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criticizing my interests


Last semester, I had to do an assignment in school where I took a cultural studies angle to critically analyze a video game. The video game I chose, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore, a JRPG* developed by Atlus and available on the Wii U and Nintendo Switch. It was one that was recommended to me by a friend and that I enjoyed playing. However, as I was doing some research on it and writing about it, it came to my attention that, while fun, it was a game with massive flaws especially regarding its understanding of gender. I am not going to unpack my findings and analysis here, but the whole process of doing that assignment had me thinking about engaging with things critically.

* JRPG = Japanese Role-Playing Game

先学期のこと。学校の課題で、カルチュラル・スタティーズの観点から、ビデオゲームを批判的に分析することになった。私が選んだビデオゲームは、Atlusが開発した日本のRPGで、Wii UやNintendo Switch用の『幻影異聞録 FE Encore』。友達に勧められてやってみたところ、とても楽しかった。ただ、ゲームについて調べたり、実際にレポートを書いているうちに、このゲームは面白い反面、特にジェンダーの面で、大きな欠点を抱えているということに私は気が付いた。ここで私の考察を詳しく説明はしないけれど、今回の課題を通して、自分の周りの物事についてより深く分析する姿勢について考えさせられた。

As a cultural studies student, I think that it is important to critically engage with the media we consume. There are ways that one can do this casually through discussions with friends or other conversational forms of discourse, semi-formally through things like blogs or magazines, or formally through professional and academic institutions. I find this process important not only because it is interesting and revelatory of new information but also because critical engagement allows us to understand what we are letting affect our ways of being. While it’s true that we are not sponges that mindlessly soak up information, we are also not impermeable concrete walls that keep anything and everything out. There are ways that the media that we consume, whether they be books, films, television series, comics, music, games, or anything else, can affect us through the explicit and implicit ideas found in them. This is something that I wholeheartedly believe is important which is why I choose to engage with these things in an academic setting. However, I wonder sometimes if I hold the media that I consume in my personal time to that same standard.



During the time that I played the game that I mentioned earlier, I thought that there might be some strange elements, but I didn’t think about them for a long time. Rather, these thoughts were passing and as I played the game further, I did not think about them very much at all – just accepting them as part of the world of the game even if they were things that I personally thought were odd. Other elements, I did not notice at all until I looked at it for this assignment. For example, in the game, many of the female characters wear extremely tight clothing to the point that it is noticeably ill-fitting in order to emphasize their breasts. I did not notice this design choice at all while playing the game.


It is strange to think that the part of me that engages in critical thinking may have been turned off while playing the game or that I was not paying attention to these things that in another situation, I would have immediately noticed. It is even stranger that, in reflection of other media forms that I consume, I do not ignore these things at all. When reading books, watching movies and television shows, and even while listening to music, I find that I am constantly attuned to these kinds of issues. I reflect on issues of gender, sexuality, race, and morality while engaged in these types of activities. So why was it that while playing this video game, it was different?


In some senses, I think that it could be because for the most part, I’m not used to thinking of games in that way. Thinking critically about media is not something that comes automatically or inherently – rather, because of the way that I practiced doing this as a literature student with books then later movies and television, I was able to engage in this way in my free time as well. But I’ve only taken two classes where we discuss video games so perhaps the lack of practice that I have with looking at games in this way has led me to be less stringent in thinking critically with them.


But mostly, I think it’s because, in most forms of media, we are consuming them from an outside point of view. We watch movies and read books knowing that we are an inactive person in someone else’s story. In music too, we are never under the impression that the song is being performed by us and the lyrics are words that are representative of ourselves. But in games, we are forced to take on the identities of the characters. In this way, we might become more sympathetic to things that they do that otherwise we might find morally reprehensible, or we might overlook things because they don’t affect us within the space of the game. Simply put, when we enter the world of the game, our perspectives may adapt to the norms or expectations of that world.


That is part of what makes games so powerful – we are able to experience things as if they were our own experiences. I have played video games where I cried when another character died and jumped up in excitement when I was able to do a difficult level or mission. There is a sense of engagement through interactivity that other media forms are not capable of, for the most part. But as much as this may be one of the best parts of video games, it may also be very dangerous. I was able to recognize firsthand that my critical thinking skills were dulled in order for me to settle into the immersive world of the game that I played. Things that normally would have bothered me or caused me to be critical like the blatant oversexualization of the female characters were things that I easily accepted as part of the reality of the game world and thus paid no attention to. Though I don’t play many games similar to Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore, if I did and was constantly exposed to this same oversexualization, it might become something that is normalized in my mind. Without critical thinking, perhaps this normalization would result in some misunderstandings about gender and femininity.

それがゲームの持つ力の一つであり、あたかも自分の経験のように体験することができるのだ。私はゲームの中で、他のキャラクターが死んでしまったときに泣いてしまったこともあるし、難しいレベルやミッションをコンプリート出来たときに飛び跳ねて喜んだこともある。ゲームには、他のメディアにはないレベルでインタラクティブに関わることができる。でも、これはビデオゲームの醍醐味であると同時に、とても危険な部分でもある。没入感のあるゲームの世界に入り込むために、自分のクリティカル・シンキングが鈍っていることを身をもって実感した。その結果、いつもなら気になったり批判的になるようなこと、例えば女性キャラクターの露骨な性描写など、ゲームの中の現実の一部として受け入れてしまい、気にならなくなってしまった。私は『幻影異聞録 FE Encore』のようなゲームをよくプレイするわけではないけど、仮によくプレイしていて、同じような過剰な性描写に常にさらされていたら、私の中で常態化してしまうかもしれない。批判的な考え方がなければ、常態化に負けてしまい、ジェンダーや女性性について偏った考えを生むことになりかねない。

Of course, my reflections on my own oversights while playing games have me thinking about what other people might miss when they are engaging with mass media. Again, I don’t think there is a direct correlation like many sensationalized pieces on video games might suggest, but I think that maybe there is a possibility that in our gameplay practices, we begin to see the world in different ways. I wonder what kind of repercussions games might have on gamers’ understandings of violence, crime, and gender relations.


But more importantly to myself, I have begun to think about my own role in perpetuating mindsets, worldviews, and understandings that I don’t agree with. While I’m certainly not guilty of making the game or the worldview within it, I do wonder if I am to an extent guilty of allowing these mindsets to spread and persist. In playing a game that is sexist, I’m engaging in it and with it. Even if I’m able to think critically about it, I still bought the game with my money, discuss it with friends, and more. I haven’t been able to come up with an answer. Is the right thing to do to participate in a more open and public discussion of these sexist elements? Or is it better to not engage with the game at all? What do you think?


Images by Caitlyn

Japanese Translated by Mia, Hikari and Kiara

Edited by Eli and Hikari

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