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Nintendo's gay gaffe: Has Tomodachi Life damaged the big N's reputation?

Our Mavens talk Mario's PR fumble

Nintendo's gay gaffe: Has Tomodachi Life damaged the big N's reputation?

The big story of the last few weeks has arguably been Nintendo handling of the furore in regards to the lack of same sex relationships in Tomodachi Life.

So widescale was the negative reaction to the story, Nintendo was forced to apologise and lick its wounds out in public. However, perhaps the most interesting element is the potential damage it may have done to the Nintendo brand, melting away – temporarily at least - much of the goodwill that typically adds a gloss to the firm's coverage in the press.

Our Mavens very recently touched on a similar subject with New Star Soccer, so we decided to put a slightly different spin in relation to the issue of the representation of LGBT relationships in games.

We asked:

How damaging can public relations gaffes like this be to games businesses big and small, have any of you had to deal with similar PR crises in the past and what impact did it have on the firms involved?


Scott Foe Chief Product Officer Ignited Artists

The industry reaction to Nintendo's decision to disable same-sex marriage in Tomodachi Life has been overwhelmingly negative: To call Nintendo's prevention of same-sex marriage in Tomodachi Life a "gaffe" is far too kind.

"Gaffe" is a "social blunder." I'm going to go ahead and quote Brenda Romero, who pointed out most-elegantly that Nintendo's prevention of same-sex marriage in Tomodachi Life is a willful decision to code hate, "They actually had to put programming resources into preventing same-sex weddings."

Sadly, I doubt that Nintendo public relations is kept too busy firefighting this homophobic transgression, and I suspect that, one year from now, no one will remember Nintendo's decision here. There will be no ramifications. (Remember Mozilla firing CEO Brendan Eich after he supported a legislative ban on gay marriage?)

My head tells me that proponents of removing same-sex marriage from a Nintendo game will argue that, "It's okay to remove same-sex marriage, because Nintendo is a 'family entertainment' company, and who wants to have a conversation about gay marriage with their children?" Well, note to families: Stop treating homosexuality like a taboo or a stigma, and homosexuality will stop being a taboo or a stigma.

It's that simple.

Oscar Clark Chief Strategy Officer Fundamentally Games

Oscar Clark has been a pioneer in online, mobile, and console social games services since 1998. He is also author of the book, Games As A Service – How Free To Play Design Can Make Better Games.

Damn it Scott - stop answering these questions so well. You are making it impossible for the rest of us to seem intelligent.

Again, I agree entirely, although I do appreciate that its really tough to deal with the political climates of some territories which are not yet enlightened; its no excuse to handle it this badly.

If you are really unhappy about the issues surrounding sex in these games then don't include it at all.
Oscar Clark

The Sims dealt with this by having 'Woohoo!' as a euphemism for sex. It was a wafer thin veil I understand; but it allowed same-sex relationships. You could even 'try for a baby'. This isn't untrodden territory, people.

If you are really unhappy about the issues surrounding sex in these games then don't include it at all. The damage this narrow minded bigotry does to brands is incalculable and it doesn't just infuriate and insult the LGBT community it insults the intelligence of all of us. The specific details might be forgotten in a year; but it will leave a costly stain on the brand.

I wonder if this is a reflection of the more 'Conforming' society of Japan as compared to the more individualistic western culture.

It's true that gay marriage is a topical issue for us, but I don't know how high profile this is in Japan right now. In my mind the fact that we have reached the point where in the west culturally its unacceptable to block same-sex virtual relationships; isn't that itself a triumph?

Dave Castelnuovo Owner Bolt Creative

I would like to know if there are any conservatives in the game industry that are willing to express the counter opinion. Everyone seems to be saying the right things about this issue.

I find it interesting that something like gay marriage is such a divisive issue in many countries and yet the game industry seems to only consist of forward thinkers. I personally think that LGBT rights are inevitable and hopefully we are seeing the last of the resistance before it falls away - at least in the developed world.

While I do think that the pressure on Nintendo is productive, I really don't think that it's the equivalent of coding hate. I am not sure what it is like in Europe but in the US we have CEO's of large companies that come out and express anti-gay opinions, about gay marriage and being gay altogether. Nintendo doesn't belong in this camp.

I don't believe that Nintendo was ever anti-gay. They were definitely ignorant of this issue but if it was truly their core belief, I don't think they would have come around so quickly.

All in all this event was beneficial. Not only did the game industry move forward but greater awareness was brought to Japan. I just wish we didn't need a witch hunt mentality to effect change in the world. I think we need greater empathy on both sides of this argument. Using anger and hate to flush out hate doesn't seem right.

John Ozimek Co-founder Big Games Machine

John is co-founder of PR and marketing company Big Ideas Machine. Also an all-round nice guy...

Dave, I agree that in this kind of forum we are all bound to agree on why this has shown Nintendo to be extremely backward in it's thinking, as we are a self-selecting group of sensitive, gender-neutral intellectual colossi.

Perhaps I'm being over-simplistic, but I just don't think that Nintendo thought this through on any level. So whilst ignorance is not an excuse, nor do I believe that it is actively repressing expressions of same-sex relationships, and rather have just made a dumb mistake that it then allowed to snowball.

Nintendo is an extremely conservative company, run along very traditional lines with a long family lineage. Look at the strategic confusion of the last few years in the face of the rise of mobile; this is not a company that is able to take rapid, revolutionary decisions. I mean - it's two greatest franchises still revolve around rescuing helpless princesses from castles!

So I feel that this episode has further exposed how Nintendo has drifted further apart from the audience which it needs to attract - and I hope that it will result in some internal soul-searching; although I don't really expect there to be much cultural change in terms of games and IP, as it will take a lot more inertia to shift the way Nintendo thinks. Maybe it could start by not dressing every female character in pink.

Has it been a PR disaster? Only in terms of exposing this out-of-date mindset; but is that at all a surprise? It's a rule in PR that it's less what the crisis is but how well you respond to it, and Nintendo's initial inability to understand how they caused offence increased focus on the firm, and showed the lack of autonomy within the company and with the PR team in particular.

Many times a PR team takes the blame for fudging or avoiding an issue, when in fact the real problem is that the C-suite still think that if you ignore a problem for long enough it will go away. That simply doesn't work any more, and I imagine there is a very frustrated PR team out there nursing some bruised reputations thanks to this.

So perhaps for a company that's under pressure in the trade press and trying to do something about the poor sales of the Wii U, this won't have helped. But will this affect consumers? I doubt it - just look at the glowing reviews for the new Mario Kart, it's clearly business as usual for the games press this week. Enough outrage already - let's play Mario Kart! 10/10 all round, all is forgiven.

And have we all audited Square Enix, Namco Bandai, Capcom and other 'traditional' Japanese publishers for their level of LGBT sensitivity? What about US and UK publishers? What about EA's decision to not include female footballers in FIFA 14 - are the games press planning any campaigns around the next instalment, or is that old news too?

It's easy to be outraged by a single idiotic, short-sighted and backward decision. It's much harder to change the mindset of an entire industry and audience, and until we see more major publishers straying from their paternalistic view of what games should teach us, we need to bear in mind that Nintendo is far from the only company in need of greater enlightenment.

Keith Andrew With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.

My take is Nintendo is something of a scapegoat here, but I'm fine with that.

We're ahead of the curve here on the Mavens - we were talking about this weeks ago in regards of New Star Soccer. Did the world's media jump on board? No. Because it isn't quite as sexy to beat down an indie UK studio in articles as it is a massive Japanese corporation.

Tomodachi Life has simply come to the fore at the wrong time.
Keith Andrew

Nintendo is essentially being shouldered with the weight of years worth of games that have overlooked homosexual relationships for whatever reason - Tomodachi Life has simply come to the fore at the wrong time.

But I'm happy to make some noise about this. It's a case that people understand - there's no real reason why players shouldn't be able to chase someone of the same gender in play - and it comes from a company everyone knows in and out.

You have to make a bit of noise to make things done - you have to make it clear that, in 2014, overlooking something like this isn't acceptable. Make enough noise and, the next time, another company won't dare to make the same mistake, and before you know it, it's commonplace - almost standard protocol - for similar games to include the option to have gay relationships. That's how it works.

The side dish to all of this is, Nintendo's PR has handled this terribly. I said to a friend last week, I bet whoever handles Nintendo's PR in the UK has been pulling their hair out about how all this has been handled over in Japan. Much like Microsoft's botched Xbox One unveiling, Nintendo has made the wrong decision as to how respond at almost every turn.

However, just like that muddled Xbox One reveal, it's unlikely to have any lasting impact on the company, and that's a good thing. I don't, for a second, think that Nintendo is institutionally homophobic, but by the same turn, it's right that we hold it to account now.

Dave Castelnuovo Owner Bolt Creative

I have no issue with making noise - it's the reactionary accusations that I have an issue with. Ignorance is is not an excuse but this is a case of ignorance (compounded by a culture that is glacial at accepting change) while many people are trying to paint them as bigoted. Inflammatory statements that have no basis in reality only serve to make this a divisive issue rather than bringing people together.

That said, being inflammatory is much more effective click bait.

Keith Andrew With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.

To be fair, the people I've encountered that have said inflammatory things about Nintendo did not so because of Tomodochi Life, but more because of Nintendo's initial dismissive - dare I say it, even insulting - response.

Bear in mind, for many gay gamers, Nintendo was a first port of call when growing up. Almost a haven. To have (initially) been dismissed so readily is almost like an old friend or a parent telling you they don't really want you around. It genuinely hurt folk. I think we should acknowledge that.

With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.