Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Response to Masayuki, Matsunaga and Street

"It Simply Doesn’t Exist": Responding to Shinji Matsunaga and Zoya Street.
If you haven't been paying attention to Zoya Street's efforts to translate pieces of non-English games criticism, you really should take a look at it. All of it is brilliant, but I want to focus on his most recent piece about a conversation between two Japanese game critics regarding what you might call the scientific "laws" of games that dictate what is and is not possible within the context of a videogame, and how that relates to the social norms and "rules" that inform them.

I ask that you read the entire piece, as Street himself has important things to say about this interpretation of freedom in games given the recent scandal regarding gay couples in Nintendo's Tomodachi Life. (UPDATE: Shinji Matsunaga, the critic on whom Street's piece mainly focuses, has recently written a terse response to Street’s article as well.)

On “Freedom” in Games with Highly Authored Narratives

I would suggest that the choice not to have a gay relationship is an encroachment on players' freedom in the space of that game because Tomodachi is among the types of games where the players' choices to do what they like is the entire point of the experience they want to offer. It feels restrictive, in a game that offers the possibility of romance, marriage, and childbirth, to limit that experience to straight people because it is an entirely arbitrary restriction, especially since the option did technically exist in the first place.
But what about in a more strongly authored experience of a digital possibilities? Does it feel like a restriction on our freedom in the space of Final Fantasy VIII that we can only pursue the one romance with Rinoa because it is the only possibility? Does FFVIII become or feel less free because it is impossible to pursue other straight relationship options? Does it become or feel less free because we can't pursue queer relationship options? If I’m reading Matsunaga correctly, I think he’d argue (and I would as well) that FFVIII doesn't make players less free by restricting our choices to the one when other romantic choices are impossible in FFVIII's digital space. The critic whom Matsunaga was discussing with, Masayuki Hambalek, stated this with devastating clarity:

When you can’t do something in a digital game, it simply doesn’t exist, so it doesn’t lower the degree of freedom.”

(UPDATE: This quote was originally attributed to Masunaga. I personally apologize for the error.)

But more importantly to me is that the choice of a romantic partner is not the fantasy that FFVIII is trying to sell, whereas in Tomodachi it is. Picking our partner is not part of the fantasy in FFVIII, and in fact being able to do so would throw a wrench into the game's vision of what it wants to achieve, which is a highly authored narrative.
In other words, I would really only argue based on the type of game do certain sets of arbitrary "laws" feel restrictive to play, even though I agree with the rhetoric that, regardless of game, a lack of certain choices does not mean less freedom.

The Social Contract

When we enter a space that promises us the ability to live out a happy fantasy of our lives and we cannot tailor an experience that is supposed to uniquely ours to feel that way, it feels much more restrictive than when we enter a digital space where we are inherently agreeing to certain sets of rules to fantasize about a certain experience. We as critics and players more often than not highlight the fantastical things that games allow us to do over the mundane things that they do not. In reality, the amount of things you can't do in a videogame far outnumbers the things that you can, but the appeal of most digital games are those specific possibilities they do offer.

This is a social contract. When I play a game, I sacrifice most of the freedom I have in the real world to imagine the possibility of a specific set of experiences and enter a world where that imagination comes alive. In Final Fantasy VIII I can't drink a cup of coffee or get a job, but those are not the things I came to experience, and therefore it does not feel restrictive that I cannot make my avatar do them. It would only feel that way if any of those things would make it easier to enjoy the things I came to experience. (See, for example, the arbitrary nature of the infamous Insurmountable Waist-Height Fence.)

What Game Are You Making?

When making a game, developers need to actively consider what the experience is that they intend to offer. If Nintendo intended to make a game that accurately reflected the various choices one has in human romance, they failed when they patched gay relationships out of Tomodachi because, at the very least, they closed off what made the game enjoyable to a significant portion of the game's potential audience, to say nothing of how absolutely fucking repugnant it is that someone can want to make a game about life and yet deny the lives and existence and basic humanity of so many people. However, I cannot say that FFVIII meaningfully reduces player freedom though it has the same lack.
Postscript: On Queerphobia in FFVIII

This is of  not to say that Final Fantasy VIII does not have problems with it's presentations of sexuality. In FFVIII of course, the only romantic relationships that exist are between cisgendered men and women of the same race. Indeed, under Matsunaga's theory (as interpreted by Street), FFVIII, by not depicting queer relationships or genderqueer characters, denies the existence of such people, and as such codes the views of what is permissible and impermissible by it’s creators (or, to be generous, those who forced their hand,) into the possibilities and impossibilities of FFVIII.

I can concede that, in a vacuum, it would be hard to call the game homophobic simply by omitting queerness from it's world, but of course it does not. It exists in a wider culture of games and other mass media that continues to either not depict or irresponsibly depict queer and genderqueer characters, and therefore in part contributes to a culture of homophobia.

All that being said, I still cannot say that players are less free for not being able to choose queerness in FFVIII when the game is fairly upfront that it intends to put you in the body of a straight character. That being said, I am still open to see queer readings of FFVIII, though I feel wholly unqualified to construct one.

- Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2014


  1. I'm really happy that there's a discussion here and in Matsunaga's response about the conditions under which omission does and does not reduce the degree of mental freedom.

    To go more general with the question of inclusion in Final Fantasy games, this is a genre where you don't get to choose how you express your identity at all. That sense that you're playing a role that is not your own is really important I think. It reflects a social script that in a very abstract way does resemble heterosexism, particularly in Japan I think: you play the role that's appropriate for the context, and act out your personal identity elsewhere. It's exactly as you said: a social contract.

    There's a lot of other things that I'm tempted to pick up on here -- 'are there genderqueer characters in Final Fantasy' is one quagmire I'm almost falling into -- but I don't want to get bogged down in questions of representation that are already explored elsewhere, when there's something really interesting happening in your post around the question of how gameplay affects the way we think about normativity.

    What kind of other norms does a game have to have for exclusion to feel like a limit on my freedom? When a game lets me choose a gender for my main character, I definitely feel my freedom is limited if I'm limited to binary genders, especially when I'm limited to making that character express themselves in line with very rigid gender norms.

    I'm not sure where to go with this right now, but basically I'm starting to sense that games differ very, very strongly in the kinds of normativities they construct for the player to fall in line with. I think drawing attention to how 'rules' in games might be understood as 'norms' might really help to understand the cultural positions of different games. Even more exciting to me is that maybe there's scope to think about how 'rules' can be polysemic, and exploring how their dynamics shift depending on the norms that are constructed around their application.

  2. I'm glad to discuss with you and Zoya. The following is the reply to your tweets.

    I should have said "significant options expected from representation." Players can infer and expect what they *could* in the game on the basis of different contexts: representation, rationality, the genre tradition, their knowledge of the game's global/local rules, and so on.


    Representation-based: players might think "a door is represented; therefore I could open and go through it" or "marriage is represented; therefore we could do such and such."

    Rationality-based: "I must be able to do such and such because if not, no one completes this game!"

    Genre-based: "It's a JRPG; in JRPGs I can usually do such and such; therefore I could do so."

    Rule-based: "This game has so and so rules (or I was able to do such and such elsewhere in this game); therefore I could do so here too."

    The problems like social normativity expressed in games may be more characteristic of representation-based cases than others. It's because, I think, in representation-based expectations players have to conceive of the real world in order to expect their possible options, and then connect the real context with the in-game context; while in genre-based or rule-based expectations they don't have to suppose how reality is and how the in-game elements correspond to the real elements.

    So, Tomodachi Life's limitation on marriage works as a kind of real normativity or restriction while FFVIII's limitation on the junction system doesn't.