Muzzling Mario: Why Nintendo’s Silent Approach To Controversy Can’t Continue In 2016

Nintendo has always been the strong, silent type. Since time immemorial, the company’s response to controversy or even just minor requests for information has been dead air, or a pat “no comment.” In 2016, the approach is no longer working. In fact, it’s having the exact opposite effect Nintendo would prefer, leaving the previously untouchable company vulnerable to stinging criticism.

In recent years, Nintendo has become more flexible about what they publish, attaching their names to M-rated series like Bayonetta and Fatal Frame, and games like Fire Emblem Fates and Xenoblade Chronicles X that push the T-rating to its limits with mature themes and occasionally risque outfits. Not every branch of Nintendo is as excited to push boundaries, though — Nintendo of America seems somewhat leery of the edgier approach being pursued by the company’s main Japanese branch, and many recent Nintendo games have arrived in North America with some content (usually sexual in nature) altered or outright removed.

Nintendo opted to remove skimpy alternate costumes from Fatal Frame despite an M-rating. 

Nintendo of America isn’t indiscriminately removing all the sexy bits from their games. The brazenly kinky Bayonetta 2 made it out here unaltered. Most of the edits are designed to smooth over cultural differences between Japan and Western countries. For instance, Xenoblade Chronicles X had a 13-year-old character’s revealing costumes toned down (adult characters’ costumes were untouched) and Fire Emblem Fates had a storyline some critics felt alluded to gay conversion therapy removed (the game still allows for same-sex relationships). The simple fact of the matter is some things considered acceptable in Japan would get Nintendo raked over the coals in America, and a good localization should make changes when these cultural conflicts arise. Still, it’s a complex situation, one fans have rightfully asked for clarification on.

Nintendo remained silent.

In the absence of answers from Nintendo, frustration has turned to anger, and fans have taken to combing every new game for edits. Every slightly-changed costume and line of dialogue has become fodder for outrage, and worse, some people began looking for a scapegoat for Nintendo’s decisions. In a depressingly predictable development, they zeroed in on Alison Rapp, a member of Nintendo’s Treehouse localization team. Rapp had nothing to do with Nintendo’s localization decisions, she strictly did PR, but she was visible (she appeared regularly on videos released by Treehouse), a woman, and occasionally espoused feminist views on her Twitter, so she became the designated target. You know how it went from there — misogynists and misanthropes with little to no actual interest in Nintendo and its localization practices piggybacked on the issue, and soon Rapp was the subject of online harassment that had her fearing for her safety.

Nintendo remained silent.

Of course, a company isn’t required to fight their employees’ Twitter wars, but this was more than that. It was a large, organized harassment campaign against a Nintendo employee, which looped in all sorts of ugly online hate groups, and was reported on in a lengthy Kotaku exposé. As the ugliness continued to bloom, something needed to be said. The harassers had to be condemned, and the realities of Nintendo’s localization process and Rapp’s job at the company should have been clarified.

Nintendo remained silent.

Then, yesterday, Nintendo fired Rapp. Again, Nintendo did their business quietly, Rapp announced the firing on her Twitter, and the Internet jumped to the first, most obvious conclusion — Rapp was fired due to pressure from the harassers. Reaction was swift, with even longtime Nintendo supporters sharply criticizing the company for Rapp’s firing. Finally, Nintendo spoke up, issuing a statement.

“Alison Rapp was terminated due to violation of an internal company policy involving holding a second job in conflict with Nintendo’s corporate culture. Though Ms. Rapp’s termination follows her being the subject of criticism from certain groups via social media several weeks ago, the two are absolutely not related. Nintendo is a company committed to fostering inclusion and diversity in both our company and the broader video game industry and we firmly reject the harassment of individuals based on gender, race or personal beliefs. We wish Ms. Rapp well in her future endeavors.”

Rapp has since confirmed the fact that she did “moonlight” anonymously while working for Nintendo.

If Nintendo does have an anti-moonlighting policy, they had every right to terminate Rapp, especially because she was hired to be a public face of the company, but they’ve come out looking like the bad guys due to their silence. Looking the other way while an employee was the subject of a high-profile smear campaign made them look callous, and firing Rapp silently made it seem like Nintendo had something to hide.

Nintendo isn’t the only company knee-deep in this kind of turmoil. Blizzard recently found themselves in a hurricane of controversy when a fan expressed concern about a mildly-sexualized pose struck by Tracer, one of the female characters in the upcoming shooter Overwatch. 

One of Tracer’s less controversial poses. 

The game’s director, Jeff Kaplan, responded with a short message, promising to remove the pose.

“We’ll replace the pose. We want everyone to feel strong and heroic in our community. The last thing we want to do is make someone feel uncomfortable, under-appreciated or misrepresented.”

Fans immediately expressed reasonable concerns about Blizzard’s artistic integrity. Was the company really removing content due to a single complaint, as Kaplan’s message seemed to imply? As Blizzard remained quiet, tempers flared, the usual trolls and bottom feeders latched on, and a new crushing boulder of Internet controversy was born. With debate raging, Kaplan returned and explained in a much more detailed message that Blizzard was already planning to remove the pose because they felt it clashed with the character’s personality, begging the question, what would have happened if Kaplan had released this more open, detailed message to begin with? I honestly think it could have killed the drama in its tracks. Sure, the misogynistic trolls would have gnashed their impotent teeth, but without that initial spark of concern and anger from genuine fans, these online fires rarely get going.

I have a feeling Blizzard is taking some valuable lessons from the Overwatch controversy, and it’s a situation Nintendo needs to learn from, too. In 2016, silence is no longer an option. In the past, Nintendo took an “ignore it and it will go away” approach, but things don’t go away any more. If you don’t establish a narrative, the trolls, harassers and other Internet malcontents are going to fill the void, and once that snowball starts rolling downhill, there’s no stopping it.

Nintendo having an open discussion about their localization choices would immediately diffuse a lot of fan confusion and anger. Standing up for employees facing online harassment would send a strong message that Nintendo is a safe, supportive place to work. And needless to say, Nintendo should have given us the full details of why they fired Rapp right from the get go. In every case, more information, more openness, would have infinitely improved the company’s position. So, come on, Nintendo. Let’s talk.

(Via Nintendo Life, Nintendo EverythingKotaku)