Japanese Video Games as History – Interview with Dr. Michael Facius

Tempo di lettura: 4 minuti

On the 19th of February, Dr. Michael Facius, British Academy Newton International Fellow at University College London, gave a talk on “Japanese Games as History” for a lecture organized by GESSHIN Student Association of Japanese Studies of Ca’ Foscari University. After the lecture, we interviewed him in order to get a closer insight into his research and field of study.

Marco Del Din: I wanted to ask you about your projects in the game studies field. Can you please tell us about them?

Dr. Michael Facius: What I presented today was about Nioh, the 2017 dark fantasy action game, and its relationship to history. I’m primarily an historian, so I developed this interest in game studies from my research into the relationship between history and the present. The project I’m researching right now is called “Beyond Edo. Transnational narratives of the Early Modern in 20th-century Japan.” I’m looking at how the Edo period is represented in contemporary Japan and in the course of the 20th century, and I’m looking at different aspects, not just historiography, but also at tourism and museum exhibitions – and video games. That’s where my main interest lies, in the ways in which the past is represented, how history is practiced and what functions it has for contemporary society.

Marco: Thank you. One does not hear much about game studies and even less about Japanese game studies here, as they are always seen as an “inferior” topic. I wanted to know what you see as the main obstacles and challenges that have to be overcome in order to study video games.

Dr. Facius: Of course game studies is, in itself, an interdisciplinary field. It has its own journals and conferences and people from different backgrounds go there: scholars in Japanese studies, history and everyone who is interested in games, even philosophers and people who study the ethics of video games and so on. There are sometimes certain preconceptions about what disciplines are about, for example: what is Japanese studies and what should it study? Should it be based on the classical training of the language, or pre-modern Japanese culture, or just high culture? This can be an obstacle to studying games and taking games seriously. What I tried to do in my talk was to show that games are not just some silly hobby that young kids have, but actually a huge and important cultural phenomenon. I mean, the game industry is much bigger than the film industry nowadays. The American industry alone made around 100 billion dollars last year, and everyone plays them, not just young people, so it’s completely permeating our culture, and people get ideas about culture, Japan and history from these games.

Marco: Now that the generation who grew up with these games has already taken over in academic fields, do you think that games are being seen in a different way? Are they going to be taken more seriously?

Dr. Facius: Definitely. I agree this is in part a generational phenomenon. The same thing happened with films a couple of decades ago, when some literary studies scholars thought films could be a nice pastime but not something that should be studied academically. Then it happened with anime, around twenty years ago or so: before, people didn’t study anime because they thought “It’s pop culture, you can’t really study that”. Now the same thing is happening with games, and part of it is, as you said, because now everyone is playing games and there are many scholars who played them since they were small kids and who see that they are worth studying. So in ten or fifteen years, I believe they will be a normal part of most curricula.

Marco: So you think the process has already begun?

Dr. Facius: I gave you some background about the development of game studies earlier. It has exploded in the last ten or fifteen years, and now it’s a huge field that stands on its own. So, in a sense, it has already happened.

Marco: Thank you. Now, let’s change topic, and let’s look at the lecture. The title links Japan and videogames, but what makes a videogame “Japanese”? Is there any real Japanese trait or characteristic that has to be there to make a videogame “Japanese”, or is it just a construction?

Dr. Facius: I think this is a topic that many gamers love to discuss, for example in Japanese role-playing games, or JRPG, where the “J” is already in the title. For many fans, it is super important to discuss whether a game is “Japanese enough” to merit the title “JRPG”. My take on this is that there is no absolute way of defining that but, in fact, there is a cluster of different aspects that can make a game more or less “Japanese”: for example, does it have a Japanese developer, was it produced in Japan, does it have Japanese players, or Japanese aesthetics, a Japanese style of gameplay or game mechanics? All these different factors come together to decide to what extent a game is Japanese. But more importantly Japanese-ness is not something that is just in the game. It emerges in part only when players actually play and engage with games, in other words in the relationship between game and player. For some players a game might feel more Japanese because of the aesthetics, or because of the setting or some exotic flair when they are not familiar with Japanese culture. So, it’s a very complex matter and not something that you can necessarily put a stamp on easily.

Marco: Thank you so much.

The recording of the lecture will be uploaded in a few days on the GESSHIN Association YouTube channel.

Venice, 19th February 2019

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