Monday, June 11, 2012

The confirmation of Western and Japanese in video game stereotypes


There is truth to the statement that different cultures produce different values, rules and beliefs, and they portray them in different styles even though they are using the same medium in different cultures. This of course also applies to video games. Even though much has been already been said about the differences between video games from both hemispheres, I wanted to add my own thoughts to the conversation, comparing characteristics inherent in Japanese and Western games and their background.

I – Cultural Conception

The strongest impression Japanese games usually convey is their colorful and cheerful undertone and themes. Mainly developed for the local Japanese market, they are designed to entertain players and to cheer them up. They are seen as a retreat into a happier world free from the daily stress or restraints inherent in their daily lives. This is very much like what Disney is for America.[1]The fantasy aspect in Japanese video games plays an important role here. However there is a hard cut between reality and the imaginary world of a video game. Even though a large part of the content is inspired by the real world and deals with simple problems the player deals with everyday such as relationships or social injustices, the story or the gameplay of a Japanese video game often leaves the player with a feeling of joy they can carry over into their life. (See typical J-RPG’s such as the Final Fantasy or DragonQuest series.)

With Western Video Games the concept is different. Many popular and successful titles try to portray reality as closely as possible but often just on a much larger scale. While Japanese games often focus on individual character interactions their Western counterparts often focus on the global implications of events. Even though a large portion of Western game content could also be included in the fantasy or science fiction genres, Western games usually have a more rational basis underlying the concept. They are inspired by what is possible but can't be seen or what is feared by human nature (e.g. a 3rd World War, or an alien invasion), and make it come to life. (See the Star Craft or Call of Duty series).

I’d say the way how video games are made and what topics they cover are based on the Cartesian character of Western people. Knowledge can be derived through reason and is based on sense experience. Reality can be proven by scientific observation and experiment. Of course, even Western civilization is very religious and believes in the supernatural, but compared to the spiritual and social character of Asian people, Europeans and Americans are more analytical. Hence, the content included in a video game must be justified, even in a fantasy universe, while in Japan it is unlikely that a developer would bother with pure realism or coherence.

With regards to the content of the narrative, many Western games follow a “Black and White” concept of morality, where the Good Guy confronts the Bad Bay, a religious (particularly Christian) but definable principle. Even in the recent trend of allowing the player to chose their moral stance (i.e. Mass Effect series), it is usually a choice of these two extremes. The motivations in Japanese games often prove to be far more complex. Despite certain genres such as jump’n run etc. the traditional story based J-game addresses interpersonal relationships or social injustice in an exhilarant way not always – unlike in Western games – leading to a happy end. In other words game stories are usually more manifold in the East.

This gap can also be explained by looking at the different target groups. While most players in the US and Europe can still be found to be young male, many games in Japan are also developed for a female audience. And it’s widely agreed that women prefer lighthearted fantasy over realistic action.Moreover, in Japan many people also play games right up until old age especially for the social gaming genre or arcade games. For example it is not unusual to see an older man or woman on the subway playing on a smartphone or NDS. Since there are a wide variety of game types available any Japanese, regardless of their age or gender, can find a game that fits their tastes leading to certain developers making games for a specific target group. This is something that is rarer in the case of the Western game market.

II –Style and genre

When it comes to style the most obvious factor about Japanese video games is that the characters and artworks are designed in a colorful art style closely related to anime and manga art styles, while Western games feature more realistic graphics. The reason for this is based on the fact that many cultural aspects and daily products inside Japan are based on this specific Japanese art style.
If a Japanese developers does make an effort to create more realistic games they are usually doing this in order to expand their reach to the global market and not with the local Japanese market in mind. On the other hand the quality of Western games has always been very high, however many developers lack the ability to branch out into more unique settings and to provide deep character interactions.
Japanese art design is very distinctive with a penchant for creativity and detail. Western game makers are obsessed with realistic images for example of guns and military equipment which would probably be boring to most Japanese users. Even though “fighting” is addressed equally in both hemispheres realistic war games are only popular in the West. Violence and realistic military equipment are two things that do not fit into the pacifist culture of Japan. (Monster Hunter vs. Gears of War)
This is not only confined to the visuals but to the way how video games are structured and stories are told. J-games are not in a hurry to tell a story. They often focus on emotional reactions, instead of simple action, and in many cases non-sequitur transitions make it hard to follow for Western gamers. Even though this may take patience to fully play through, the gaming experience usually proves more gratifying in the end.

Thematically, I think J-games are capable of telling a broader variety of stories while Western games often draw on the “hero genre”, a single character or group of people saving humanity. With video games created in Japan (an ethnically monolithic country) settings and protagonists often resemble multiple ethnicities or even races (cat characters etc.). Japanese by nature are rather fascinated by anything that falls outside the norm of their own culture. However Western cultures usually have a stronger nationalistic attitude, something that can be found in different facets in their games as well. Hence, their games often revolve around the same topic: War. I would say over 50% of all Top 10 titles each year somehow glorify war, praise authority or confirm enemy stereotypes. Again this is a result of the largely male target audience.

Developers in the US do not always compete through content or innovation but rather through extending and perfecting given concepts, such as graphics with higher specs, improved game balance, real time play, player specialization or extensive interaction either through wide dialogue trees or increasing the number of interactive game objects.
But especially the later point gives W-RPGs an advantage over their Japanese counterparts which follow a rather linear gameplay and storyline. Players are given almost complete freedom in the RPG universe, and while the variety of selectable characters is limited the hero can often times be customized. (See Dragon Age)

Anyway, popular Western character design often follows a more serious and gritty tone. Deep and complex personalities are often replaced with a caricature of the main character which offers easy identification. For example characters are usually more masculine, mature and violent, the stereotypical embodiment of a hero compared to rather androgynous Japanese personalities. Indeed, Western video games are dominated by white male characters, while non-white characters are often found to play only supporting roles, NPC’s or villains. This again can be traced back to the target audience. Of course in J-titles Japanese often play the main role as well, however they are often equally mixed with characters from various origins.

Moreover, style differences can also be found when looking at the pace of how players progress in Japanese RPGs especially since the pace of the story is usually much slower and deliberate, with less action when compared to American video games. On the other hand the pace of certain shoot’em up games which have a strong niche community in Japan sometimes require supernatural reflexes and speed to play. Those overwhelming hardcore fast-paced action games are also known as “bullet hell” (danmaku) shooters.  There is also a special sub-genre called the “cute 'em up” which feature brightly colored graphics with surreal settings and enemies, as well as including sexualized female characters and innuendos, or the “run and gun” sub-genre, which are side scrolling games where the character fights and jumps on foot using special weapons. One of the most well known games of the shoot’em up genre would probably be Ikaruga and there are very few similar games to be found in the US or Europe.
When it comes to extreme action the only genre that can compete with these types of Japanese games is the first person shooter genre. The most popular series is of course the Call of Duty series which never found prominence in the Japanese market. There are a multitude of reasons why but I’d say it breaks down to three points:
1.      Japan does not have any history in playing and developing FPS or TPS, and these games are not really marketed to appeal to Japanese gamers.
2.      For Japanese the gameplay feels rather repetitive and linear, and it does not appeal to players who want aspects in their games such as story-telling or drama.
3.      Controls and gameplay are too difficult for Japanese players to handle and the continuous change in viewpoints while playing FPS may make Japanese players feel confused and nauseous.
Conversely, these three points probably also apply to Western players when it comes to shoot-em up titles.
However there is one genre that has traditionally been in Japanese hands which has seen a revival in the West: Fighting Games. Except for Mortal Kombat the US does not have any tradition in developing this genre of game, nor has the genre been constantly popular. At some point in the past too many similar fighting games were released one after the other and the genre simply died in popularity. However, lately the popularity of these titles has risen once again. And even the West has started to develop games in an area usually dominated by Japanese as the example of indie developer Reverge Labsand their recently released game Skullgirlsshows.


The example from above also shows another trend, the difference evidenced here usually only applies to top-sellingmainsteam games. However, on both sides many smaller developers (sometimes even bigger publishers) are attempting to bridge the gaps. Skullgirls for example is a fully US-developed game but draws on manga character design, while Sega’s Japanese developed title Binary Domain tries to mix advantages from both parts of the world, the tactical shooter genre with a deeper and more extensive storyline than is usually present in Western shooting games.
I am excited to see what genre mix-upswe can expect in the future.

[1]So it is not surprising that Disney is very popular in Japan.