What We Make Will Be Interpreted

Today, Nintendo issued an apology to its fans about not including same-sex marriage as a possibility in the game Tomodachi Life. This is essentially the end of a journalism and marketing snafu that started last year and has been bubbling on the internet for a few weeks now, since the announcement of the game’s release outside of Japan. I’m going to give a very brief description of the events that transpired, but I’m not going to go into detail. If you want that, Christian Nutt has written a very good article about what happened and why it’s important. Please see his article if you want to know more. It started with some Japanese players making opposite sex Miis in Tomodachi Collection: New Life and making them look like the same sex so that they could marry, which was misconstrued due to a bad translation that the game included same-sex marriage and that this was a bug that Nintendo intended to patch out. The game never included same-sex marriage and it wasn’t removed, but because of the bad translation and rumormongering, Tomodachi Life was on everyone’s radar. So when it was announced for western release in April, a petition spawned to have Nintendo include same-sex marriages as a point of equality, to which Nintendo offered a response, which was received very poorly. Two days after the response, was when Nintendo issued their apology and pledged to make future Tomodachi games more inclusive, stating that they could not retroactively redesign the game to allow same-sex marriages. That’s about all I’m going to say about the situation. Again, if you want a more in-depth look at the issues here, take a look at Christian Nutt’s Gamasutra piece. He explains it better than most I’ve seen. Instead I’m going to talk about something that comes from Nintendo’s first response: “Nintendo never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of ‘Tomodachi Life.'” This is going to be about understanding what happens when you make something and put it out there.

Many people have already noted that Nintendo’s statement that they “never intended to make any form of social commentary” was the wrong response, that it invited more controversy. People said that making a game is inherently social commentary, and that just because they didn’t intend for it to be social commentary, doesn’t mean that it isn’t. I’m going to wade into that whole argument here. I’m going to go out on a limb and agree with Nintendo that they weren’t trying to push an agenda with Tomodachi Life, but that they just wanted to make a game about the wacky lives of people. This is fine. They can do that. What ends up happening, though, is that it will get seen as social commentary by people who are looking for it. More specifically, when you make something, be it a book, art, music, a game, or any number of things, it is going to be seen differently by each person who sees it. We can’t ever make anything that won’t be interpreted differently than what we intended.

What happens when we make something is that we have an idea that we put into form, and we try our best to communicate that idea to whoever the audience is. The problem is, that’s all we can do. When the time comes for people to play our games, they get to decide what the games mean for their own lives and contexts. People will do this, because when they play a game, or read a book, or look at art, or listen to music, they can’t throw away the other parts of their lives and ignore it. As much as games have been branded as escapist, when we play a game, we can’t escape from our lives and situations. We can try to push them away or ignore them, but they still inform our decisions and our interpretations. So, no, Nintendo wasn’t trying to make social commentary, but they forgot that people are going to interpret their work through the lenses of their own lives.

The problems with Tomodachi Life are mostly problems for two reasons. First, they decided to release the game to a western audience, which has a stronger history of identifying and calling out social injustice (it seems particularly heavy in the USA). Second, they decided to make a game that asks the player to make themselves in the game as Miis. The first point is that their game, when released to the west, was going to be scrutinized by an audience that searches for social injustice (for whatever a group calls social injustice). The second point is that they tried to make a game that simulates some version of life using characters that are suggested to be representations of real people, without thinking about who the choices of the game might alienate. It’s the lack of thought that bothers me. If you’re making a game that uses characters, you have a design decision to make. Either those characters will be ones you build, or they will be representations that a player makes. In the first case, you have to evaluate who is shown in a positive light and who is shown in a negative light, in order to understand if you are unfairly portraying a group of people as inherently positive or negative. You can get away with a lot more when you design a character and give them a name and personality before the player gets their hands on them. For most games that kind of character works well, but in games with a lot of player input and choice, you need to allow the player to make a character that is representative of them or of an ideal. When designing a system for letting a player create their characters and assign them personality through gameplay choices, you, as the designer, need to look at your character generation system and consider who can’t be represented by it. I’m not going to be so difficult as to say that you need to make it so that everyone can fully represent themselves, as this is an impossible task for any designer. What I am going to say, though, is that the designer of such a system needs to figure out if the design is unfair to or unrepresentative of a group of people, and determine if that has an impact on gameplay. If there is an impact on gameplay, you need to put it in or be ready to explain why you didn’t. You can’t be aware of everything, I know, but at least try to be aware.

Let’s take Tomodachi Life as an example. This is a life parody that is supposed to provide whimsical situations. The game uses Miis to represent characters and has the player build the Mii or use one transferred from a Wii or WiiU (which they would have created there), assigns them personalities by having the player answer questions, and has them interact with others. The design decision to use Miis is an important one, because Miis are branded as representations of the player, i.e., that they represent the player in whatever game that uses them. By using Miis, the design team now has to deal with representation. Rather than taking control of someone else, the player is asked to take control of a representation of them and their friends. Another large feature of the game is getting married and moving in together, then having children (who can be sent to others’ games). When building the system for having two characters marry, it’s important at this stage to think about who can marry and who cannot marry. This is important because it affects gameplay. If two characters cannot get married, they can’t access a large portion of the gameplay, and so they are excluded from gameplay. This will particularly show up if a player makes only Miis of the same gender, which is representative of many people’s social circles. At this point, the designers need to make a determination as to why those that cannot marry are barred from doing so. If the reasoning is trivial, then it might be worth designing the system to allow for those groups to be able to marry. If the reasoning is logistical (we don’t have the time, the money, the ability, the research to make this complicated of a system) or political (we don’t want to represent that), then be prepared to answer why those groups can’t marry. In the latter case, be prepared for backlash. With Tomodachi Life, it wasn’t very complicated. The only people barred from marrying were those of the same sex (and I suspect that in-game relatives cannot marry, which is expected), and so when designing the marriage system, the designers would not have been considering a large number of extra systems to implement. Still, if they were on a time crunch and did not have the appropriate number of workers, the system might be simplified, but the designers would be prepared to answer any questions of lack of representation.

I know my stance is a bit moderate and not as strong as one might think, coming from me. For the most part, I feel that, at this point, nothing can be done. Nintendo apologized (which they don’t often do), but what’s done is done. Let them learn from their mistakes (they’re obviously aware of them at the moment) and understand that they need to approach design thoughtfully, particularly when dealing with representative play and simulations of life (even if it isn’t real life, as they said). If you’re a designer of games, a maker of art, a producer of music, a writer of words, or a maker of anything, go forward in knowing that just because you make it doesn’t mean you have any control over it once it’s out in the public. People will see it how they see it, and you can’t do anything about that. What you can do, though, is make your decisions thoughtfully, think about if what you make will alienate someone, consider why it will, and either remove the alienation or be prepared for people responding to it. But, please, at least try to make your design decisions with some thought as to who they might affect.

 

Note

Before anyone says “they just have to comment out one line of code!”, let me tell you, as a designer and a programmer, their probably right about this. The game probably expects that if there is a marriage, then the marriage will have a male and a female Mii, and such it will make the male Mii do something and the female Mii do something else (probably based on preconceived notions of gender, but that’s another discussion). If there’s no male or no female Mii, what does it do? Does it randomly select someone to fill those roles? How would they have children? In short, it really requires a redesign to include same-sex marriage. It isn’t enough to simply mark that two men or two women can get married in the game, a whole same-sex marriage system would have to be designed in order to handle the complicated differences between same-sex and different-sex marriages. Tomodachi Life probably does not have the full staff of designers, artists and programmers working on it anymore; it’s far more likely to be a skeleton crew to fix things like save game bugs, and a localization team. We can’t expect them to change how the game works after it has been made, that’s practically like telling them to remake the whole game again. Let them build the system for the next one, if we even get a next one, considering the response.

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