This East vs. West Divide Has to Stop
Last week saw a big kerfuffle ensue after games blog Kotaku posted a horribly misguided article by Richard Eisenbeis about Hideki Kamiya, the renowned director/writer of Capcom titles like Okami, Devil May Cry and Bayonetta, and how Kamiya’s apathy toward PC gaming reflected on the Japanese videogame industry.
I’m not going to argue with those who took offense. The vitriolic reaction that Eisenbeis’ write-up incited is not a storm in a teacup — the article gives off the kind of stink that always comes from someone drawing grand conclusions on other cultures through single anecdotes (“all Americans are rude because a guy with a New York license plate cut me off”) and should be criticized. But why did this one piece strike such a chord when so many other controversial issues pass by without notice?
Videogame fans, critics and journalists seem to view the medium in a Cold War-style binary. On one side there is America and, on the other, Japan. Popular thought suggests that the West develops games of a certain style, the East of another and that the two will never meet anywhere near a common design sensibility. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary — the cultural back and forth of the role-playing game, itself an ever-evolving design dialogue between Western and Eastern developers, shows just how intertwined the industry’s creators are — this arbitrary division has continued to exist for years.
Before Eisenbeis’ article on Japanese PC gaming, though, it had been awhile since anyone so clearly illustrated the casual xenophobia that characterizes the Eastern/Western videogame divide. Fez developer Phil Fish’ remark that “Japanese games suck” garnered ire based on presumed racism — probably because people wanted a reason to dislike the guy in the first place — rather than sparking any kind of actual discussion. Eisenbeis’ article, though, in speaking to the prevailing notion that the East is incredibly different from the West reveals something much more problematic than a single designer’s lack of love for Japanese games. The fact that an industry mainstay like Kotaku published the piece, likely without a second thought, demonstrates that we’ve internalized the idea that Japan is in an inexplicable “Other” in game design.
Let’s stop caring so much about a given developer’s nationality and talk, instead, about schools of videogame design.This attitude is reflected in so many areas of videogame writing, news and fandom that we even have a genre named after another nation — the Japanese RPG or JRPG — in order to differentiate a style of gameplay from its Western counterpart, the WRPG. People talk about a title like Dragon’s Dogma as a JRPG take on WRPGs as if this is somehow supposed to make sense as a classification tool. Sure, there are differences in how longstanding Japanese developers approach game design when compared to equally storied Western studios, but these are traditions and cultural trappings rather than a completely national distinction. When we step outside of the East vs. West binary we’re able to discuss the influence of creative visionaries like Shigeru Miyamoto, Warren Spector, Hironobu Sakaguchi, Peter Molyneux, Shinji Mikami or Jordan Mechner rather than where the country they and their disciples live.
Let’s stop caring so much about a given developer’s nationality and talk, instead, about schools of videogame design — about what works and what doesn’t, who spearheaded new ways to make games and who fell flat attempting the same. Examining this area (and ignoring nationality entirely) allows game players, critics and developers alike to view the medium as a global endeavour rather than a culturally dictated one.
The only thing that the East vs. West divide accomplishes is drawing an arbitrary line in the sand and stopping the videogame medium from viewing and developing itself as a united whole.
The article referenced above, first called The Guy Who Made Bayonetta Is Clueless about Valve and PC Gaming and later revised to The Guy Who Made Bayonetta Is Not Interested In Valve and PC Gaming. That’s Common In Japan can be found here: http://bit.ly/10mHzZc