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Iconic Japanese RPG-maker Square Enix Holding Comp., Ltd. (TYO:9684) announced a bit of interesting news this week at the 2014 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles, Calif.  A year after the critically acclaimed relaunch of its MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV (the relaunch being dubbed "A Realm Reborn"), Square Enix has decided to allow characters to engage in same sex marriage.
Is Square Enix endorsing gay marriage? What does this mean for gamers? To understand the decision, you must first understand Japanese culture and the game's development arc.
I. Western Gamers Mostly Don't Understand Japanese Culture
Japanese gamemakers are finding their art forms at the center of a rather foreign controversy over gay marriage and civil rights in the U.S.
In Japan, homosexuality was promoted as a key part of the culture, but it was also marginalized as a private behavior.  Furthermore, the nation's homosexual population never experienced the kind of religious castigation seen in the U.S., but at the same time have less financial rights than in more liberal/progressive regions of the U.S.
Japan as a society handles homosexuality fundamentally differently and in a far more sedate fashion than the overly polarized modern American sociological landscape.
Where Japan is finding itself in unfamiliar territory is when it brings its art to a Western audience.  Nintendo Comp., Ltd. (TYO:7974) found that out the hard way recently, with its upcoming 3DS game Tomodachi Life.  After "banning" gay marriage in the Japanese version of the game -- a feature that was only available via a bug -- the gaming veteran experienced a decidedly mixed reaction from its upcoming Western audience.


Western gamers nearly all misunderstood Nintendo's position.
Those who opposed gay marriage mistakenly believed Nintendo was making some sort of stand against gay marriage and praised the gaming giant.  Those who supported it condemned Nintendo, also mistakenly thinking it was making some sort of a social statement.  Even after explaining the difference between homosexuality in Japan versus homosexuality in Western society, the majority of readers on our previous piece on the topic still seemed to mistakenly believe Nintendo was making some sort of stand against gay marriage.
A fair criticism raised by a couple commenters on the previous piece is that while Japanese view the issue differently, they should know better as any company must regionalize its product to not seem peculiar or offense to foreign markets it targets.  Indeed, the treatment of homosexuality is far from the only oddity (from a Western standpoint) in Japanese pop culture, so this was definitely an avoidable faux pas on Nintendo's part.
To its credit, once Nintendo realized Western gamers' misunderstanding it apologized.  In May it released a statement, remarking:

We apologize for disappointing many people by failing to include same-sex relationships in Tomodachi Life. Unfortunately, it is not possible for us to change this game’s design, and such a significant development change can’t be accomplished with a post-ship patch. At Nintendo, dedication has always meant going beyond the games to promote a sense of community, and to share a spirit of fun and joy. We are committed to advancing our longtime company values of fun and entertainment for everyone. We pledge that if we create a next installment in the Tomodachi series, we will strive to design a game-play experience from the ground up that is more inclusive, and better represents all players.

Square Enix has been taking notes, and has been a bit savvier in wording its comments, in order to avoid such backlash.
II. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn -- Where You Can Marry a Cat Person
The roots of this week’s announcement lie in the rebirth of Final Fantasy XIV (FFXIV).
Originally launched in alpha form back in Sept. 30, 2010, Square Enix intended for FF XIV to inherit the legacy of the aging, but generally well-liked MMORPG, Final Fantasy XI.  Unfortunately FF XIV proved a rare dud, and was riddled with bugs, leading top gaming magazines to deride it as "broken".  The invite-only alpha was nearly scrapped altogether, but instead Square Enix committed a major amount of developer manpower to fixing the problem-plagued title.
The result debuted in beta form in 2012, retitled Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn.  Unlike its predecessor, this time Square Enix got it right; critics generally gave the reworked online game high marks.

A feature that was proposed to be eventually added was the ability for players characters/avatars to "marry" each other, in game.  This exclusive status would bring certain perks and new interactions.  But notably, much like Nintendo, Square did not support gay marriage at launch (much to Sepiroth's chagrin).  But Square has seen somewhat less criticism as since day one it made it clear that it was willing to consider modifying the proposed upcoming feature to allow gay marriage, including making exclusive content that appealed to its gay fans.  

It should be noted that many heterosexual fans playing characters of the opposite gender were also interested in this feature.  For example, a male playing an attractive female character might wish to "marry" his girlfriend's female character in-game.  Nonetheless, much of the debate regarded the feature devolved into a gay rights discussion.

Director Naoki Yoshida commented in a 2012 fan Q&A video session:

As for same-sex marriage, this is an extremely controversial topic that has been under discussion in the MMO world for the past few years.  First we would like to start out with opposite-sex marriage, and then consider the feedback from our players in order to make a careful decision. I can't say whether or not it will be possible at this point in time. I'd like to keep dialog open with our players as we deliberate the matter.

For Square the issue provoked internal debate, as some of its artists and programmers -- both in Japan and in the U.S. -- are gay.  Final Fantasy's lead artist -- famed anime director Yoshitaka Amano -- is unmarried and rumored to be gay.

Marriage to cat people was allowed since the launch of FFXIV:ARR, but gay marriage was originally taboo. [Image Source: Destructoid]

The issue was largely shelved during the game's release schedule.  On Aug. 27, 2013 Square Enix took the game out of beta, making it an official title available for Sony Corp.'s (TYO:6758) PlayStation 3 and Windows gaming PCs.  And most recently in April, Square Enix offered up a PS4 version for $39.99 USD with a Collector’s Edition available for $79.99 USD.  The PS4 editions feature enhanced graphics and exclusive content.
III. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn Loosens Restrictions
Pressure had since mounted given Square Enix's promise to reevaluate the issue.  As some publications noted, you could marry cat people in the game, but you still couldn't have a homosexual marriage.

FF XIV marriage
Square Enix has loosened its restrictions, allowing gay marriage in-game for the first time in its MMORPGs. [Image Source: Gamespot]

This time around, though, the feedback prompted action.  FF XIV: ARR's director announced this week that the upcoming marriage option would indeed allow gay marriage.  Comments Mr. Yoshida:

People within Eorzea will be able to pledge their eternal love and or friendship in a ceremony of eternal bonding. And this will be open to people regardless of race, creed, and gender. Two players...if they want to be together, in Eorzea, they can-through this eternal bonding ceremony.

We discussed [gay marriage] and we realized: within Eorzea, why should there be restrictions on who pledges their love or friendship to each other? And so we decided to go this way

Today Final Fantasy XIV: ARR is one of the world's most popular MMORPGs, with over 1.8 million subscribed gamers.

Soon lesbian or gay gamers (or those roleplaying gay or lesbian characters) now enjoy equal rights to cat people, humans, and other heterosexual avatars.  The bad news?  You won't be able to marry your Chocobo anytime soon (it's a bird!).

Sources: Polygon, Square Enix [2012 views]

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