On October 13, the world threw one big party when 33 Chilean miners had been hoisted to safety after spending 70 days entombed in a rock cavern. It was an uplifting event, so to speak, and the human race rarely gets such a chance to celebrate such favorable fruits of hope, effort, and compassion.
Celebratory game-related imagery was not in short supply. One particularly popular piece that’s still making its rounds on the Internet is a screen capture of Mario rescuing the denziens of the Mushroom Kingdom from an underground cavern using a beanstalk. Even Namco Bandai got a little drunk on off the fun, and composed its own image for the occasion: a picture of Mr. Driller as part of the Chilean flag, running below the Spanish words “Bienvenido de nuevo!” (“Welcome Back!”) Mr. Driller, the son of arcade hero Dig-Dug, stars in a series of puzzle games wherein he destroys blocks with, well, a drill. So the co-relation between the Mister and the Chilean miners is obvious.
A day or two later, Namco Bandai pulled the image from its Twitter feed and tweeted an apology, calling it “inexcusable.”
Was the image offensive? Offhand, no. But was it ultimately in bad taste? Well, yeah, a little.
Did Namco Bandai mean any harm? Nah. No doubt its staff is happy over the rescue, and someone in the office thought, “Hey, you know what would be cute?”
Fans can get away with such tributes because our names (and bank accounts) aren’t attached to the likes of Mario, Sonic, or Master Chief. Fans are also, unfortunately, almost expected to exhibit a certain amount of bad taste. But if a game company wants to use a licensed character to illustrate its happiness over a rescue, it has to keep two things in mind.
One: Mr. Driller is a marketable character. That’s not to say Namco Bandai wanted to seize the moment to sell games, but the implication is always there when a familiar mascot arrives on scene. Imagine if Disney assembled a congratulatory image of Mickey Mouse standing against the Magic Kingdom. He’s not telling the rescued miners to come to Disneyland; Mickey and the Magic Kingdom are merely two of the company’s most recognizable symbols. But we’d still roll our eyes, and rightfully so.
The second and most important reason why the Mr. Driller picture was inappropriate has to do with the big picture. Even though this particular miners’ tale ended well, many, many more don’t. Mining is life in many parts of the world, particularly in developing countries, where safety precautions aren’t always at the forefront of the companies’ minds. In fact, days after the happy rescue in Chile, a blast at a Chinese mine killed 25 miners and trapped 11 more. The adorable Mr. Driller can’t put a happy spin on any aspect of the mining industry, which has long been one of the most dangerous professions in the world. That’s without even taking into account the thousands of children in developing countries who are made to mine for a pittance, or are worked as slaves.
Sorry to kill your buzz, Namco Bandai. We know you meant well, and we’re not mad. But maybe next time a nice letter from the company’s President and staff will suffice.