Talk of the Ninja: Heteronormativity, Social Conditioning, and Nintendo

So, Nintendo decided that gay people don’t deserve a place in their life simulator.

For those of you that don’t keep up with immediate gaming news, Nintendo released a game in Japan called Tomodachi Life, which seems to basically be their answer to The Sims. They designed a system within the game wherein men can marry women, and vice versa. Upon release players found a bug that allowed them to marry people of the same gender, but once Nintendo caught wind of it, they “fixed” it by disallowing gay marriage altogether. Fans demanded that they reverse the “fix” and allow gay marriage, both in the Japanese version and in the upcoming North American release, but Nintendo recently stated that they will not do so.

I will admit that I wasn’t terribly interested in Tomodachi Life to begin with, but recent events have made me decide that I’m not buying it. I mean, I wasn’t necessarily planning on virtually marrying someone of the same gender as my Mii, but it’s a matter of principle. I’m angry at Nintendo over their statement.

“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.”

I’ve heard bullshit like this for years. “These games are just for fun! They’re not supposed to be taken seriously! Why does everyone have to analyze them like they’re part of some sort of agenda?” And since we’re still hearing it, I think we need to put more effort into explaining why that’s not how culture works.

Nintendo claimed that with Tomodachi Life they were “absolutely not trying to provide social commentary.” You’ll note that they included straight marriage, but not gay marriage. To them, heterosexuality is not just acceptable, but so normal as to be part of the game without question. But homosexuality? Bisexuality? Anything that’s not a man marrying a woman? That’s weird. That’s abnormal. To include that in the game would be social commentary in and of itself. Right?

This attitude is called heteronormativity, and it’s very prevalent in our culture. It’s the idea that heterosexuality — men being attracted to women and vice versa — is the accepted norm, and any other form of sexuality is not normal and should not be perceived or presented as such. This is not an inherent biological trait. In fact, scientists have observed non-heterosexual tendencies in nature, and homosexuality has a place in human history. No, heteronormativity is something that we’re taught by society, and that doesn’t just come from word of mouth — it also comes from the media.

You probably don’t notice this because it’s such an ordinary part of your life, but we as a culture are inundated by popular media. We see images on computers, phones, magazines, walls, billboards, retail products, and so on and so forth. We hear music in many public places, and many of us listen to radios in our cars. We see videos online, on television, and in theaters. And although most of us don’t read books in our spare time, we do read loads of words online, through blogs and through social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. And, yes, we play video games. Those count as media too.

You can try to say that you don’t spend much time online or playing games or watching movies or what have you. You can call me a couch-dwelling loser and act like you’re free from the media. But the fact is that we’re exposed to all this sensory information simply by existing in our society. You see all the advertising images when you step foot in a store. You hear the music. And if you’re reading this, I know you spend at least some time online.

Humans learn by perceiving as well as by doing — this is a phenomenon called social conditioning. And when nearly every bit of media you perceive presents a romantic relationship as that which exists between a man and a woman, that’s all that will appear “normal” to you. A man with a man? A woman with a woman? Sure, it’s not completely unheard of, but it’s not, like, normal, you know?

It is normal, though. It’s okay. It’s okay to be gay, or bisexual, or pansexual, or innumerable other forms of sexuality. But so many people don’t understand that yet, because they’ve been conditioned throughout their lifetimes to believe it’s not okay. That’s what makes social progress such a hard struggle, but there has been progress. Recent games in franchises that let you create and build your own character, like Mass Effect, Fable, and Dragon Age have given the option to romantically pursue characters of the same gender as yours. We also have games like Gone Home, that portray non-heterosexual relationships in ways that aren’t hurtful or stereotypical. I’m willing to bet at least one person has stepped away from these games feeling at least a bit more strongly that homosexuality is not something abnormal or shameful, and I find that downright joyous.

Nintendo, however, has made it clear that they’re not up for progress. And on the one hand, I agree that not every game has to stand up for LGBT rights — that would feel out-of-place in a game that has nothing to do with romance — but on the other hand, this game does have something to do with romance. You can ask, “Why does the game need to have gay marriage?” I think a better question would be, “Why does the game have straight marriage and not gay marriage?” You can’t use the realism excuse, since they already outright stated that it is “a playful alternate world rather than a real-life simulation.” It has romance, and they specifically chose to leave non-heterosexual romance out. It’s a deliberate limitation. That is social commentary in and of itself.

But Nintendo don’t see it as social commentary, because they think homosexuality doesn’t deserve a place in their game. They’ve outed themselves as bigoted, whether they realize it or not. I’m under no illusion that they’re going to change it for the North American release, especially since it’s less than a month away. I also understand that this game not having gay marriage doesn’t invalidate the LGBT movement. But it does perpetuate heteronormativity. It does do a little bit to reinforce that notion. It’s one thread in the vast tapestry of our culture, and it’s unfortunate to see that this thread is of a hurtful texture.


  1. And if you’re reading this, I know you spend at least some time online.

    Well maybe a friend printed this article for me! And maybe another friend then chiseled a copy of it into a slab of marble, and that’s what I’m reading right now!

    1. And you commented via carrier pigeon! Of course! It all makes sense now!

      Seriously though, if someone is chiseling my writing into slabs of marble, get me a picture because that would be such an ego boost.

  2. Great article. Absolutely totally and completely agree with you! ‘Society’ doesn’t realise just how socialised they are and the kind of impact that mass media, especially, has on them.

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