In this special post, Pixelkin contributor Jason de Kanter challenges Nintendo’s decision not to allow same-sex relationships in its new game, Tomodachi Life, and encourages parents to teach kids how to be critical of the media they love.
“Nintendo never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of Tomodachi Life.”
Nintendo announced on May 7th that its Tomodachi Life game will not allow for same-sex couples in its U.S. release or any subsequent updates. Tomodachi Life is a virtual world populated by Miis (player avatars for the Nintendo Wii system). The game is about social interactions in a virtual world. Your Mii can flirt, go on dates, and fall in love with another Mii…unless the other Mii is of the same gender.
Yes, Nintendo has created a fantastical virtual reality where a player can escape from the restrictions of real life… and instead suffer in a cruel homophobic world that prevents gay Miis from finding love while everyone else enjoys it. While heteronormative couples enjoy dates and starting families, gay and lesbian Miis are strictly alone. Despite the non-virtual reality that gay people flirt, date, and fall in love every day, Nintendo felt it necessary to restrict the romantic interactions possible within a game designed to let your imagination run free.
Nintendo’s statement came as a response to a social media campaign started by player Tye Marini. The #Miiquality campaign apparently did catch the attention of Nintendo, as they stated specifically that they had “heard and thoughtfully considered all the responses.”
It might be claimed that Nintendo is simply afraid the anti-gay backlash against the company would outweigh the backlash from those who would avoid the game due to the homophobic design—merely cowardice rather than malice. Nintendo’s claim that it did not wish to enter into “social commentary” implies that the company wanted to avoid the issue of orientation equality, but the truth is that a foray into social commentary begins the moment an author starts any narrative in any media. Even if it is not the author’s intention to make a specific point about a social issue, the moment any story begins, it is a social commentary.
Narrative expresses a view of the world as it is or how it should be. When we see an adventure movie with no women in it, the director is not avoiding gender issues. The author is communicating that he or she does not see women as adventurers.
When we read a book where all the characters of color die, the writer is not avoiding race issues. The author is telling us that people of color are only a disposable device to advance the white characters’ narrative.
When Nintendo publishes a game where romance is available only to people of the opposite gender, the game publisher is not avoiding the issue of gay or lesbian relationships. The designers and publishers of this narrative are telling us that such relationships have no place in their world of whimsy and fun.
Social commentary is a part of consuming media that we can choose to ignore or engage, but either way it does exist. It can be difficult to engage with the social commentary of video games or other media. It seems to counteract the escapism aspect of games to deconstruct them as if you were in an English Lit course. Some parents might even shy away from critiquing their kid’s favorite show or game because it feels mean to point out the ugliness in something a child finds so beautiful.
We can get accustomed to challenging the art we love, however, if we engage in those critical challenges often. You might be surprised to learn that children pick up on the ugliness too, but they may not have the words or courage to explain what’s wrong.
I remember noticing problems with games I loved as a kid. I noticed there were no Hispanic characters in the games I played. It didn’t escape me that Jewish characters were usually crafty, but never strong. I knew that TV was filled with foreigners seen only through the eyes of white Americans. They all had funny accents and were defined by the attributes that made them different from the white Americans on screen. I could see, but I did not know why or what I could do about it.
If kids are introduced early to the idea that they can find problems with their games and media, and still love what is good about them, they will be less timid about being critical consumers of media later on. They will be equipped as they grow into adulthood to challenge themselves and their friends about the ideas they absorb from their media. They will be the next generation of people starting #Miiquality movements or creating better games themselves.
The next time you notice something a little off about what your kids are playing, try asking them about it. Children can be defensive about the art they love, but that’s only more opportunity to show that they can reject the bad and still keep what is worth loving.
If you’re already having these kinds of conversations with your kids, try talking about what you can do together to make a difference. Check online to see if others have noticed the same things, and if you can start or join a campaign or petition. You may not be successful, but you can teach that change is always worth trying for. Even if Tomodachi Life is not revised to include same-sex relationships, the social media movement challenging it has planted the seeds for better games in the future. Nintendo will realize that social commentary is not something the company can ignore only if players speak up.
Games and other media are not created in a vacuum. They are created by human beings shaped by the society around them. Let your children know they are the authors and shapers of their own world, and it is up to all of us to advocate when we see the chance to do better.