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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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