An Open Letter to Nintendo From a Lifelong Fan

Dear Nintendo,

Another E3 has come and gone. You unveiled a plethora of games that your fans, myself included, are eager to pick up and play. However, despite my excitement for what you have planned for the near and distant future, I still can’t help but feel disappointed in your continued stance on the subject of “politics” in video games. Remember what happened on June 15th? A brief interview surfaced involving Reggie Fils-Aimé, Nintendo of America’s president. He spoke to a reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, and during the interview, Reggie had this to say:

“Making political statements are for other people to do. We want people to smile and have fun when they play our games.”

This statement continues your long history of claiming that video games are apolitical; that gamers from all walks of life can simply play your games and have fun, similar to the Walt Disney Company’s marketing strategy of a “family-friendly” experience. However, this claim is widely inaccurate, as all video games — no matter who developed them — are political in the same way that all forms of media are. While you’ve certainly developed a number of games that make players “smile and have fun,” this is not a phrase that many of your fans would agree with.

Queer gamers have faced the brunt of this, specifically during the Tomodachi Life controversy where you did not wish to include same-sex marriage because you “never intended to make any form of social commentary” in the game. However, by making this statement, it further showcases what many queer people, myself included, have already known: that merely by existing, our lives are seen as inherently political to you.

Displays of heterosexual love and affection — be it a chaste kiss on the cheek from Princess Peach in so many Super Mario games and subsequent spin-offs — are extremely common. Other examples include the numerous women who fell in love with Link in The Legend of Zelda franchise, which plays into a masculine power fantasy. Then there’s the ability for (straight) couples to flirt, marry, and eventually have children together in recent games like the Fire Emblem franchise. Heteronormative narratives are pervasive throughout all of your games. Meanwhile, queer gamers have been told time and again that our presence is undesirable.

You literally exclude us or portray us as villains, such as the queer-coded Ghirahim in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, or the depraved and sadistic individuals in Fire Emblem: Fates who also happen to be the only two same-sex romanceable character options if the player wishes to pursue a queer relationship.

Adding to this are the experiences of trans and nonbinary gamers who still have to experience the humiliating and dehumanizing treatment of their gender identities, most notably the unpleasant and transphobic part of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild where Link sees a beard underneath a trans woman’s veil and reacts with shock.

Alongside the negative experiences of queer gamers, many other marginalized gamers have noted reoccurring trends in your games. You fall behind when it comes to representing women as well, relying on the continued damsel-in-distress trope in Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda games even though many gamers have expressed a wish to play as Princess Peach or Princess Zelda outside of spin-off games. Then there’s the lack of attention that Samus Aran received during her thirtieth anniversary despite being the protagonist of your only franchise led by a woman, the half-hearted and bizarre explanations as to why Link is always a man, the objectification of women in the upcoming Xenoblade Chronicles 2, and only showcasing a player character who is a man in the marketing and packaging of Ever Oasis. What gives?

Adding to this, gamers of color have also observed a fair amount of negative representation in your library, specifically in regards to how characters with black or brown skin are portrayed. The most noticeable example is Ganondorf, the reoccurring villain of The Legend of Zelda franchise, who is literally the only brown man in that universe. He’s also from a culture that is heavily coded to be Middle Eastern and always portrayed as the “ultimate evil” whenever he appears in-game. Not to mention the issue of portraying women of color as oversexualized, such as the emphasis on Twintelle’s rear in official images and the portrayals of Gerudo women in various Legend of Zelda titles.

Look, Nintendo. Your work is beloved and enjoyed by gamers from all walks of life. Whether we grew up playing or recently discovered your games in our adult years, the enjoyment and happiness you’ve provided us is still very much the same. This has inspired so many people to think, write, and draw their own what-if scenarios to include more diverse choices. What if we could play a game starring Princess Peach and Princess Daisy? What if Princess Zelda was the protagonist for once? What if Link was a woman? What if we could customize our pronouns in Pokémon games? What if we had positive portrayals of LGBTQIA+ characters and their relationships? What if black and brown characters were the heroes, and not always the villains or eye candy?

While I am enjoying my current adventures with you and look forward to several of your games on the horizon, I am still rather disappointed that you continue to claim an apolitical stance when you clearly have not done so. The games you make all have their own political messages whether you realize it or not, and these messages can have a profound impact — both positive and negative — on the gamers who play them. By refusing to make a “statement,” you actually made one: that you prefer to maintain the status quo rather than try to step outside of the box and appeal to the wide spectrum of gamers you have in your fanbase.

I sincerely hope that, in the future, you will attempt to do better by marginalized gamers who wish to see themselves in your video games. But judging by your long and ongoing history of half-hearted attempts and outright silence, I doubt this hope will be fulfilled any time soon.

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7 Comments on “An Open Letter to Nintendo From a Lifelong Fan

  1. I think you’re barking up the wrong tree here -> Japanese videogame culture seems about 20 years behind the west’s. Problematic portrayals of non-binary and non-cis characters and straight up racist stereotypes are absolutely the norm, and have been for a long time, and this doesn’t seem to be changing at any great speed. Even portrayals of hetero couples are wrapped up in very traditional roles, with the woman needing rescuing or being portrayed as feisty and emotional.

    The easiest thing to do is to avoid these games or at least dramatically lower your expectations.

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    • I fail to see how ignoring problematic video games, regardless of who developed them, is a solution to this problem. Nintendo’s game library is not just a Japanese market now: it is an international market with international fans. The same can be said for almost every piece of media, especially video games, out there and a failure to adapt, change, or experiment with new narratives is a disservice to their medium and their audiences who crave newer, better stories.

      One way we, as audiences, can make the situation better is by talking about why these issues are problematic and how portrayals can be changed, hence why I wrote this article. Ignoring problems does nothing to change the problem; addressing the problem and offering possible solutions does.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Patricia, I think the issue is that it is unrealistic for us to expect Japan to fully grasp the complex social discourse taking place in things like the United States without the cultural context that one only gains by virtue of being there, living in that space and being surrounded by people grappling with these issues. Frankly, the vast majority of Americans themselves hardly get it.

        It’s almost like what you’re proposing is an ideological colonialism, imposing a worldview you purport is better than the Japanese developers who you consider to be lacking in matters of critical social discourse.

        I do agree with you that these are important matters, but first we have to grapple with the reality of their sociocultural positioning before we try to deploy this sort of argumentation. There is much about Japan that we cannot understand by virtue of being outsiders, and the same is true the other way around.

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  2. Yes, Japanese culture does have a very different cultural interaction with LGBTQIA+ matters. They have historically approached issues differently. There’s no denying that.

    But that doesn’t mean that Japanese media doesn’t interact with queer identities!

    What about Nier: Automata, the PS4 bestseller from Yoko Taro that engages with themes of transgender identity? What about Yuri on Ice, the anime show that wowed critics with both its popularity and its respectful portrayal of a same-sex couple?

    Look, I’m not claiming that Japan and America are in the same place regarding LGBTQIA+ identities. But “proposing…ideological colonialism” is a bit harsh.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh geez, sorry! I was replying to the fellow but didn’t click reply. Anyway, I loved this fabulous article! =D Thanks for writing it…every single “what if” game you listed sounds fantastic and DEFINITELY one I would play.

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      • No worries, I understand your intent and I had a similar issue when I was posting my own reply to his post.

        Thank you for your kind words; I’m glad you enjoyed my article and my “what if” scenarios.

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  3. Michael,
    Let me begin by stating that the intent of my argument, both within the article and in the comments section, was not intended to be that of ideological colonialism, but rather showcasing that Nintendo’s video games are not apolitical as the company claims them to be. That being said, I recognize that it can be harmful to assume that I know what is best in this scenario over Japanese markets and so I apologize for that. At the same time though it is important to note that part of my criticisms were directed towards what the president of Nintendo of America said as well as the games primarily being developed in Japan. As I said before Nintendo is an international video game company, and as such its games impact gamers from all over the world, not just Japan. These messages in their games impact gamers from around the world similarly who the multiple first-person shooters from Western developers negatively impact how gamers from around the world view Middle Eastern peoples or how the white-as-default protagonist perpetuates a harmful narrative.

    And as for the saying that Japan cannot understand the specific socio-political context of the topics I have discussed, I would disagree. Several Japanese people have noted their country’s issues with racism, and have been fighting their own battles to combat it and address it. These include Ariana Miyamoto, the Miss Universe Japan winner for 2015, who address the racism she encountered within her home country for being bi-racial, particularly for being black and cited her reason for participating in said beauty pageant was because her friend, who was also a bi-racial Japanese person, committed suicide as a result of the discrimination they faced. The experiences bi-racial Japanese people has also led to a documentary on the subject, called Hafu, details the lives and discrimination that biracial Japanese people have encountered in order to raise more awareness on the subject, which is becoming even more essential since the number of foreigners immigrating to Japan is on the rise. And then there is the way the Japanese government treats Okinawans as second-class citizens, failing to recognize and respect their specific cultural heritage, and how the Japanese LGBTQ+ community has been fighting for their rights. From the evidence I have seen Japanese people are more than capable when it comes to addressing their own socio-political issues.

    Furthermore, Nintendo has shown that they can recognize harmful materials in their video games, as showcased in the Jynx controversy in the Pokémon franchise where the Pokémon’s appearance was changed once it was recognized that she looked similar to blackface imagery. And finally Nintendo has been branching out the scope of what types of games they wish to develop, particularly in terms of where their games are set. The last two generations of the core Pokémon franchise have taken place outside of Japan, Sun & Moon being based on Hawaii and X & Y being based on France, and the developers had conducted research for both locations as they developed those games, the Grezzo developed Ever Oasis showcases a clear inspiration from Ancient Egyptian imagery, and the upcoming Super Mario Odyssey featuring locations heavily inspired by the United States of America and Mexico. If the game developers could take the time and research to create these games they can also make the effort to research how to make their games less-harmful to gamers.

    I believe that it is becoming extremely important in a media landscape where the global markets are just as important as local markets, especially for the medium of video games, to acknowledge how the narratives being created affect gamers positively and negatively. Nintendo is one of the largest game developers in the world; if anyone has the tools and resources to make their games better it’s them.

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