Not super, Mario: Nintendo’s refusal to allow gay characters sparks upset

Gaming has traditionally promoted tolerance

Imagine if Nintendo had been selling life-simulation video games in the US in the late 1950s and early 60s, or in apartheid-era South Africa. It would almost certainly have banned mixed-race relationships. This can be reasonably inferred by its current refusal to allow gamers to enjoy same-sex link-ups in the forthcoming English-language version of its Tomodachi Life game.

In Tomodachi Life (tomodachi means “friend” in Japanese), participants’ avatars, or “Mii” characters, live on a virtual island with lots of allegedly fun stuff to do: “They rap, rock, eat doughnuts and fall in love”, a trailer promises. But only with the opposite sex.

Tye Marini, a 23-year-old gay gamer from Arizona, has launched a campaign to drag the company into the 21st century, saying, “I want to be able to marry my real-life fiance’s Mii, but I can’t do that. My only options are to marry some female Mii, to change the gender of either my Mii or my fiance’s Mii or to completely avoid marriage altogether and miss out on the exclusive content that comes with it.” Or not play at all, and read a book instead. Books have lots of exclusive content. But I digress.

The straights at Nintendo are unrepentant. “The relationship options in the game represent a playful alternate world rather than a real-life simulation,” they responded. “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.” But as Marini points out, excluding same-sex relationships from your virtual world, when the real world is becoming increasingly relaxed about them, is about as direct a piece of social commentary as it’s possible to imagine.

Gay marriage isn’t legal in Japan, but it is across much of the area that the English-language version will serve. Computer games are often tweaked to take regional differences into account, but not Tomodachi Life. Several other role-playing games, such as The Sims, allow avatars to get off with those of the same gender. Even Grand Theft Auto IV, for goodness’ sake, features gay, lesbian and bisexual characters.

So why not Tomodachi Life (which has sold nearly two million units in Japan)? Is Nintendo worries worried that children from more extreme religious households will be banned by their parents from playing? Is it a purely commercial decision? Does it fear The Sun headline “Ninbendo!”?

Its stance is even more puzzling when you consider that as long ago as 1988 Birdo, one of the characters in Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros 2 game, was described in the manual as a boy who believes he’s a girl and would rather be called Birdetta. And in more recent years there’s been Vivian, a boy who looks like a girl, in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, and Leucos, a cross-dressing lesbian, in Glory of Heracles. Is it because Tomodachi Life, being designed for the Nintendo 3DS, will be played by children?

It might be said that in a world where you can still be executed for being gay – step forward Brunei, Iran, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Somaliland, Sudan and Yemen – rapping Nintendo across the knuckles for redneck prejudice is tilting at windmills. But cultural artefacts such as games are exactly the kind of medium in which progressive messages can help society progress. As much as films and television programmes, they create the prevailing culture.

Mr Marini isn’t calling for a boycott of  Nintendo products – but I am. A company founded in 1889 seems to be cleaving still to the same benighted opinions that prevailed then. Until it can demonstrate that it can feel at home in a world where tolerance and compassion are to be valued, we should steer clear.

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