Generic Video Game History between America and Japan

Video game history began much like any other medium with experimentation. As early pioneers of the video game craft began to utilize technology in a wide variety of ways their passions and fantasies came to life as they laid the groundwork for games to come. Today, there are hundreds of video games made for just one platform. Each video game has a story to tell whether the game actually features a narrative or not. The people behind the game, the culture behind those people, and the history that shaped their very lives often can all be found within the video game, but what this paper aims to examine is how the history behind a nation can shape the very ideas that go into a video game, how people play video games in different nations and how even the culture of a country can shape what kinds of games people play. This research investigates the two largest video game producers and consumers in the world: the United States of America and Japan. The relationship between America and Japan along with their individual histories has a role to play in the gaming habits of the public at large, what games are popular and more importantly why they are popular. Whether it be Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or Final Fantasy XIII. Every game has a story and every game has a whole history and culture behind it.

The history of the video games market as we know it today began with the launch of the third generation system the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), also known as the Famicom in Japan. The NES was the first video game home console to find success after the Video Game Market Crash of 1983 which was an event caused by video game companies flooding the market with poorly made video games and consoles. NES was developed by Japanese toy company Nintendo. In the newly emerging video game market completely different marketing strategies were employed in both the west and east to ensure the success of the fledgling system. In America the NES was marketed as an entertainment system, it shipped with compatible toys such as R.O.B. a toy robot that could interact with certain NES software. The success of the NES opened the market for other prominent console developers including Sega, Sony and most recently Microsoft. This research primarily looks at ongoing trends in the video game market, what types of games are popular, what makes them popular, and how the popularity of some franchises can be explained on a cultural level. To establish familiarity the respective cultures of both America and Japan I will discuss the founding of both nations, the elements of religion that make Japan and America distinct, and the philosophies that define each nation on a core level.

The United States of America was founded in 1776 out of the Revolutionary War, the conflict also known as the war of independence. It is well known in American culture and its leading figures such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine are revered in American art and writing. The conflict gave rise to America as a country of expansion and progress, America has long flourished on the ideas of individualism, personal achievement and the idea that the self defines a person. America has also venerated the citizen soldier, the man who rises up to defend the nation. Religion in America began with various sects of the Catholic and Protestant churches, and while they are extremely dominant today religion in America also encompasses numerous other religions due to America’s nature as a cultural melting pot.

On the other hand, Japan has origins back to 14,000 BC. Japan has an extensive ancient history spanning many periods of development as new rulers came into power and new elements of the Japanese civilization were created. Additionally, Japan has a deeply rich mythology of gods and goddesses as well as an extensive history of Shinto and Buddhist traditions. While I have barely scratched the surface of the culture of both America and Japan, the cultural elements that make these two nations unique will come into play with how they affect video games.

In the last ten years the video game industry has seen far-reaching changes, with the rise of Microsoft’s Xbox console, the American game market has drastically shifted. The Japanese market has also changed. The former Japanese dominance of video game software and hardware production in the home console market abruptly ended, marking a great shift in what games are popular, and that shift has revealed some elements of American and Japanese game culture and what is popular in both nations is directly related to the nation’s culture.

One of the most prominent video game genres in America today is the first person shooter or FPS. The first person shooter is an embodiment of American design via culture. The history of American began in war, and the gun is a very prominent element in American culture. The second amendment of the United States constitution is the right to bear arms. American culture reveres soldiers and the ability of one to empower himself with arms and fight even as a citizen soldier. The first person shooter originated in early first person perspective games and was finally truly established with Wolfenstein 3D, a game created by an American company id Software. The genre has since evolved with major titles such as Doom, Quake, Half-Life, Half-Life 2, Halo, and Call of Duty. All of the major titles listed were developed in America. While Japanese first person shooters do exist, they are nowhere near as prominent in America or Japan. The first person shooter embodies an element of American culture that is distinctly American. In a first person shooter you, in essence, become the character in the game. You see from their perspective and you directly control their actions in real time. The genre itself feels like a statement of America. The gameplay itself even represents American ideals. Games generally focus on a single her o fighting hordes of enemies, giving the power to the self, not to the group. First person shooters place you in direct control as a leader, a lone warrior, generally a singular entity against impossible odds. Even first person shooters that focus on teamwork such as Team Fortress 2 still have a community of players that seek to play the game as a solitary fighter. This is largely due to the culture of America itself. Players of FPS games from America typically play these games in part to live out the legendary exploits of soldiers in famous wars or to experience the thrills of a modern conflict. Other FPS games transport players to other worlds, dystopian landscapes in need of a hero, or far away planets where humanity faces an alien threat. These settings combined with the American ideas of the citizen hero, the empowerment of the gun, the individual desire to triumph are blended together in one package-the first person shooter.

Contrast this to another popular genre in Japan, the Hunting Game. While first person shooters focus on the individual, the lone hero in a Japanese style hunting game is weak, vulnerable. The hunting game has its origins in massively multiplayer online roleplaying games, a genre that is popular across the world; MMORPGs are large scale roleplaying games that bring players across countries together. The Hunting Game became extremely popular in Japan starting with Monster Hunter on the Playstation 2, expanding to games like God Eater, Toukaiden, and Soul Sacrifice. Monster Hunter, however, remains the most culturally relevant. . Monster Hunter features a protagonist that can be customized by the player, and unlike many Japanese games story is not important in this game. Monster Hunter features MMORPG like elements such as resource gathering, item crafting, grinding for materials but it lacks traditional RPG elements such as experience points and player level. Instead, in order to become stronger, one must gather parts of large monsters and craft them into stronger weapons and armor. However, the monsters players must hunt are much more powerful than the player, and fighting them alone is extremely difficult. The game is purposefully designed to make the player feel weaker alone, however players can join together to hunt monsters and with careful coordination the most difficult of monsters can be easily dispatched. Monster Hunter above all else encourages teamwork. Working alone will only get you so far in Monster Hunter. In order to experience everything the game has to offer, players must work together efficiently. Monster Hunter in two ways embodies elements of Japanese culture in its design; on one hand it delivers the grand sense of scale of fighting enormous ancient creatures. Japanese culture has a fascination with gigantic beasts sometimes called Kaiju which is Japanese for “Strange Monster” which includes the famous Godzilla and other monsters similar to it. Monster Hunter delivers that in full force. This likely stems from ancient Japanese mythology which features a menagerie of great beasts and demons. On another level, Monster Hunter directly includes the elements of collectivism in Japanese culture. Japan values the whole over the self, units of family, friends, school, and work are valued above all else. This is directly contrasted with the glorified image of the self in American culture. Hunting games are distinctly Japanese whereas the aforementioned first person shooters are distinctly American. This leads to some difficulties in bringing these types of games outside of the main country of origin. In 2010 when Monster Hunter Tri was released in the United States the game solid a respectable 580,000 copies which would be considered a respectable number for a Japanese RPG especially one in the Hunting Game genre, however, by comparison in Japan, the game sold over 1 million copies which is a large number considering the relative populations of America and Japan. Furthermore later versions of Monster Hunter Tri on the Nintendo 3DS would sell almost 2 million units in Japan alone the Japanese sales of Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate on 3DS would account for over 85% of total sales. Compare this to the most popular first person shooter released that very year in America. Call of Duty: Black Ops sold over 25 million units worldwide and over 16 million of those sales were in America. This is in part due to the very large American install base on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 where over 9 million units of Black Ops would be sold, contrasted to Japanese sales of Black Ops which look much more similar to US sales of Monster Hunter Tri. Only 500,000 units of Call of Duty: Black Ops would be sold in Japan and a vast majority of these would be on Sony’s Playstation 3, a Japanese console. While this may seem like comparing apples to oranges this data shows a distinct difference in audience in American and Japanese culture. Call of Duty: Black Ops is distinctly American in every sense of narrative and design, thus this game has become one of the bestselling video games of all time in America. There is a huge audience for such a game in America due to the very nature of American culture. This is why Monster Hunter is relegated to nothing more than a niche game in the west while in Japan it takes the nation by storm. The recent release of Monster Hunter 4 in Japan will likely be compared to the upcoming release of Call of Duty: Ghosts in America in terms of scale and total units sold.

In the world of video games there are generally considered to be two distinct types of Roleplaying Games, and unlike any other genre term they’re distinct by region, Western Roleplaying Games or WRPGs and Japanese Roleplaying Games or JRPGs. This is a result of the Roleplaying genre developing in each country independently of each other simultaneously which is distinctly different from say First Person Shooters or Hunting Games. Roleplaying games in Japan gained a larger following in both the west and the east compared to early western RPGs. In the third generation of gaming a few prominent RPG franchises in Japan such as Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior (also known as Dragon Quest outside of Japan) and Megami Tensei would establish themselves. Particularly Squaresoft’s Final Fantasy would position itself as genre leader for many years with several main installments being very successful in other countries. Games such as Final Fantasy III, Final Fantasy VIII, and Final Fantasy X would be extremely popular and sold millions of copies outside of Japan. Notably Final Fantasy X on the Playstation 2 could be considered one of the most successful Japanese RPGs in the west. While it sold well over 6 million units worldwide, the majority of those sales actually came from the American market. Japanese RPGs gained such great success in their golden age due to the medium’s unique ability to tell stories. In early gaming history many game genres had a difficult time telling compelling, interesting stories and thus players who wished to experience a great story would turn to roleplaying games. Japanese RPGs are mainly marked by a few recognizable traits. One of the most common is menu based, and turn by turn combat where players and enemies trade blows until one side is defeated. While JRPGs sometimes feature real-time combat very few WRPGs use the turn by turn systems the Japanese seem to enjoy. JRPGs are rooted in the storytelling traditions of Japan, with Japan’s long history as well as an extensive mythology of gods and monsters. The Roleplaying Game was a natural avenue to explore the same storytelling in video games. For example the Shin Megami Tensei series of video games combines not only traditional Japanese mythology and religion but blends it with western religion and Hindu mythology as well as European folklore to create a hodgepodge of world cultures in one game. Atlus has crafted the Shin Megami Tensei series in such a way that all of these cultures feel genuine and yet distinctly Japanese with the art style and themes of the game which generally revolve around an individual forced to make a choice that will shape the whole world. While the typical RPG often focuses on a singular hero fighting to save the world from an insurmountable evil, Japanese RPGs often focus on a wide range of characters in a party or group. Each one is important to the overall story and they each have their own strengths. This is not an unfamiliar element in WRPGs either but Japanese RPGs force players to rely on their party to advance through the game. This is reflected in games like Persona and Fire Emblem which gives the player opportunities to bond with their party and develop their connection to the player and other characters as well. This connection isn’t just for the sake of character development. Often these systems tie into actual gameplay and confer statistical bonuses or advantages in battle. While some Western RPGs have attempted to offer similar systems Mass Effect for example offer the player the ability to romance certain party members and learn more about the character’s history, but these systems are optional and only serve to slightly change the story. Western RPGs bear many differences from JRPGs particularly in their focus. Partly the reason why JRPGs dominated much of early gaming is because WRPGs aimed to focus on immersion and expression. Essentially immersion is what allows you to delve deeper into the game’s world The Elder Scrolls series by Bethesda aims to create extremely realistic worlds for the player to explore and enjoy, and the idea of expression allows you to take control of your own avatar or created self within the game and not play as an established character. Games like Fallout allow you to create a self, and completely customize it to your liking allowing the player to feel as though they belong in that world. This is especially true of MMORPGs which were created in the west but are also popular in the east. Most of the early MMORPGs were developed in the west and allowed for the idea of player expression more than most other genres of games. Modern examples of MMORPGs, such as World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2 allow players to explore massive fantasy world, select professions and jobs within that world and live a separate existence in a persistent online world. These elements immersion and expression distinctly differ from the Japanese emphasis on storytelling. Japanese RPGs generally focus on telling a single, static story. The player steps into the shoes of an established character with a past, even in situations where they can customize some aspects of the character more often than not they still have a defined role to play. For example in Tales of Xillia, players may select to play as either Jude Mathis a medical student, or Milla Maxwell, a powerful sorceress. These characters already have defined personalities and traits that define them, players are merely guiding them through the story and experiencing as it progresses. WRPGs, on the other hand such, as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, allow the player to create a character of their choosing and dictate that character’s role in the story as either a hero or a villain. The player has the power to determine that character’s personality and actions. There is, however, a middle ground where JRPGs and WRPGs meet. Some Japanese developers in particular in an attempt to rekindle the world’s interest in Japanese RPGs, have begun to blend elements of WRPGs and JRPGs. This trend began shortly after the immense success of Final Fantasy X, which was one of the strongest selling RPGs of the sixth generation of gaming. Following Final Fantasy X’s success, the industry saw a decline in the popularity of JRPGs in the west as the first person shooter Halo on Microsoft’s Xbox proved that RPGs are not the only genre capable of strong storytelling many other developers began to experiment with telling richer stories in genres unfamiliar with storytelling. With the rise of 7th generation game systems JRPGs found themselves rooted as a niche genre in the west. While JRPGs still flourish in the east, the west has moved on to genres of games more accessible to them. Thus, games like Dark Souls and Xenoblade: Chronicles aim to bridge that gap. Dark Souls gained a strong following due to its extreme difficulty, but very open design which is a hallmark of western games. Dark Souls put a greater emphasis on player versus player combat which encouraged competition among players these traits make Dark Souls feel extremely western in its design. Xenoblade, by comparison, aims to bridge the gap more equally by including elements such as expression, allowing you to customize characters equipment which alters their appearance, and a very large, open design which encourages exploration. However, the game also retains very Japanese elements such as an emphasis on storytelling and on character interaction. It could be said that JRPGs and WRPGs are different enough to be seperate genres; however they are distinct because of the culture that creates them, making them two variations on the same theme.

One element of Japanese video game culture that has yet to penetrate the west at all is Visual Novels. Visual Novels are basically exactly what they sound like, novels presented in a visual format. Visual Novels are in some way related to text based adventure games and point-and-click games in the west, but their presentation is much more literal in Japan. Visual Novels have little to no interaction outside of dialogue options, and branching character routes which increase replay value. However, Visual Novels also occupy a very large portion of the adult games market in Japan, as Visual Novels make an excellent medium for smut. Visual Novels like RPGs take the Japanese love of storytelling into a new medium. Visual Novels however are rarely if ever seen in America. Though some experiments in storytelling have been made in America they’re mostly relegated to the independent game scene. It is possible that the reason Visual Novels are not taken seriously in America is the Japanese insistence on using anime-esque art for most of the very popular VNs it’s also possible that while the Japanese have embraced devices like e-readers and online reading of books, the west is only now beginning to use those devices frequently. American audiences likely have no interest in visual novels simply because they’re a totally foreign idea, telling a story in a visual medium was not taken seriously even decades after its invention. Movies, television, and now video games each have had their detractors in American society simply because the written word had already been established as the ultimate storytelling authority based on our European roots. The Japanese have been familiar with visual storytelling through traditional artwork for generations before video games were even an idea, art styles such as Ukiyo-e, which are wood block paintings made in Japan from the 17th to 20th centuries, have presented historical folk tales and more in a visual medium. Combining art and storytelling in a manner than all can understand, visual novels in a way are an extension of that philosophy. While visual storytelling in art is not uncommon, American culture seems to distinctly separate classical art from storytelling in the same sense as a novel might. This stark contrast in cultural perspective is a possible cause for why visual novels have never been a medium explored by American designers; however this may be changing. More video games produced by large studios have increased emphasis on storytelling while scaling back gameplay. This has led to the rise of interactive movies of sorts. Games such as Heavy Rain feature minimalistic gameplay in favor of storytelling. Perhaps in the future American designers will popularize a new more western variation of the visual novel.

A growing trend in western developed games is a development in multiplayer and competitive gaming. While Japan and other parts of the east like South Korea have had competitive scenes in gaming for years this was mostly in the form of fighting games which pit one fighter against another in direct competition. Fighting games were a creation of Japanese developers and were revolutionized with the release of Street Fighter II which provided the template for almost all future fighting game titles such as King of Fighters, Tekken, Dead or Alive, Guilty Gear and many more. Fighting games were emulated in the American gaming scene however none were met with success until Midway’s Mortal Kombat. Still today, the ratio of Western to Eastern fighting games is staggering. Japan practically has a monopoly on the genre. It should be noted that despite Japan’s dominance some fighting games are popular in the west. Nontraditional fighting games such as Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. series of party style fighting games, have proved immensely successful in sales and in the competitive scene of fighting games. However, fighting games represent a distinctly Eastern cultural design, one-on-one combat, passionate fighters who draw power from within to unleash attacks. The designs are rooted in martial arts, and the Bushido code of discipline held by the Samurai. Skilled players of fighting games train and dedicate themselves to playing. They master the intricate mechanics of the game and compete with others. This can also translate well to western interpretations of the self, becoming stronger and empowering the self through victory and mastery. Fighting games mainly occupy a niche in video game culture as a whole, but as a genre they somehow transcend being distinctly eastern and yet can appeal strongly to those outside of Japanese culture. Fighting game fans in the west can be just as dedicated as those in the east; however, in general, the two nations have different tastes in how they play with one another. Fighting games are a rare example of Japanese players competing directly with one another. In terms of general trends among popular multiplayer games in Japan co-operation is typically how Japanese players choose to play. Monster Hunter still remains a strong example of that, emphasizing team oriented gameplay over fighting other players or fighting alone. This strongly contrasts with western emphasis on competition, while some western games focus on team-based competition generally the most popular multiplayer games aim to compete against others. League of Legends is one of the most popular games in the world and its counterpart Dota 2 also draws in huge numbers of players. The game pits teams of players against each other in a team based competition where players face off against mobs of non-player character enemies while protecting the team’s “Nexus” The playerbase for League of Legends is extremely competitive and LoL players are now even recognized as professional athletes. The nature of competition in western games extends to very popular genres like first person shooters. Players spend hours upon hours slaying each other in virtual arenas. This is actually intertwined with the history of first person shooters. Mainstream shooters are nowadays practically unsellable without a multiplayer mode, even when it is poorly made and shoehorned into the gameplay, and multiplayer is an absolute must on the publisher’s design checklist before shipping almost any modern, western video game. The desire to play with others and generally compete against them is a persistent element of western gaming culture. Typically in the East very few of the most popular video games place a major emphasis on competitive play, Nintendo’s Pokémon is a rare exception but that series also has a robust single player element to it as well. Competition in video games isn’t a foreign element to the east or west, but it is a crucial factor that determines the success of most western games.

Where culture and gaming meet is where new ideas are born. The unique cultures of video game creators around the world is what makes gaming great. And in the future it would be fascinating to look at the ideas from new countries as they experiment with game development. People around the world enjoy video games of all kinds, and with new ideas comes new types of games, more distinct cultural statements could be made from new varieties of games. While America and Japan have different cultures, and different gaming cultures their passion for creating new interactive experiences remains strong. While the future will surely hold a few more Call of Duty and Final Fantasy games it will also undoubtedly see a few more games that blur the lines between what is distinctly Japanese and what is distinctly American.

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