Where Are the Gaming Cultures?

Last month Hideo Kojima added another peculiar talking point to the whole “fall of Japanese gaming” discussion, and it plays into something I’ve found pretty peculiar about the industry as a whole. I didn’t want to get into this subject until I had more information on it, but it’s been nagging me for a while.

Kojima criticized Japanese developers for not having enough of a global outlook when it comes to making and marketing their games. On some level he’s right – ever since western developers started offering the console games that Americans want, it seems like Japan at large has given up on that audience and decided to just make games for Japan. Despite that being a legitimate problem with shrinking markets and all, I honestly think that quality about Japan is something that needs to be preserved.

One of the things that’s been getting to me about video games is how globalized the industry seems to be in terms of the subject matter and stories that games cover. They all seem to be quite similar across several continents, unlike most other media.

What I’m talking about is, every form of storytelling media seems to have an entirely different culture or ecosystem for each language that produces it. With movies you have Hollywood, Japanese cinema, French films, Bollywood, and so-on, and they all have their distinct qualities pertaining to each one’s home culture. Even with comic books you have American comics, Japanese Manga, Korean Manwha, Chinese Manhua, Franco-Belgian comics, Argentine Historietas, etc, each one primarily made for the people of its own country. Music is probably the most defined by home culture and language. You don’t see this much at all with video games.

Video games are made all over the world, but console gaming is becoming quite homogenous, and even much of the variety doesn’t seem to have much basis in languages or culture. Can most of the people buying Grand Theft Auto tell that the games are British? Can the people buying Battlefield 3 tell that the game was made in Sweden, or that Crysis 2 is German, or that Assassin’s Creed is a French-Canadian production (along with all the recent Tom Clancy games)? Why did Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation assume Killzone 3 is an American game when it is in fact Dutch?

I don’t think so. The only well-known example of a unique “style” of game design based on a culture is the Japanese game industry. It’s why when people say “western games” they really mean “games not made in Japan”. Why has the rest of the world seemingly clumped together into one big “global Hollywood”?

If you really look at it, it’s sort of just the big budget games that are all the same, no matter where they’re made. Hollywood has to make its movies to be marketable to worldwide audiences, and the big game companies like EA, Ubisoft, and Activision have to do the same. The difference is that the big game companies are based all over the planet and own studios all over the planet instead of one region of one country. You probably won’t any time soon see Ubisoft making a game for French people or DICE making a game for Swedish people. Some other region-specific gaming cultures exist, but from what I understand they seem to be far more under-the-radar than foreign cinema or music.

Of course the rise of Central and Eastern Europe has been well-noticed in PC gaming, with interesting products that just wouldn’t come out of an EA or an Activision. I’ve also relatively recently become privy to the world of Chinese RPGs – which mostly seem to resemble Japanese RPGs but on the PC and heavily based on Chinese folk history. People also tell me that board games, and by extension strategy games, are a big deal in Germany – from which you get things like the Anno series.

Most peculiar to me of all is the phenomenon of sandbox games, which I’m told is a uniquely British thing. The only example of this I’ve seen though is the game that popularized it all – GTA. If that’s all true, then it’s a prime example of how a design influence from one country can spread all over the planet, which might explain the relative cultural homogeny of the video game industry.

But can Japan, or should Japan, even start trying to evoke what the rest of the world is doing in terms of game design? There are good and bad examples of it happening already, but is a global audience something Japanese games as a whole should aspire to? How many straight-up Japanese films have been big successes in the US or around the world? I can think of maybe the Studio Ghibli movies and Pokémon – a Nintendo property.

Sure Nintendo, Square Enix, and Capcom can get in on the global market, but I think a large section of that region should stay insular to an extent. The Japanese game industry versus the rest of the world right now is kinda like Japanese cinema going up against Hollywood – they just don’t have the budgets to compete. More importantly, Japanese media tends to be made for Japanese people, and secondarily those who are specifically interested in Japanese media. On some level I think Japanese games should stay that way.

If these other “styles” of game design do exist that are unique to specific cultures and languages all over the world, I’d really like someone to point them out to me. If they don’t exist, then, well, it’s great that you have blockbuster games coming from all over the world, but this is another sign that the entire industry can’t just be high-risk/reward productions.

BULLETS:

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