A scene from the (very realistic, clearly) Tomodachi Life. Image: Nintendo
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Nintendo ignores upset gamers and decides against in-game same-sex marriages

Nintendo's "life simulator" game Tomodachi Life allows players to recreate their lives digitally - unless they want to marry their same-sex partner.

One of the most popular games of all-time is The Sims, which has a simple, intuitive premise: it's life. You have a house, you get a job, you meet someone, fall in love, start a family together, drown in the swimming pool after the stairs disappear, etc.

Nintendo's Tomodachi Life is similar, but takes a more whimsical approach to "life". Each character (called a "Mii", pronounced "me") lives as part of a community on an island, and as the name suggests - "tomodachi" means "friends" in Japanese - it's all about building friendships, with wacky mini-games like karaoke or sumo wrestling, as well as things like hanging out and having a chat. It's sold just shy of two million copies, making it one of the 3DS handheld's most popular games.

As also happens in life, and The Sims, Miis can get close enough to fall in love, and get married. Unlike The Sims, though, Tomodachi Life doesn't allow for same-sex marriages. It's a design decision that's dismayed many of the game's players, and in particular Tye Marini, a gay man from Arizona who wanted to be able to marry his real-life fiance's Mii.

Here's the video he made, laying out his case:

Pretty reasonable, right? As he makes clear, not only is it unfair from the perspective of forcing him to adjust the sex of his or his fiance's Mii in order to get around the issue, it also blocks them both from accessing all of the game content that they paid for:

There are specific features and content that you can't access without getting married, such as moving into a bigger house of your own, having a child and sending them off to other islands via StreetPass, and so on.

In this regard, Tomodachi Life does manage to adhere to physical reality with admirable verisimilitude: same-sex couples, living in countries or regions where same-sex marriage is not recognised or legally permitted, also miss out on some of the "bonus features" of life, like, say, legal recognition of the right to visit a spouse in hospital, or being offered better rates of insurance, or being able to procure a residency visa. Y'know, the small things in life - but, not Tomodachi Life.

That's why the #Miiquality campaign took off last month, after Marini's video, aiming not to boycott the game, but to raise awareness of the issue so that Nintendo might change the game's code to allow same-sex marriages. Nintendo has now issued a response, and it's rubbish:

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 thing about "not trying to provide a social commentary" is that Nintendo already has, by not putting same-sex marriage in the game. Like most issues of social justice, it's not correct to say that not making a decision is the equivalent of not picking a side - in this case, choosing not to include same-sex marriage is just as good as explicitly choosing to block it.

Furthermore, Nintendo justifies its decision as a practical one of coding: "The ability for same-sex relationships to occur in the game was not part of the original game that launched in Japan, and that game is made up of the same code that was used to localize it for other regions outside of Japan." It's worth noting that Marini is playing the Japanese version of the game, but only because the North American and European versions aren't out until June, so it may very well be that the localisation of the game isn't over yet. It also doesn't preclude the release of a patch to include a fix if it's too late to do so now.

This is a needlessly self-inflicted wound on Nintendo's part. For years, games like The Sims would be modded by their users to include same-sex relationships and marriages when developers ignored requests for them to be included, and it's thanks to that kind of pressure that it's become a more frequent gameplay feature. Skyrim even manages to have gay characters marrying each other, and that's got dragons in it. Shouldn't be too much of a stretch from "whimsy" to "real-world relationships".

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.