Social Implications + female gamers in Japan
Interested in the lives of female video game players in Japan, I conducted an independent research study on the social dynamics surrounding their gaming habits.
My main goal for this research was to compile a case study report about the social implications surrounding women who play video games in Japan, through the lens of ethnographic research. Specifically, I chose to focus on "average" female video game players, as opposed to professional gamers. The research is composed of in-depth interviews, surveying, and direct observations of relevant locations in Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan. Excerpts of my paper are highlighted below.
Before departing to Japan, I conducted primary research and reached out to researchers, professors, and gaming professionals in Japan. Once in Japan, I partnered with USC's College of Letters, Arts and Science and Meiji University in Tokyo, to conduct in-person research.
During this research, I focused on ethnographic research, games studies, and narrative anthologies.
Team: While this was an independent project, I had help with translation with Yusuke Ogiwara and Rio Katayama.
This paper explores how changes in Japanese societal values have transformed Japan’s gaming industry, and in turn, considers how the gaming industry can help advance these social changes. Though gender inequality is still a major issue in Japan, the increasing prevalence and discussions surrounding this topic have led to nation-wide reforms and cultural changes, which can be seen in the more well-rounded female game characters and female-led game developers. By seeing how women currently perceive the social implications surrounding their gaming habits, one can better understand not only how Japanese society impacts them, but also look towards how their habits influence society.
This research was approached through an ethnographic lens, with a focus on four key methods: interviews with professionals and members of our target demographic, direct observations of gaming hubs in Japan, surveys given to the target demographic, and analysis of quantitative data pertaining to the Japanese video game market.
Unstructured interviews were conducted in Japan, focusing on open-ended questions in order to build relevant case studies. In popular gaming hubs, such as arcades, themed cafes, and Pokémon centers, Japanese women interacting with the gaming community were extensively observed. The surveys addressed three core concepts: gaming environments, social aspects of gaming, and impacts of games on identity. Surveys were distributed through students at Meiji University and contacts in Japan, as well as through their friends. While interviews were conducted in English, all surveys were written in Japanese. To better understand the implications of data received from these three activities, data from reputable sources, mostly from the Japanese government, as well as data from the survey conducted were analyzed.
Case study of Aya K. summary: As a co-director at Nintendo, Aya has decades of experience working in Japan's gaming industry. She extended an invitation to join industry professionals at a weekly gathering, located in a run-down izakaya in Tokyo, to drink, socialize, and unwind from their stressful weeks. At this event, I was able to get a deeper insight into the social dynamics between different people in the industry. Here is an excerpt from this observation's notes:
Immediately, the noticeable lack of females had an evident impact of the social environment of this group. Of the approximately twenty-five industry professionals there, only six were female. Instead of being integrated with the rest of the group, five of these women sat in a corner, talking only amongst themselves. While this segregation may have occurred unrelated to the lack of diversity, the overt masculinity and “bro-culture” clearly permeated the rest of the group, perhaps making these women more comfortable speaking amongst themselves. When asked to name women who play video games, all of the men present were unable to name more than three. They said statements such as “Oh, I know John’s girlfriend plays” and “I’m sure I know lots of girls who play games … I just can’t think of any right now”. While these men claimed to know casual female gamers, it was apparent that these women did not hold enough significance to be recalled.
Case study of Moeka S. summary: Moeka is a university student in Tokyo and is enthralled by the rich stories of video games, particularly those of JRPGs. While Moeka and her friends all play video games, she refuses to play games in public, instead only playing in her home. One such moment is described below:
When asked about video game hubs, specifically arcades, Moeka appeared to be uncomfortable. She has never been to a video game cafe, arcade, or big gaming store before and showed no desire to go. Speaking specifically of arcades, Moeka said she would never go, saying “there are too many males there who are not my friends, and they make me uncomfortable.” While Moeka is proud of her love for video games, she does not feel comfortable being seen in public associating with games unless she is surrounded by her friends.
Case study of Kaki H. summary: A well-respected attorney and avid video game player, Kaki does not face the same discrimination and social alienation surrounding games that Moeka hinted at in her stories. However, this was not always the case for Kaki. She has had to work extra hard to be seen as an attorney, as opposed to a gamer, by Japanese society.
When asked about the social implications surrounding her gaming hobby, she replied that she has faced no backlash. However, she said “people in Japan have generally been more forgiving of it since I have an outgoing personality and don’t ‘look like an otaku’”.
Direct observations of gaming hubs: Unlike the numerous arcades scattered across Japan, in both the Pokémon centers and the video game themed cafes, the overwhelming majority of customers were female. At the Pokémon center, these female customers would come alone, with a group of female friends, or with one male. Very rarely would men come alone or in majority male groups. The female customers were predominantly younger women, though some older women were noticed as well. The demographics of the customers at the themed cafes differed. While of the customers noted were women, they were mostly women who came alone. At one specific cafe, the Koei-Tecmo cafe in Ikekuburo, there were four women who came within one hour of the cafe’s opening. All four women were middle-aged and sat alone, spending most of their time on their phone and taking pictures of the decorations. In contrast, video game arcades were predominately businessmen, filled with men in suits looking to pass time. The ambiance of these arcades centers around the nostalgia of “retro” video games, as opposed to the kawaii themes adorning the cafes and Pokémon center, resulting in a masculine culture that multiple women in our surveys cited as a reason for not going to arcades.
While the Japanese games industry has been rapidly changing, some still refuse to acknowledge the importance of women in it. There is no doubt that women are playing and creating games, but society has caused them to feel uncomfortable and unequal to their male counterparts, despite recent social changes. Not only does my research show that properly addressing women can boost the industry's economic growth. This research shows that, with the right attitude, the video game industry can help improve the lives of Japanese women by changing social norms, and in turn advancing all of Japanese society.
To read my full research paper and analysis, click here.