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.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.