Tech + Health

05.12.14

The Video Game Industry Is Too White, Straight, and Male for Its Own Good

Nintendo won’t allow same-sex relationships in its life simulator, despite outrage from fans.

In a week where the Eurovision Song Contest was won by a genderqueer performer and the NFL drafted its first openly gay player, it seems like a good time for the LGBT community. But that progress isn’t extending to another powerful cultural sphere: video games.

Anti-gay bigotry remains ensconced at Nintendo, the world’s largest gaming organization (by revenue) and one of Japan’s most-valuable companies. So when they make a statement, there’s a chance it isn’t just of concern to a small band of geeky fans: Its voice has a huge effect on creative media, on culture, and thus people themselves.

Fans of Nintendo’s life simulator, Tomodachi Life, hoped the company would allow same-sex relationships when the game was brought to the Western market, but the company rejected the request:

“Nintendo never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of ‘Tomodachi Life’…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."

Apparently representing the harmless love of two consenting adults is “social commentary”; the “playful alternate world” of Tomodachi Life is a god who controls Nintendo, since they clearly are unable to change anything about the world they created.

Producer Yoshio Sakamoto said in a separate statement that “Tomodachi are alter egos of [players’] friends and family, so their problems become serious issues for players.” Yes, but “serious issues” related to romance and love—which never happens, right?—can only be between two sexes.

There seems more controversy behind removing an entire people instead of making their sexual identities one of many options—i.e. gay relationships exist alongside other kinds of sexualities, as it does in, you know, reality.

One would think it would take added effort, not less, to make the avatars “see” sex as restriction, instead of identity. Indeed, the original had same-sex relationships and was the first time Nintendo allowed such relationships in a game. At least until they patched it away as a bug.

But no, that’s not “social commentary”—that’s just removing a sexual orientation.

Video games, like much of the tech industry, tend to be orientated toward (but not be totally dominated by) straight young men—this seems often to create homophobic and sexist environments because it is perceived to be an enclosed system where such attitudes can thrive (as we saw in comic books, too). In many parts of gaming, homophobic slurs are allowed without blinking in major companies’ conventions, proudly shown to the world; sexism is even more prevalent, in many, horrible ways.

This despite straight young men not dominating the entirety of gaming. For example, the Entertainment Software Association points out that 48 percent of gamers are female and 71 percent are over the age of 18.

But bigoted attitudes can thrive due to top-down attitudes like Nintendo’s and Blizzard’s because both companies market to their core white, male demographic.  Consider: when’s the last time a major video game franchise had a pre-written brown-skinned character? And the game industry’s attitude toward women protagonists is almost as vile as Hollywood’s.

Why should the cloistered wants of juvenile men, with baby opinions, dominate any medium and industry so many of us care about? Gay people have problems I, as a straight person, will never know—but, through the powerful medium of games, can partially experience. Through gaming characters, I’ve (partially) experienced the pain of involuntary manslaughter, the loss of a someone I cared for but could not save, and the veneration of saving an entire people.

We’ve all had these same sensations and moments of reaching the numinous, breaking fleshy human barriers to see the inside of someone else’s life—whether through finally talking, reading a book, watching a show. Not every game or film or book needs to do this, but the problem is thinking none of them ever do—or worse, ever should.

There’s seems more controversy behind removing an entire people instead of making their sexual identities one of many options.

Nintendo’s lazy bigotry is an example of a major voice poisoning discussions by dismissing a segment of people no different in their loves, except that gay people are denied it—everywhere, even on their most beloved systems. Systems they’ve supported their whole lives, that are ways people have always used to help cope with the troubles of the world—troubles us straight folk probably know little about, since we’ve not been exposed to it (that ugly fraternity mindset again).

Tye Marini, the organiser of the Miiquality campaign that got Nintendo’s attention, said in a recent video: “I want to be able to marry my real-life fiancé's Mii, but I can't do that.”

It sounds silly to many people, but imagine if a game company made a product that only allowed white-skinned avatars to marry other white-skinned avatars because doing otherwise would be “social commentary.” Indeed, remember when “inter-race marriage” was an issue—but, again, only because bigots made it so. More of us hopefully view skin color as irrelevant to relationships (and indeed everything else). Why can’t we do the same for someone’s sex and sexual orientation? Why won’t Nintendo?

It is ironic that in boldly proclaiming to not want to step into “social commentary,” they’ve ignited so much of it. I think that same fire has probably burnt them many bridges to many fans. If anything, the ubiquitous antagonism they’re witnessing is a demonstration that gamers, and people in general, are no longer tolerant of bigoted attitudes and it’s the companies themselves that have some catching up to do.