Explaining Nintendo’s Tomodachi Life Same-Sex Controversy

Nintendo may have fixed their PR mistake to a point for Tomodachi Life, but will it be enough for consumers?

Nintendo may have fixed their PR mistake to a point for Tomodachi Life, but will it be enough for consumers?

With annual losses, a poorly-named game console many gamers don’t take remotely seriously, and perplexing marketing choices, Nintendo continues to make confusing decisions. Most recently is the controversy with Tomodachi Life and the inclusion of same-sex couples.

“As the island’s owner, you’ll create or import a variety of characters, tend to their needs, and observe their often ridiculous lives.”

Tomodachi Life is a life simulation game akin to The Sims and Animal Crossing, where players can create in-game versions of themselves, other people, and completely fictional characters and have them live out their lives on an island full of activities. Players can customize their appearance and houses, play games and other activities such as football-related games and dance-offs, and become friends with other characters. Tomodachi Life is a sequel to Tomodachi Collection, which was released only in Japan.

Similar games, such as the Sims 2 received rather low ESRB ratings despite the inclusion of same-sex relationships.

Initial buzz about the absurd game was positive, and excitement about the game among Nintendo fans exploded. After hearing about the title’s release in Japan, Western audiences, particularly in the United States, noticed that same-sex couples were left out of the game.

Seeing as similar games that included same-sex relationships didn’t receive higher ESRB ratings (E10 for The Sims 2, which can include death and “woohooing”), many players found it odd that same-sex couples weren’t included in the first iteration of Tomodachi games for western audiences.

Following passionate campaigns from LGBTQ* gamers and others pleading for same-sex couples in the game, Nintendo issued the following statement:

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.

The lack of same-sex couples was likely the result of a combination of ignorance and a lack of resources to make the changes western audiences demanded.

Ironically enough, Nintendo claiming to not intentionally make any form of social commentary with Tomdochi Life (through not including same-sex couples, not by hypothetically including same sex couples) was seen by many as social commentary and players quickly wrote several heated articles, some even calling Nintendo full of hatred with a general consensus that either Nintendo ignored an entire group because it was too expensive or that Nintendo was simply ignorant and forgot.

The most common explanation is that the problem is a little of both perspectives. Many say that Nintendo didn’t have the resources to add in same-sex relationships with localization to the United States, but many gamers asked why same-sex couples weren’t planned initially, considering the Nintendo Direct stated, “Much of the drama and hilarity of the experience comes out of the relationships they [the characters] form during the game.”

Excluding same-sex couples is at odds with this core element of the game.

With players able to dress their male characters in dresses and female characters in suits and ties in Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Leaf in the United States (which sold over 7 million copies), but unable to dress their male characters in dresses or skirts and female characters in suits and ties in Pokémon X and Pokémon Y,  the same-sex controversy with Tomodachi Life is a continuation of Nintendo’s uncertainty with how to handle potentially controversial topics, such as sexuality or religion in games.

Following the loud, angry firestorm of dissent against the company, Nintendo later issued another statement, stating:

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. 

Intentionally or not, Nintendo suggested heterosexual couples are whimsical and fun while same-sex couples are not.

Nintendo’s original PR fumble that indirectly suggested that heterosexual couples are whimsical and fun while same-sex couples are not was an obvious mistake and ideally not intentional. But what does this second press release mean for Nintendo? It’s clear that the second press release really should have been the only one, as it acknowledges the technological reasons that same-sex couples can’t be added, acknowledges that Nintendo simply didn’t think about same-sex couples, and acknowledges that Nintendo has the capacity to prevent such a mistake in the future.

With accusations that the company is more out-of-touch with western audiences than ever, Nintendo continues its struggle to maintain relevance.

This recent controversy shows that Nintendo has some additional hurdles to jump and decisions to make over the next few years in addition to the ones it already faces. Nintendo is certainly not an evil company, but as social justice issues become more and more prevalent in the world of video games now than they have been in the past, Nintendo must decide if it wants to acknowledge these topics or continue to remain ignorant and hope for the best.

About the author

Brian S

Brian transcribes for a tech company in Bellevue, WA. His favorite games are Max Payne 3, Dragon Age II, Life Is Strange, Tomb Raider, and anything involving Batman. All his reviews are spoiler-free. His brow is perpetually furrowed.