintendo went through the whole casual phase (and made tons of money while they were at it). i made a post down below that refers to why/how nintendo is innovative but can’t always be, and in this case, it’s not just playing it safe. it’s pretty much fact that their largest audience is sadly not yet completely supportive of homosexuality, and they knew there was going to be controversy regardless. i’m not saying i’m okay with it, but there’s not really much they could do about this. the only thing to truly blame is most of america, honestly.