Do something new. Something nobody has done before you, or at the very least find a different spin on an old topic. That was the recommendation when we were tasked with starting our dissertation projects at university. Some chose social issues in Japan, some took on international politics, others dove into representation in cinema (lucky devils). Many students shared similar topics, sometimes even similar slants. the lecturers desperately tried to dissuade students from certain areas in order to keep the number of dissertations as varied as possible, leaving many options barred. But something nobody was doing, was a project on Japanese video games. More specifically, representation of gender identity and equality.
Before your prejudices urge you to disregard the rest of this (I know you’re judging me. I can feel the heat of your prejudice seeping out from my computer screen), consider why any research at all should be done. Well first and foremost, it’s just fun. There I said it; get it out your system now. But more importantly, the media we consume influences our perceptions and behaviours in society, or at the very least reflects it. In this way, it is possible to analyse views on gender in Japan through their media, as well as how they wish things to be seen. Next, the scope of video game influence is far more vast than most would care to know; there are more video game sales than DVDs. Video games have permeated through most levels of society, whether its children on their ds handhelds, teenagers vegetating in front of their xbox, thirty-somethings upgrading their pc to run the next best game, or commuters on the train who can’t explain why they just have to beat their candy-crush score on their iPhones. Its impact goes far beyond the bubble of nerds hiding in their bedrooms. As for gender itself, most of us have one, and most of us feel as though it’s necessary to bring it up in conversation when it comes to changing rooms, bathrooms, romance, civil liberties, safety and just about everything else. The perception of gender is the cause of many social injustices, and Japan specifically is particularly famous for this (go count your female managers and politicians. If you get onto the fingers of your second hand, you’re doing well!). So perhaps, in some crazy reality where people actually listen to criticism like this and take it onboard, issues can be addressed more directly and then begin to change (I know, I’m laughing too).
Now I’m sure you don’t have time to read my dissertation itself (but I’ll love you forever if you do), so I’ll give you the brief depressing footnotes a they come up. I started my research into the topic while in Yokohama and met some scepticism in my endeavours. This included me going to the university library and asking for help looking for a specific section. Do you have any area on the video game industry? Confused and annoyed looks were given back. Ok, how about on gender identity? More confused looks. Gender equality? Getting there. Feminism? There we go, the look of comprehension, and a moment later I’m standing in front of lots of books on Japanese women in history. Yes this is good, but I want this kind of thing, but with media. And… back to square one. Some self searching later, I found a single book. Just one. (To be fair, there are like 6 published academic books on the subject in the world so 1 isn’t too bad).
Unfortunately however, it wasn’t in my field. Thanks to uninformed, ignorant conservatives (and the liberal whip strikes, wa-pisch!), the majority of research into video games revolves around violence. After lots of teenagers went into school to gun down their classmates (remember American kids, when you go to school, don’t forget your packed lunch and kevlar vests), it was suggested that violent games had influenced them (in the same way it’s obviously natural to feel the need to set yourself on fire after seeing a house burn down). The short of it is there isn’t any evidence to support this idea, but this hasn’t protected games from censorship. Japan is especially sensitive to violence in games (much to the surprise of the rest of the world), and have lots of pacifist themes. The importance on pacifism is interesting though, when you look at Japanese characters. It’s common to anime and manga too, even in their dramas. Men are portrayed as gentle and socially awkward whereas their female counterparts are prone to violence. It’s with worrying frequency you see female characters slap, kick and punch the men around them, even if its intended as comedy. Why is it that so many monsters in Japanese games have feminine qualities? Whether they’ve got breasts, long legs or eyelashes, or even just the higher toned voice. Why is it that so many female characters have such little self control when it comes to anger? Could it be that, Japanese women are so inherently more violent compared to Japanese men?
I decided to bring this up to a few Japanese people in interviews while in Yokohama. I received many strange looks for that theory. What a bizarre thing to ever suggest.
For research purposes (does it sound less convincing the more I say it? Surely not), I visited a games expo in Tokyo to see how everything was being marketed. Lots of cosplayers, lots of big spiky, hair, and lots of dramatic expressions. All the heroes from these games (mostly male by the way) had something in common; they were all largely feminine. The dreamy eyes, the lace in the clothes, the extraordinary amount of time spent on their hair, even in some of their voices (I’m looking at you, Seymour from Final Fantasy 10). I can’t believe I’m saying this but, what happened to the testosterone macho men? There’s one or two survivors left around, but they’re largely absent in games these days. And tv and movies for that matter. They’ve been usurped by idols. (I wonder if 60 years of pacifism has at all affected Japanese testosterone levels…). But maybe this isn’t so terrible. Maybe this is a sign of enlightenment; that male characters don’t have to be strong to be heroic, don’t need to be so concerned with finding a woman to jump into bed with (why, when there’s so many gorgeous men around instead?). In reality Japanese men are hardly open with their feelings, or just about anything for that matter, but perhaps that’s why these characters are admired so much. Perhaps masculinity is far more complex than simple beefcakes would have us believe.
Are female characters as equally free in their identity in games? Let’s ask the cosplayers at the expo! Let’s see, five women in skimpy outfits crying out in cute voices. Ok, now let’s find the opposite end of the spectrum. Oh look more skimpy outfits. And some more. And a few more. This one’s different; she has a stick. Do you use this stick to fight with, I ask her. No, she says, it’s to cast magic. Oh great, magic. So you’re a kind of witch, someone who helps fight? No no, she says. I heal people. In future, I’ll change my opening line to “I’m looking for a badass. Does that label mean anything here?”. Contrary to what one woman told me, which was men, including myself, are only interested in how girls look (cute or sexy. Take your pick), there was something else on top. The few female characters that were significantly different, that had any masculine qualities at all or even just a damn backbone, were mostly (but not all, thank God), antagonists. Interestingly, female characters that break the wife/damsel in distress/romantic interest/meek and mild distraction archetypes, are almost entirely antagonists. Very much how in Japanese mythology all the female monsters are women who broke away from female roles. Surprise surprise.
I went further still, and found Hideo Kojima, the director of the Metal Gear franchise (this was back when Konami hadn’t dropped him like a hat yet). Hideo Kojima’s games are hugely popular, and have in the past dominated the charts in the west as well as at home. But his games have suffered tremendous criticism for his sexualisation of women, so as a video game researcher (it’s a thing, damn it), I felt it my duty to ask him about it. And get an autograph. I love those games.
He sat in this massive armchair in a local bookstore, just outside of Konami headquarters in Roppongi, beside a life-size statue of his lead hero from his games, Snake. I waited over an hour in line to get in front of him, preparing my question while he signed his name. Except when I got there, I was immediately shushed the moment I opened my mouth and hurried away before I could ask anything (they knew you see. They knew I was going to bring up the word objectification). But the trip wasn’t in vain. A journalist in the crowd asked about the women in his games and he spelled it out very clearly. They want sexy girls in games, because they like them that way. And because they liked setting the trend for real women to cosplay as those characters. A single man in a Poncho was the only one fuming while everyone else smiled understandingly. But it’s ok. I got to see him try miserably to stuff a life-size statue into a taxi on his way home.
So I played more games for research (maybe if I say it enough times…), and tightened my focus. Spent my evenings writing up notes, and references for my dissertation. I collected all manner of adverts, memorabilia, academic books and essays. So on my return to Sheffield University, I was fully prepared to hit the floor running. I was given a Japanese lecturer to assist me and check my progress, so I strode into his office, head held high, and arms full of work to show off. Surely I was ahead of the curve, with a head-start like this.
“So what’s your dissertation on?” he asked me.
“The Japanese video game industry. Representation of gender and identity” I explained. He frowned at me from behind his glasses.
“Video games…like on phones?” he said nervously
“Phones, computers, handhelds and consoles”. He nodded slowly with blank eyes.
“And uh, gender?”
“Yes. So, how characters and plots show what kind of people are being exposed to audiences. How this reflects Japanese society or even how it impacts it”.
“So…men and women?”
“And trans too, in a small degree” I confirmed. He smiled apologetically and chuckled.
“Well, I uh. I don’t know anything whatsoever about video games. I didn’t know it could be academic”.
Here it comes.
“And uh. I don’t know anything about gender studies either. Is it like, issues for Japanese women?” he laughed.
Good God, my paper is doomed.
My final objective, aside from closing in on more academic essays in the field and praying that whoever graded my paper was a little more enlightened, was to play the games I was analysing (I could say it. You know what I want to say. It’s fully justified). There was one small hiccup however when I returned to Sheffield. I brought with me in tow, a Japanese playstation console. I can’t play Japanese games on western-intended console models, as its designed so that you can’t play them (compatibility laws. Riveting stuff). I did unfortunately in my brilliance forget one small thing when I came up with the solution of bringing the console with me. I plugged it all in, switched on the power and heard something inside the machine…explode. Mains voltage in Japan is a little lower than in the U.K it seems.
I needed a place to write everything up, cumulate all my notes and analysis into the paper. Has to be somewhere quiet, free from distraction. So I went to the bat-cave (the cinema projection room). Sound proofed, with a lock on the door and a nice big desk. You couldn’t tell if it was day or night in there; it was perfect. I sincerely hope there are more researchers of this kind in the world someday (see, it’s starting to sound more natural now, isn’t it), when video games come out of their infancy and in academic eyes, join literature and film as another medium for story telling and art (the same way film did once upon a time). It will be a time when researchers will not be compelled to study in their bat-caves away from judgemental eyes. Maybe then, we’ll start to see something very special be produced. Or at least everybody will stop giving me all these suspicious, judging looks.