Several months ago, Nintendo came under fire for including questionable content in a major video game. The problem? The new "little computer people" simulator Tomodachi Life, a game built around the idea of recreating virtual lives for your real-world friends and family, didn't recognize the possibility of homosexual relationships.
On one hand, the Tomodachi flare-up shows just how quickly gaming as a medium has shifted to reflect society's growing acceptance of non-traditional relationships and alternate lifestyles. Just a few years ago, Electronic Arts and BioWare stirred controversy by including gay romance opportunities in Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 3; now, the absence of same has become cause for complaint. As the LGBT community increasingly finds a voice online, in the media, and in general society, entertainment has become increasingly inclusive. Granted, the heterosexual perspective remains the default in all but a niche handful of games and probably always will (at least until terms like "non-traditional" and "alternate" vanish from common parlance), but we've come a long way since the days when the list of openly gay video game characters essentially consisted of a handful of women from Squaresoft's SaGa Frontier.
On the other hand, the collective dog pile on Nintendo struck those familiar with the company's culture and history as unexpected: A well-intentioned outcry, and certainly understandable, but perhaps somewhat unfair in the grand scheme of things. Of all the major game publishers, Nintendo has always stood out as the most deliberately inclusive. By no means do Nintendo's history and catalog lack their share of shortcomings; there's a reason Princess Peach has become a poster girl for people who seek equal opportunities for women in games, after all. Nevertheless, I challenge anyone to name any developer or publisher with a more expansive legacy of games friendly to people of all walks of life, regardless of age, race, gender, or skill level.
Is it simply a coincidence that Nintendo's most inclusive products ever, the Wii and the DS, stand as their most successful ever? The qualities that made core gamers turn their noses up at the Wii — its modest processing power, its simplified motion-based controller, its library of casual software — were simultaneously the same qualities that inspired the rest of the world to embrace it. Quick as cynics and critics were to write off the Wii as a mere fad, it dominated the charts for nearly five years, ultimately moving more than 100 million units. Although the company may lose the plot from time to time, much of Nintendo's success through the years comes from its ability to look beyond gaming's core market as a matter of course, not simply with the occasional all-audiences release. It's not for nothing that they're the last first-party publisher from the '80s still in the hardware business.
In writing about Nintendo, I often find myself pointing to the company's history as a toy manufacturer for insight into the decisions they make that seem to put them at odds with other game publishers. Like many of gaming's pioneering console makers, Nintendo came into the medium as a toymaker looking to expand into a promising new market. While its former peers like Mattel and Coleco have long since packed up shop — the last remaining non-Nintendo toy legacy came to an end when Bandai discontinued the WonderSwan line more than a decade ago — Nintendo continues undaunted on its traditional course. The company's recent announcement of their intent to explore merchandising more vigorously, and the upcoming Amiibo line in particular, simply represents a sort of coming full-circle.
There's ample insight to be gleaned from a quick survey of Nintendo's pre-video game work. Not only into the frequently toy-like nature of the company video game output, but also into its overarching attitude toward marketing. Throughout Nintendo's prime toy-making years — roughly 1965-1980 — only a handful of their products appeared to be targeted toward any given gender. Occasionally you'd see a doll house clearly aimed at girls, and boys tended to populate the packaging for things like sports games and toy rifles, but by and large Nintendo's early products were all-inclusive.
That includes the company's first major hit, the Ultra Hand, a telescoping device used to grasp distant objects. Although it would seem a device ideally suited for the sort of rowdy mischief rowdy boys like to get up to, the packaging and advertising for Ultra Hand universally featured children of both genders. Likewise for Nintendo's blatant LEGO clone, N&B Block. Nintendo's electronic gadgets, such as the Light Telescope camera and the Companion walkie-talkie set, were invariably presented as suitable for boys and girls as well. And even when the company began to shift into arcade games, its advertising was just as likely to feature women playing as men.
By no means was Nintendo some bastion of progressivism. The company's ventures before the breakout success of Ultra Hand included, infamously, a chain of "love hotels" (hotels rented by the hour for liaisons with lovers or, more likely, prostitutes), and even as late as 1970 Nintendo was producing girly pin-up playing card decks [link NSFW]. More likely, the presence of boys and girls on product boxes and in advertisements came from a place of pure pragmatism: By depicting girls using their products as well as boys, they were giving "permission" for girls to play with them, effectively doubling their potential audience.
Video games work much the same way, though you wouldn't know it based on the way most publishers present the medium. Last year's BioShock Infinite gave us the clearest insight yet into the self-limiting mindset of game publishers: Despite her being an integral element of the story and mechanics alike, 2K decided not to depict Elizabeth on the box for fear that that essential 18-to-35 male consumer demographic wouldn't buy a shooter if the cover artwork consisted of anything more than the rugged, gun-toting, male protagonist looking ready for action — never mind that you never see him as anything more than a pair of hands throughout the entirety of the adventure.
While Nintendo may be the last old-school toymaker standing in the games industry, the traditional segregationist mindset of toys continues to dominate the medium. Boys have their boy games, girls have their meager handful of half-hearted efforts in pink boxes, and never shall the twain meet. The industry has been curiously slow to catch on to the fact that the biggest things going these days, especially with younger players, are far removed from the masculine empowerment fantasy of rugged space marines and hoodie dudes with stubbly brown hair. There's Angry Birds, the triumphant return of the '90s mascot-with-attitude trend. There's Minecraft, which evolves the concept of LEGO but (unlike the real thing) derives from an inflection point in which the product's original ethos still burns strong. And then, of course, there's Pokémon.
Pokémon doesn't have much in common with Nintendo's other games; in fact, it's not even really a Nintendo creation, developed by independent studio Game Freak and owned by a complicated consortium of companies. The one thing it does share in common with Nintendo's most successful boundary-breaking creations, however, is its emphasis on the concept of communication.
The drive to foster communication between players lives at the heart of many of Nintendo's games. Linked battles proved to be Pokémon's killer app in the '90s; today, socialization is built right into every Wii U and 3DS game thanks to the app-level integration of the Miiverse. And more than any other franchise, communication also served as the spark of inspiration behind the Animal Crossing games.
"Starting with the Nintendo 64, the communication aspect of Animal Crossing back then was about communicating with your family, or your friends that come over, and you would play after you go home," says Animal Crossing: New Leaf director Aya Kyogoku. "It was about communication with people you actually share a physical space with."
Nintendo has taken considerable flack over the past decade and a half for being so slow to embrace online play for its games. Despite producing a broadband Internet adapter for GameCube, Nintendo's own first-party software didn't integrate online play until Mario Kart DS, which arrived in the decidedly belated year of 2005. By that point, Xbox and PlayStation owners had been reaching out to frag someone for several years (to say nothing of PC gamers, who had enjoyed various forms of online connectivity since the '80s). To judge by Kyogoku's remarks, though, Nintendo's delays in that area have nothing to do with lethargy or a failure to understand technology but come instead from a cautious desire to preserve the company's idiosyncratic approach while embracing change.
"As technology becomes more advanced, it expands the scope of what we can do," she says. "With the introduction of memory cards on the GameCube or the wireless Internet connection today, the scope of who you can reach out to and who you can communicate with has expanded.
"In real life, back in the day, people would gather physically to talk about their lives — here’s what’s been going on, here’s what’s happening around the world. Now, with the introduction of the Internet, that’s done on a global scale, and very quickly. I feel like, as Nintendo’s hardware takes in those new technologies like the wireless Internet connection, we’re able to be in sync and move in parallel with how the world is moving forward. I feel like the introduction of technology into our games is a reflection of how we’re moving in parallel with the rest of the world.
"Within that process, the thing that hasn’t changed is the desire to express oneself, to show that expression to others, and to find out what others are feeling, what others are going through, what others are doing. With the introduction of new technology, that scope is widening in terms of our games that we create at Nintendo."
The concept of cooperative play has been an integral element of Nintendo's game design since Mario Bros. more than 30 years ago. The Nintendo 64 made four controllers the standard for their consoles, and the Game Boy's Link Cable ensured that despite the one-person-one-screen nature of handhelds, multiplayer would remain an option. The DS came with an integrated wireless social chat app, Pictochat, which launched to general derision. Still, despite Pictochat's clumsiness, and despite the fact that it was almost instantly forgotten by the world, the concept came from a noble place: The desire to bring people together.
Perhaps "noble" is the wrong term. Nintendo is a corporation, and — as its shareholders are quick to remind executives during annual investor meetings — it exists to make money. What Nintendo has learned, through decades of experience making toys and games, is that bringing people together can be extremely profitable. If misanthropy were the only road to riches in gaming, no doubt Nintendo would have a very different public face. Thankfully, that's not the case, and the industry's collective rush toward cooperative play demonstrated at this year's E3 shows that the rest of the world is finally catching on to what Nintendo and a handful of other developers have always known: It's good to play together.
Where Everybody Knows Your Name
Kyogoku isn't simply the designer who helped drive New Leaf to chart-topping sales last year; she's also the first woman to have achieved a development leadership position in more than a century of Nintendo's history. By all appearances, however, she'll be far from the last.
"When I first got into the industry, into game development, it was at a time where overall, the ratio of men to women was very much in favor of men," she recalls. "I definitely noticed I was the only woman developer here. But it wasn’t something shocking. It was something I had sort of expected.
"Looking at the Animal Crossing team today, the ratio of men to women is very balanced across all different positions involved in the development team. Because of that, we get to hear a lot of different perspectives and opinions. I think that goes beyond just men and women, too. We have a broad age range, a broad range of experiences. It helps different topics get brought up that might not have been on a team that isn’t as diverse. Even beyond development, daily interactions in the workplace are a little different with a diverse team. In that sense, I feel like the fact that the balance is evening out is a good thing."
Despite its occasional missteps — you can choose your avatar's gender, but if you want to represent yourself with something other than pale skin you need to game the system — Animal Crossing may well be Nintendo's most accessible, inclusive, and content-neutral creation ever. Aside from betraying a heavy bias toward capitalism, Animal Crossing carefully sidesteps all the clichés and conventions that make gaming feel like such a myopic boys' club.
Your objectives in Animal Cross — should you elect to adopt any goals at all in its carefree world — consist of things like decorating your house, breeding rare flowers in your garden, collecting bugs and fish, maintaining friendships with neighbors, designing clothes, and shopping for hats. Some of those pursuits are typically seen as masculine, while others are traditionally feminine; yet in Animal Crossing, there are no judgments, restrictions, or even recommendations to push you in one direction or another. On the contrary, New Leaf allows players to dress their avatars in clothes tagged for the opposite gender. The game doesn't judge for this but rather confides that it can sometimes be good to let your wild side show.
In fact, the only specific alterations and limitations (besides race) present in Animal Crossing have to do with regional and cultural factors. Nintendo invests tremendous effort into making sure each Animal Crossing feels comfortable for each region's residents, customizing holidays, food, and other elements to be appropriate for each country or culture into which it's published. The series demands the most exacting localization effort of any of Nintendo's products, which introduces plenty of opportunities for content to be bowdlerized or purged in translation. Yet that's never really the case, and deliberately so; the Japanese development staff works hand-in-hand with the foreign localization teams from very early in each Animal Crossing entry's life cycle.
"Animal Crossing has a lot of uniqueness in each region," says Kyogoku. "When it comes to localization, it’s not just a simple matter of translating text. It’s thinking about how we can best make this game so that it’s relevant to people in specific regions and cultures. It’s great to have a localization team in each region. They’re always ready to listen to us and work together with us. We make sure to share the idea of this game, not just the tasks of translation – share the idea of what this game is, so they can process it and think about how we can change things to suit each audience."
5 to 95
Kyogoku's attitude isn't some outlier at Nintendo; rather, it reinforces ambitions and attitudes I've heard echoed in numerous interviews with the company's developers through the years. In fact, Kyogoku's boss, EAD manager and original Animal Crossing director Katsuya Eguchi, shares her sentiments — both in terms of accessible content as well as the value of diverse development teams — not only about the series but for all his projects.
"I look over not only Animal Crossing, but also several different titles," Eguchi says. "With that, I try to have an appropriate team makeup for each specific title, so that it resonates with the target audience we’re shooting for.
"In terms of Animal Crossing, you have your real life, and Animal Crossing is an alternate living space we like to create. With that, there are different kinds of people that go into it. We want to make sure that there’s enough content so that everyone has something they’d like to tap into and use to re-create their real life in Animal Crossing.
"In terms of games like Mario, an action game, a lot of audiences are obviously very good at action games, but there are also more inexperienced players, like children, who still enjoy playing Mario. There’s a varying range of skill levels. To match that kind of target audience, we make sure that our team setup matches that. If we have only skilled players making the game, we end up having a game where the difficulty level is a little high, or the problem-solving involved is very challenging. By including people who may not play games as much, or are inexperienced in gaming, having them as part of the dev team makes us realize some things that we maybe wouldn’t have if we only had core gamers making the game.
"And that's just one aspect. There are lots of different perspectives that go into creating even a single title. In that sense, it’s very beneficial to have diversity in our staff, and that’s something I like to keep at the forefront of my mind as we build toward other projects."
Eguchi's remarks share much in common with those that long-time Nintendo designer Takashi Tezuka made in our Mario Maker interview at this year's E3. For Tezuka, creating opportunities for creative expression is an essential element of video games — to allow players to be themselves, in other words.
"When we create games, the thing that is the most difficult for us is the need to create a game that will appeal to both people who enjoy a good challenge as well as for people who aren't, you know, quite as experienced," says Tezuka. "Making sure everybody has a good time. Mario Maker kind of answers the difficult question of how to adjust game design for different skill levels, just in and of itself.
"You know, video games are just one genre of play, of pastimes, and I think that what's essential to play is to use your imagination and try out new things. Those are the kind of video games I want to continue making."
"We want to reach out to a very wide audience," says Kyogoku. "As Mr. Eguchi mentioned, there are people who are good at games or bad at games. There are adults, children. We want to reach out to all of those people. We think about who we want these games to be played by and how we want them to play the games. But ultimately, we won’t know until the game is released how that will play out.
"At the development level, we try to imagine and play out scenarios about how this type of people will play, or that type of people might play, to keep that at the forefront as we move forward on the development of each title. We obviously make games that cater toward a wide range of audience, but we also do games that cater to a specific audience. Those are just differences in genres of games. Not only do we want diversity within one game, but it’s also beneficial to have diversity across genres and the type of games we can make at Nintendo. Looking at it from that perspective, it’s beneficial to have development teams that are diverse in their life experience and backgrounds."
According to Eguchi, this point of view has defined Nintendo's game development processes from its earliest days.
"When I first started getting into game development," he recalls, "we were still imagining and thinking about how users would react to our games. For a game like Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World, I thought I was pretty good at games, so I naturally wanted to create levels in those games that were enjoyable for me. Then other people that were working on the game, Mr. Miyamoto or Mr. Tezuka, they’d come in and play the game and say, 'This is way too hard! I don’t get this.' To be able to have colleagues and members of the development team that can provide feedback from a different angle, from a different perspective from yours... it’s beneficial for us, to be able to see the things we didn’t notice from our own experience.
"As time passes, the number of devices that can play video games has increased. So there are now devices, Nintendo hardware, where there’s buttons and a thumb pad, and there are also smart devices where you can just play by touching the screen. There’s a new generation of people who are accustomed to one or the other. If we make a game that caters toward one method of playing, it might be very familiar to one target audience, and very foreign to another. We have to think about that and take that into consideration. We have a lot more to think about now, a lot more areas and perspectives that we need to consider when we’re trying to create games.
"This is something that’s been at Nintendo since the beginning. The only thing that’s changed is the scope of what we need to consider. But because of that, phrases like 'Nintendo games are enjoyable for people from 5 to 95' have come about."
The Great Communicator
But what does all of this have to do with Tomodachi Life? Nothing, and everything.
For those who have followed the company for any amount of time — for those who admire its willingness to look beyond the narrow confines of the traditional gaming audience as it designs its software — Nintendo's strictly heterosexual rules for marriage in the game stand at odds with the company's heritage. Nintendo has experienced its ups and downs over the years when it comes to gender and social equality (see the sidebars running the length of this feature for a cursory sampling), but by and large the company has generally gravitated toward the wider view in its works.
Even more startling than the lack of gay relationship options in Tomodachi's Life was Nintendo's thoughtless response to the community outcry: A denial that they "never intended to make any form of social commentary" with the game. Yet gay marriage has become a major concern for millions of people around the world, especially in the U.S.; excluding that option made a commentary in and of itself. A decade ago, LGBT Nintendo fans probably would have simply shrugged off the choices as yet another example of media diminishing their lifestyle, but social mores have changed. So too have the avenues through which people can come together and make their voices heard.
As Kat Bailey pointed out shortly before Tomodachi Life's launch, the simple fact is that it very likely never occurred to the creators of Tomodachi Life that they were shutting out the gay community. In Japan, homosexuality is rarely discussed in the open, and on the rare occasion it appears in the media it's generally accompanied by the sort of embarrassed tittering you'd expect from an class full of elementary-age school boys.
And yet, this story has a happy ending; Nintendo eventually stared the community's complaints in the eye and bowed its head in apology. Unlike certain other publishers who lately have found themselves fixed under the lens of the Internet's demands for inclusivity and diversity have responded by clamming up, issuing noncommittal homilies, belittling their fans, or all the above, Nintendo simply issued a formal apology. "Unfortunately, it is not possible for us to change this game's design," it reads. But in the future, the statement promises, "we will strive to design a game-play experience from the ground up that is more inclusive, and better represents all players."
And just like that, the furor faded away. Nintendo wasn't able to fix Tomodachi Life's shortcomings, but they mended fences. Ultimately, they understand that happy consumers are loyal consumers, and included consumers are happy consumers. And if Nintendo knows anything, it's the value of communication in play — it's in their DNA. Even if that communication amounts to little more than eating humble pie, it's still how you win the game.